If you ever decide to take the plunge and become an approved parliamentary candidate, you will be subjected to a ‘Paxman test’. This is where you are interviewed by a ‘journalist’ who is determined to write a headline at your expense. He will try to badger you into saying something, while you politely hold your ground. I’m not trying to put anyone off here – I actually enjoyed the experience. But there is a serious point too. At the next General Election, no Lib Dem will be safe from the ‘who would you do a deal with?’ question. Over on the Lib Dem Voice forum there is an online poll and discussion on this very subject. The poll asks who we should form a coalition with in the event of a hung parliament – and gives the option of Labour, Tories or neither. None of these answers is correct!
To get at the truth, ask yourself why you became a Lib Dem in the first place? Everyone will have his or her own answer but on some level it is because we believe in our policies! We believe in a ‘free, fair and open society’ (and everything else in the preamble to our constitution) and that our policies are designed to advance towards that freer, fairer society. After the votes have been counted (under our grossly unfair system) we have a duty to the millions who have voted for us. They voted for us because, despite thinking we were unlikely to gain a majority, the believed our policies were those which most closely resembled their own views.
Now it is fairly obvious that we cannot come down on the side of either Labour or the Tories. This was, with respect, the most gross miscalculation of the Ashdown years. We were seen as ‘close to Labour’. If you wanted Labour in 1997, you voted for them. If you didn’t want Labour, you voted Tory (since the Lib Dems were in bed with Labour). What reason did you give anyone to vote for us? Well, the answer was you could vote Lib Dem if you didn’t mind a Labour/Lib Dem coalition, I suppose. But to show the slightest preference to working with either major party will alienate us from a large chunk of potential supporters either way.
But I believe the ‘neither’ option is wrong too. Let us suppose we did refuse to work with either Labour or the Tories once the votes had been counted. Minority governments tend to be ineffective, hamstrung and ultimately, short-lived. We would likely condemn the country to another election sooner rather than later, and we would be adjudged to have failed when presented with the opportunity to enact some of our policies.
So the correct answer should be, must be ‘either’. In the event of a hung parliament, we have a duty to both our supporters and to the country. To our supporters, we have a duty to enact some of the measures we have long campaigned for – and to the country, we have a duty to support a strong, stable and democratic government. We must never again fall into the trap of trying to prejudge which party we could work with, but we must accept that we could be called upon to work with either.
Let’s face it, we’ve spent years campaigning for proportional representation. Well PR leads to coalition governments and consensus politics. We’d better be ready for it!