All my life I have found that Liberal Democrat policies (and before that, Liberal-SDP Alliance policies, and before that, Liberal policies) have been, if not a perfect match to my own views, then at least the closest to them. In particular, I am broadly centrist, tilting somewhat to the left, strongly in favour of voting reform, strongly in favour of remaining part of the European Union, and very keen to take much more radical action to combat climate change. However, Nick Clegg is doing his best to persuade me that to vote Liberal Democrat is no longer a good way of promoting these values. Here is what he has said about building coalitions after the election:
As we have always said, the party with the most votes and the most seats in this election has the first right to seek to form a Government. The British people would rightly question the legitimacy of a coalition that didn’t allow the party with the largest number of seats and votes the opportunity to attempt to form a Government first.
I’m proud that the Liberal Democrats have proved we can form a strong and stable coalition government, able to bring prosperity to Britain.
Just like we would not put UKIP in charge of Europe, we are not going to put the SNP in charge of Britain – a country they want to rip apart.
The current projections at Five Thirty-Eight put the Conservatives on 281 seats, Labour on 268, the Scottish Nationalists on 49 and the Liberal Democrats on 26. If these are correct, then Clegg is saying that he will try first to form a Government with the Conservatives. I claim that this is inconsistent with all four of the fundamental Liberal values I mentioned.
It is obviously inconsistent with wanting to promote a broadly centre-left political programme. From what Ed Miliband is saying, it seems unlikely that there will be a formal coalition between Labour and the SNP. However, there does seem to be room for a looser agreement, since the SNP would hate to be responsible for there being another Conservative government, as Nicola Sturgeon has made very clear. Furthermore, Sturgeon has also been clear that she will not press for another referendum on Scottish independence, so there is no reason to suppose that a loose alliance between Labour and the SNP would be a threat to the UK. Thus, Clegg’s choice is between supporting a right wing party or a centre-left alliance of two parties.
The right-wing party is flirting dangerously with leaving the European Union: David Cameron’s official position is that he wants to renegotiate the treaty and then campaign to stay inside a reformed Europe. He has not said what he will do if, as is almost inevitable, he fails to reform the EU, but it is hard to see how he could campaign to remain inside an EU that has humiliated him by refusing his demands for reform. Labour and the SNP, by contrast, are committed to staying in the EU (unless it changes radically) and will not hold a referendum. Yet Clegg says that he will attempt to form a government with the right-wing party, which, I might add, is also full of climate-change deniers, as right-wing parties tend to be.
What is Clegg’s rationale for this? He talks about democratic legitimacy, and here his views are utterly inconsistent with the basic principles that lie behind arguments for voting reform. One of the strongest arguments is that under the current system if you have two parties with broadly similar views, they can split the vote and be heavily penalized, giving power to a much less representative party. And yet that is exactly what Clegg, in effect, supports. The great irony of his position is that by saying that he will support the largest party, he is advocating a first-past-the-post system for forming a government. If the Conservatives get the most seats but are greatly outnumbered in the House of Commons by people of a broadly centre-left persuasion, Clegg claims that a centre-left alliance will nevertheless lack democratic legitimacy. Has he forgotten why he argued against the first-past-the-post system?
To get a full idea of how wrong his position is, let’s imagine a different scenario. Suppose that Labour and the Conservatives had a very similar number of seats and the Lib Dems held the balance of power. According to Clegg, the Lib Dems should form a coalition with whichever of Labour and the Conservatives have the most seats. But isn’t he forgetting something? What about the political preferences of Lib Dem voters? Do they count for nothing? The democratically legitimate option is to choose the major party that best represents the interests of Lib Dem voters, since then the largest number of voters get roughly what they voted for.
I have been sufficiently loyal to the party to forgive it for some pretty dreadful mistakes over the last few years, such as killing off any hope of voting reform in my lifetime, and breaking their promises about tuition fees — I put these down to naivety resulting from inexperience with coalitions. But there is no excuse this time, and Clegg’s basic principles about coalition-building are simply wrong. It may be that he will try but fail to form a government with the Conservatives and end up in just the kind of alliance I would like to see. But he will be wrong even to try.
It will be difficult not to vote for Julian Huppert, our MP for the last five years, who has been excellent and independent-minded (for instance, he voted against tuition fees). I do not want to punish him for the sins of Nick Clegg. But I care even more about the values that have led me to vote Liberal in the past, and it now seems to me that every seat that Labour can pick up from the Lib Dems increases the chances of those values being promoted in the House of Commons. If any card-carrying Lib Dems want to try to persuade me otherwise in the comments below, they will be most welcome to do so.