So the Liberal Democrats have made their choice, betraying their progressive roots, their progressive membership and the progressive mandate given to them by 52% of the voting population, and have decided to get into bed with the Tories. David Cameron is now our Prime Minister.
But this is not all as terrible as it seems.
First: the obvious. Instead of May 12th, 2010, being Day One of a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, we must never forget that, had the election gone differently, May 12th, 2010, could have been Day Six of a majority Cameron government.
Let no-one tell you any different: the Conservatives did not get a mandate in the General Election and the country has not shifted rightwards in response to their disillusionment with Labour. The country – 52% of them – voted for a distinctly un-Tory flavour of change, maintaining the progressive values that saved this country after the ravages of Thatcherism. David Cameron as our new Prime Minister is a pretty scary thought – but it would have been even scarier had he done it on his own instead of with the help of the Quisling Liberal Democrats.
Which brings me to my next point…
While it is easy (and comforting) to call the Lib-Dems traitors for doing a deal with the Conservatives instead of Labour (and certainly, if you were foolish enough to vote for them, they have taken your anti-Tory vote and shat on it), there is actually nothing at all traitorous about it. As long-time proponents of Proportional Representation, the Liberal Democrats are a political party inherently at ease with the concept of coalition governments with strange and uneasy bedfellows. If PR were introduced to the country by the next General Election, parties like the Tories would not magically disappear, and if you are committed to the notion of proportionality in political representation then that means understanding that you must work with all parties in order to govern. There will always be a right-wing in any country, and there will always be those with whom you are diametrically opposed ideologically; but the cooperative spirit of the kind of coalition governments usually yielded by PR means that their actual political power is kept in line with their true level of public support. If 36% of the population want a Tory government, then there should be some proportional share of representation of those views in government. Importantly though, PR and coalition government is about compromise and tempering the extremes. It is about finding common ground and working through party differences for the good of the country instead of clinging to myopic tribalism, and it ensures a more rational and reasonable political dialogue than the black/white, yes/no, left/right dichotomy of our current first-past-the-post system.
On May 6th, we were offered a false choice: are we fed up with Labour? If so, then we must vote for a party, the Conservatives, who are so fundamentally different ideologically that they see the world in a completely backwards way to our every political instinct.
What about those of us, like me, who were fed up with Labour not because they weren’t right-wing enough, but because they weren’t as left-wing as I would have liked? Because their taxes on the rich were too low, because they were too in bed with the bankers and the businesses who robbed our country dry?
That sort of nuance is incapable of being articulated in a first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system. My disappointment in Labour could not be expressed effectively by anything other than voting for Labour in opposition to the more extreme right-wing alternative.
The Liberal Democrats have long been aware of the inefficiencies and unfairness of our current voting system and have campaigned against it for years. Part of that desire for a “new kind of politics”, however, does involve working with other parties, even parties who you are not naturally inclined to work with. Proportional Representation means coalition governments, and coalition governments mean compromise and give-and-take. The Lib-Dems siding with the Tories over Labour does not mean that the Liberal Democrats are now duty-bound to support every insane Conservative policy that comes along; it means engaging in conversation with their Conservative Cabinet colleagues and limiting their excesses whilst making small progressive inroads of their own.
That they ultimately opted for a Conservative coalition instead of a Labour one is disappointing, yes, and it will certainly stop me from ever voting Liberal Democrat in the future, but in the long-term it was the best thing that they could do if they are serious about bringing this “new kind of politics” to Britain.
First of all – by choosing to form a government with the most difficult and unlikely of the two courting parties, the Liberal Democrats will show, if the coalition works, that coalition and compromise is possible and desirable within the UK. If political enemies like the Lib-Dems and the Tories can work effectively side by side and the country does not fall apart, then when the referendum for a new voting system occurs they already have a fantastic body of evidence to point to in its favour.
