Recovered from election night yet? I don’t think I have. Sitting through that evening as the results were coming in returned me to every other disappointing election night. The grim analysis is that the people of Britain were faced with the possibility of real change, retreated to the safety of the familiar. Overall it was a good night to be an incumbent. What was also clear is that the Conservatives failed to engage the voters with either their vision or policies. Cameron’s strategy of being elected through the simple expedient of not being Labour nearly led to his undoing. Labour on the other hand must have been much satisfied with the result. The normal sequences of affairs would have surely led them to be slaughtered on election night.
As we all know however, these are not normal times.
Much has been made of the Liberal Democrat failure to break through. I reckon such an event was not likely to happen, although in the heady days after the first leaders’ debate it felt like anything was possible. The reality is that the Liberal Democrats did well not to be squeezed further. Overall our proportion of the vote was slightly up, even if that was translated into five less seats under the current disreputable voting system. This success, such as it was, is due in large part to Nick Clegg. As libdems, we all love Sir Menzies Campbell but I shudder to think of the result if Ming the Merciless had been still our leader and front-man on the debates.
Once the counting was over and the shock had settled on the country that there really was no clear winner, things started to get interesting. In my last blog I warned of the dangers of coalition should these circumstances arise. As Nick had said himself, he was honour-bound to talk first to the largest party if they were interested in coalition. In terms of both popular UK vote and number of Commons seats, that is the Conservative Party. I never believed that a coalition with Labour would have been a safe course for the Liberal Democrats to follow so it was with some relief that the quickest of glances at the parliamentary numbers showed that it was a near-impossibility. It was my greatest fear for the Liberal Democrats that we would be swallowed and slowly digested into the Labour party.
It is a failure of character I know but when it comes to politics I am in my heart very tribal. I despise Labour’s cynical abandonment of socialist principles in pursuit of power just as much as Conservatives’ pessimistic outlook on human nature which gives rise to their relentless championing of profit over people. Both are negative reinforcements to my choosing to be a Liberal Democrat. It is therefore no great delight to me that the Tories are now our coalition partners. Currently I am in a state of sadness that feels like it may have an enduring quality to it. That is my heart speaking but what of my head?
Much surprise has been made on just how generous the terms of the coalition have been to the Liberal Democrats. Really? I don’t think they are that great. The position of deputy Prime Minister is to my mind an unenviable one. Apart from a great-sounding title and standing in at Prime Minister’s Question Time, what else does the post actually offer? Nick Clegg is not leading any ministry nor are our other Libdem ministers in charge of any of the great offices of State: the Exchequer, the Home or the Foreign Offices. I am glad that both Vince Cable and Chris Huhne are in good offices but of course I would have wished to have seen at least one of them in the position they were actually shadowing while in opposition. Of course though, congratulations to all our people who have positions in the new government.
What is perhaps more important though is that many Liberal Democrat policies are now in prominent positions. What is the use of impotent politics? The best reason for entering politics is seeing that something is wrong with society and wanting to change it for the better. And here we are, doing it for real. Besides, it would have been hypocritical of the party to talk about doing things differently, to say that it doesn’t have to be this way with the two old parties and then, faced with the opportunity of making a real difference, slink back fearfully to our old corner of protest.
What is another interesting question is why so many of our policies made it through? Certainly the right-wing of the Conservatives are furious with the level of concessions made to the Liberal Democrats. If that is indeed the case it gives me a degree of grim satisfaction: certainly it is due payback for the vicious mauling we suffered at the hands of the right-wing press. That aside, I think the reason why Cameron was so generous was because he had to be for his own survival. He came very, very close to snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory in the last election. No political party, no matter what colour, tolerates abject failure from their leader. In a minority Conservative government, Cameron would have been at the mercy of his party’s right wing who would have pointed out the failure of a central message and is only too ready to steer the party back into deep blue waters. Instead, Cameron’s Conservative ship is now being trimmed with Libdems sails, allowing the government to keep close to the popular havens of the centre. Cameron must hope that this will push the Labour Party out to towards the reefs on the Left come their leadership elections later this summer.
Where does that leave us Liberal Democrats? First of all, on the receiving end of some understandable but unjustified accusations. The policies that we campaigned upon are still our parties’ policies. It is just that instead of being in opposition and not being able to implement any of them, we are now junior partners in a coalition with the ability to implement some of them. It doesn’t mean that we are reneging on things like the abolition of tuition fees in higher education. It does mean that we have agreed not to bring down the government about this issue by voting against them in the Commons. I still want to see Britain give up it’s nuclear deterrent and will be actively campaigning for the party to get rid of Trident. Coalitions do not last forever: it is important that good, sound policies are still in place once the parties do go their separate ways as they surely will in the end.
Labour backed out of serious coalition talks with us, calculating that come the next elections, the Liberal Democrats with be severely punished by the electorate, especially those who voted tactically for the Liberal Democrats. What Labour never really understood is that in advocating the changes to the voting systems that we do, it was never really about given an advantage to just the Libdems. If this country had a practical form of proportional representation, then the people of Britain would be free to vote for the views that they really support and not just be shoe-horned into giving their mandate to either Labour, Conservatives or even ourselves. It is about fairness, real democracy; not cynical control of the levers of power. Tactical voting should not be necessary in a functioning democracy and it is a sad indictment of the current system that so many people had to resort to it in the last election and that Labour are relying on people to use it again come the next one. In fact, a proportion voting system will probably lead to the wholesale reformation of all three major Westminster parties. This may not be a bad thing either.
At the moment though, proportional representation is not on the agenda but rather the Alternative Vote system. As Simon Hughes commented, it is a start; a move away from First Past the Post and should be welcomed as such. It will be interesting to see though whether Labour will keep to their pledges on AV or whether their old regressive instincts will win out in the end.
So here we all are. Good luck to all the delegates at tomorrow’s special conference in Birmingham . Tell the country that we are still who we said we are. As for me, I feel like Coleridge’s wedding guest “a sadder and a wiser man, he woke the morrow morn.”