Well! Just when it seemed the obvious thing to do for the Lib Dems to take up David Cameron’s offer to join a formal or informal coalition with the Conservatives, thereby at a stroke creating a government with a working majority, the support of more than 50% of the electorate, and the chance to prevent the markets going into meltdown and our losing our AAA financial rating – the Lib Dem senior MPs pull the rug from under Nick Clegg and try to act like little Labour acolytes. What a shambles! What a wasted opportunity! As I write this, I’m still hoping that Clegg & Co. will see the error of their ways in time and make the right decision, but I think even if they do their much-vaunted integrity is in the dust. To have secret talks with Labour, resulting in Brown’s last-ditch resignation as a prerequisite for any further negotiation, at the same time as they negotiated apparently upfront with the Conservatives, seems underhand in the extreme. The country (and I) will not forgive them lightly. I think it will be the last time I vote Lib Dem, even for the sake of my good local MP. Activists and MPs in the LD party may feel more comfortable with the Left, but the 23% of the electorate who voted for them may well feel very differently.
And in any case, it’s madness. The numbers don’t add up, for a start. Labour have 258 seats and the LDs 57. Added together this comes to 315, only nine more than the Conservatives have on their own, and 11 less than an absolute majority, never mind a working one. This would inevitably mean instability and the inability of government to get through the House any measures except those on which everyone agrees. This sounds nice, but in practice it would mean no hard decisions, no unpopular cuts to bring the deficit under control, no new beginnings, just a hand-to-mouth existence with the primary function of keeping Labour in power.
Why should that latter function be so attractive to the Lib Dems, I wonder? If it’s just about PR, then it isn’t worth it. The voting system isn’t perfect as it is – everyone including the Conservatives agree about that – but PR won’t necessarily make it perfect. Has PR become such a Holy Grail to the LibDems that they must achieve it at all costs? Or are there enough of the Old Guard former SD types in the background of the party for whom an alliance with the Conservatives would be anathema?
In any case, if all the LibDems want to be is part of an anti-Tory coalition of some kind, then PR will do nothing for them. Above anything else, what PR would deliver is a permanently hung parliament. If this is the best the LDs can do when they do get such an opportunity, many people will be confirmed in their suspicions that a two-party system is the best way to go. I have a horrid feeling that instead of being the Beginning of Better Things, an LD choice to support a discredited Labour government which will fail within months may mean the Beginning of the End. And that would be a pity. For there are some good ideas in their manifesto, some of which might have been put into effect in a Lib-Con coalition, especially as Cameron seemed willing to compromise, and with a third of his party new to parliament, he might have been able to deliver on those compromises. There is a phenomenon known as ‘the pursuit of folly’, where leaders continue to pursue policies that are plainly leading them nowhere. It has been seen throughout history, as Barbara Tuchman’s excellent book of that name narrates. Perhaps this is one more instance.