Related to this was the question of legitimacy. Although intellectually and ethically it is quite clear to me that a Lib/Lab deal would have been absolutely legitimate on paper (a majority coalition representing the 52% of the country who voted against a shift to the right), legitimacy ultimately rests on public perception. From the moment the idea was seriously broached, the media were all over it and denouncing it as a possible “coalition of the losers”. Furthermore, with Gordon Brown resigning, there would be no possible way of carrying out the Lib/Lab coalition with an elected Prime Minister. Again – although that is intellectually and ethically acceptable, and there is no constitutional or legal requirement for the direct election of a Prime Minister in our Parliamentary (not Presidential) democracy, public opinion – shaped and twisted by the media – was that one of the central failings of Labour over the past few years was the unelected nature of Gordon Brown’s ascent to power. That opinion was, in my view, wrong, and even irrelevant, but it is what it is: the public were fed up with a man in Downing Street that they did not have a say in voting and to replace one unelected Prime Minister with another would have been both a Public Relations and a Proportional Representation disaster. Public Relations because it would look like the Lib-Dems were propping up an unpopular and rejected Labour government (even if, in actual fact, that wasn’t what was happening at all; the slavish Conservative media would be sure to promote that narrative regardless) and Proportional Representation because when the inevitable referendum occurred the Conservative argument against it would be clear: unelected leaders, unpopular governments propped up by minority losers…this is what PR would mean for the country.
We must remember – a referendum on PR is not a vote for the House of Commons to make, and it doesn’t matter how much political support it can muster. It is a public vote, and how the public perceives the issue will be crucial. On this point, I believe that the Liberal Democrats have been quite savvy. They will lead by example: show that they are capable of compromise and that PR and coalition does not mean that we can’t have strong and stable government. By doing this, they will take away from their main political opponents on the issue – the Conservatives – the validity of much of their opposition; when the referendum comes their argument will look flimsy and out-dated.
The final reason why the Liberal Democrats’ decision is not an absolute disaster is this: it gives the Labour Party time to regroup. They can listen to their base, build on the support that they received on May 6th, woo former Liberal Democrat supporters disgusted with their party for the deal they have done with the Conservatives, elect a new and electable leader, clean off the stench of the last thirteen years, and generally sort themselves out to come out fighting by 2015 – or sooner if the coalition breaks down.
Certainly the lesson they must learn from this election is that progressive politics has not died out in this country, despite Tony Blair’s best attempts to assimilate the party into the right. Labour made two major mistakes: illegal and unjustified wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and not regulating banks and businesses sufficiently to stop them from playing roulette with our money. Their downfall came from their own flirtation with the policies of the right and their revival must come from recognising the appeal of the left, capitalizing on the exodus of Liberal Democrats angry at their party for selling them out, and then offering a genuine leftist alternative to the Conservatives and the soiled Liberal Democrats by the time election day comes.
Had they not been offered this opportunity; had they clung on to power against media and public opinion and been demonized for their actions, tarred with their record and attacked by Conservatives at every turn, you could be sure that the postponement of their demise by a Liberal Democrat deal would have led to a much greater death down the line, and a possible banishment to the political wilderness from which they might have never recovered. As it is, they have managed to bow out of the government just in time to not be burdened by the unpopularity sure to come once “savage cuts” in public spending occur, and they have allowed the country to be reminded, over the next five years, why it was that we ejected the Tories so unceremoniously back in 1997.
Theoretically – a five year recharge and revitalization of the party, helped along by continuing demonstrable evidence of the paucity of the Conservative vision – could leave Labour primed to reclaim power in 2015 and fix the inevitable mess. And if the Lib-Dems play it right, and that election is fought under rules of Proportional Representation, we could see the next five years become nothing more than a Conservative swan-song.
Of course I’m angry that we now have a Conservative Prime Minister. If you voted Liberal Democrat on May 6th then you must feel incredibly cheated and let down. But this is no ordinary Conservative Prime Minister – this is a Conservative Prime Minister kept in line by a Liberal Democrat Deputy, leading a Cabinet watered down by a handful of Liberal Democrats. I don’t believe Nick Clegg’s decision was the right one, but I do think it was the best one he could make under the circumstances. Whatever happens over the next five years, I’m fairly certain that British politics will never be the same again, and whilst this may look like a disaster in the short-term, in the long-term this could be the greatest gift the progressive left have ever received.