Thursday, September 06, 2007

Mark Oaten and the folly of talking up coalitions

Over the years, I have from time to time attempted to defend my old Watford colleague Mark Oaten against those who tried to make him a hate figure within the party. So I can reasonably take issue with his comments about the Lib Dems and coalitions without feeling I am just hunting with the pack.

One of the reasons he became such a target for the ‘radical’ wing of the party was, I suspect, because he never quite seemed in touch with the soul of the party. So, utterances from him provoked great hostility when they would have seemed unexceptional coming from any other leading Lib Dem.

Nowhere is this more true than over coalitions. Mark always gave me the impression of thinking that coalitions were a good thing of themselves, regardless of what they designed to achieve. It’s a case of ‘Come on now, let’s be reasonable, surely we can all agree.’ But of course any democratic political system needs opposition, challenge and scrutiny. This can easily descend into petty bickering and name calling, but it’s an essential part of politics.

Mark does not give any sense of why we should go into coalition with the Tories, other than that we often vote with them in the opposition lobby. But that’s hardly a programme for government.

There are other flaws in Mark’s thinking. In the first place, if you are a Lib Dem who wants a coalition your best way of achieving it is not to talk about it too loudly. On the two occasions where the Lib Dems have allowed themselves to be portrayed as potential kingmakers – 1987 and 1992 – this led to a fall in our support as the election approached. The electorate are unlikely to respond positively to an uppity third party trying to imply that it can choose between and lay down terms to the other and larger parties. Such presumption will make a hung Parliament, and therefore a coalition, less likely.

In addition, any third party would be mad to enter a coalition without a promise of either fixed-term parliaments or electoral reform or both. Under the present system, the prime minister has absolute discretion about when to call a general election. So either Cameron or Brown could use us to get into office, then work up a disagreement within the coalition, then dissolve parliament on the basis that they need an overall majority to govern effectively. We will not have had time to carve out our own identity within the coalition, but will have antagonised that section of our support that wanted us to put the other lot in. Any such coalition is likely to be short lived and spell electoral disaster for the Lib Dems at the subsequent election.

Lastly, it is by no means clear that a hung parliament would leave us with the balance of power between the two other parties and therefore a choice of potential coalition partners. There are the Northern Irish MPs, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists to reckon with.

In a reformed electoral system, where it was unlikely that any one party would ever gain an overall majority, the Lib Dems might well be part of a coalition administration, if we could get agreement the right deal from potential partners. But to achieve that we need to put ourselves in a position of strength in the next parliament. That is more likely to happen if we talk about what we believe in rather than who we want to do deals with.

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