It is the only show in town: a Lib Dem/Con Coalition. A Lib Dem/Labour Coalition just doesn’t fulfill the mathematics. Yes, they can get to 315 seats and with the SDLP and the Alliance Party, they can get to 320. And with the Speaker and the non-attendance of the Sinn Fein MPs thrown into the equation, along with the Green MP being taken into the Coalition, a Lib Dem/Labour Coalition could just about survive on a knife edge. It would of course be subject to opposition guerilla attacks and exhausted MPs would have to attend just about every vote or risk going down to defeat. Such an arrangement would last as long as the by-election defeats can be held off. The moment seats are lost, the Government goes down. It’s too knife edge and unstable to survive. The country wants long term stable government but it is hard to see how a Lib Dem/Labour Coalition can provide it. In addition, Gordon Brown in not cut out to be a Coalition Leader. Indeed, three years’ experience of him as PM suggests he’s not cut out as a leader of single party government. And given the country has overwhelmingly rejected him as Prime Minister, it’s hardly our job to keep him in Downing St.
So we have to deal with the hand that the country has dealt us. A Lib Dem/Conservative Coalition will be uncomfortable but it will be a government with a sustainable majority that will give us an administration that will last a full Parliament. As a party that supports a proportional voting system that will give us Parliaments where Coalitions are the norm, we have to show the people of the country that coalitions are workable. There is a duty therefore on our party to make this work. If we fail to do so, what does that say to the British people about bringing in a system that will mean negotiations between parties after every election? If we get this to work now, we will undermine many of the arguments put forward by opponents of proportional representation that we will end up with governmental paralysis that lacks leadership.
So, we should be looking to form a coalition and hammer out a deal for a four year Parliament with the Conservatives. The current negotiations are taking time but that suggests to me that progress is being made. Agreeing a 4 year agenda for a government is not something that can be done in a space of a half hour meeting over a cup of coffee and cakes. The aims should be to cut the deficit, get the economy moving, reform the tax system and clean up the mess that is the political system. Clearly there are going to be major sticking points about fair votes. It may be that both sides need to compromise. Maybe the Tories will have to accept a referendum on PR but are free to campaign against it. Maybe, we accept that full PR can’t be achieved. Maybe we accept alternative vote for most large, rural seats and 2 member constituencies elected by single transferable vote in urban areas.
The voting system is not the only part of the political system that needs reform. The House of Lords, Commons procedures, the role of local government, party funding, they all need repair and reform. The Tories have made some useful noises on these in recent times so an overall reform package may be possible.
It may be that the negotiations between Lib Dems and Conservatives don’t reach agreement. It may be that both sides go their separate ways. It may be that the Lib Dems have to open negotiations with Labour. I don’t however think such an arrangement will last. If we don’t sort out an agreement with the Conservatives, we will be facing a general election in the near future. That’s hardly what any of us want.
One final point: the talk in the media is that Brown is offering immediate legislation on PR to entice the Lib Dems into a coalition. We should be cautious about this. Brown, I have no doubt, has made the offer in good faith, even if he is just a recent convert to a very, very limited form of electoral reform. Yet, there are many in the Labour party who are totally opposed to any change to the voting system. I can’t imagine old style Labour in the North East rushing to back reform. Given the knife edge nature that would characterize a Lib Dem/Labour coalition, an attempt to reform the voting system could fall victim to Labour backbench reactionaries. All they need to do is abstain for defeat to occur.