Is Nick Clegg a Liberal Democrat?

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.

26 Responses to “Is Nick Clegg a Liberal Democrat?”

  1. Hermann Krassler Says:

    A recent video about the climate change issue: not short but I found it interesting

  2. Colin Says:

    It certainly seems like they’ve changed a lot since the Kennedy years, when the LDs often took ‘social democratic’ positions against a Lab-Con consensus position (e.g. Lab and Con both supported the Iraq war, tuition fees, more private sector involvement and less local authority control in health and education, and more authoritarian ‘anti-terrorism’ laws; the LDs were also on the fringe of the Lab-Con spectrum in their enthusiasm for the EU). Maybe the LDs will reinvent themselves again after this election, assuming they return to opposition. Or maybe the party will actually split into a ‘new SDP’ and a ‘classical liberal, pro-business, pro-EU’ party akin to the German FDP, so voters don’t have to keep guessing which of those ideologies their local MP will be instructed to support in the next parliament.

  3. Raphael Says:

    As a card carrying Lib Dem (metaphorically) I think some aspects of your argument are probably incorrect. For instance, you write: “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. ” This strikes me as naive.

    The SNP want Scottish independence and the only way they will get that is through a referendum. As a result, consider the incentives they will have if given some power over the Westminster government. They will have two interests. First, to benefit the Scottish people (and them alone) and second to take whatever action will encourage Scottish people to vote for independence from all future Westminster governments. That is to regard being attached to the UK as a particularly negative thing against their interests. It’s not hard to imagine how this could go horribly wrong for the non-Scottish parts of the UK.

    You also write: “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. ”

    Isn’t the standard fare just to claim political victory by taking advantage of confusion over a complicated settlement? There is very little accurate reporting about EU affairs in the UK so the Tory press are free to make up whatever story suits them at the time.

    Your main point is of course that Clegg shouldn’t be so willing to go into coalition with the Tories. He is clearly intellectually inconsistent along the lines you describe. However, it’s not as obvious to me that Lib Dem voters would in great majority prefer a Labour, SNP, Lib Dem coalition to a Tory, Lib Dem one.

    • gowers Says:

      Well, Sturgeon has said that she will not press for another referendum, and even if she did, it would be political suicide for Miliband to agree to one in order to form a government. I think that for the moment the SNP have a strong incentive to try not to be seen as single-issue politicians, but rather as politicians who will pursue progressive policies by working with other parties. Trident may be a more complicated issue, but that doesn’t bother me, as I’m highly sceptical that it is a good use of the nation’s money.

      I take your general point about all sides claiming victory when it comes to EU negotiations, but I don’t think Cameron has left much room for fudging in this instance. He has said, for example, that he demands a treaty change, and Merkel has said that she rules that out. It is hard to find shades of grey between those two.

      Finally, even if Lib Dem voters are split 50-50 between those who would prefer a Tory-Lib-Dem coalition and those who would prefer a Labour-SNP-Lib-Dem one, that still leaves a majority of voters preferring the latter, so the latter ought to be considered more democratically legitimate.

  4. Raphael Says:

    I may be more sceptical than you are about the SNP.

    The SNP’s new found warmth and positivism towards the English in TV and radio debates is surely simple political expediency. They need English voters to vote Labour for them to have a chance of being part of the UK government. They therefore need the English voters, who will realise that a Labour led government means in all probability a coalition of some sort with the SNP, not to be scared of the SNP. This is why they are making such a big effort courting the English voters, despite the fact that the English can’t vote for them.

    To add cynicism on top of scepticism, I also don’t think it would go down badly with Scottish voters if the SNP are seen to have got one up on the English or generally to have given the English the runaround. It is true that in the Scottish government they want to be seen as good political partners. I don’t think the same holds true for Westminster at all.

  5. Raphael Says:

    In relation to the timing of a referendum, I accept that no UK political party will give them one in the next 5 years. However, if the polls show that 60% of the Scots want independence in 5 years time, say, I can’t see how a new referendum could be avoided. Sturgeon merely has to try to make independence look attractive and the polls will do the rest on their own.

    I suppose my point, if I had one, is that a party in government whose main aim is to make splitting up the country look really attractive in about 5 years time is slightly worrisome.

    • gowers Says:

      I agree that there are risks, but I think that the risks if we have another five years of the Conservatives are greater. It will make independence look very attractive, especially if Britain leaves the EU. Whereas if the Scots feel that they have genuine influence in Westminster, then the phrase “Westminster politicians” will lose some of the negative connotations that it has for many of them.

  6. Raphael Says:

    You are quite right that 5 more years of Conservative rule will make independence look attractive to the Scots. Although if Labour have next to no seats in Scotland come May 8 then they will for the first time be in a similar (but not identical) position to the Tories.

    My concern wasn’t so much that the Scots might vote for independence at some point, that is after all their right, but more about how well the UK government might function for 5 years when there is a significant part of it with no interest in making it work well and in fact with some interest in causing various crises.

    Of course this is all guesswork and perhaps the SNP will want to show how well they can help the UK as a whole become more prosperous and how fairly they can deal with their English and Welsh brothers and sisters. Perhaps…

  7. Anon256 Says:

    Given the polling in Clegg’s constituency, there’s a good chance he won’t be in parliament anymore when coalition decisions are being made, and Vince Cable et al seem more reasonable.

  8. quasihumanist Says:

    It’s very hard to be simultaneously in government and trying to make it not work. Doing so tends to make you look irresponsible. The responsible thing for them to do as part of government would be to push for various benefits as well as increased autonomy in various affairs for Scotland, and, ironically, that increases the chance that Scotland will (at least nominally) stay part of the UK.

    If the SNP were really a single issue party and cared about nothing other than Scottish independence, then they would do like Sinn Fein does and refuse to actually take their seats. Of course they aren’t a single issue party; they’re interested in the welfare of Scotland overall and not only in independence.

    If the Lib Dems come in poorly enough, the SNP could try to emulate the N-VA and basically force a hung parliament by refusing to join any coalition. If their goal is to cause crises, they can do that much more easily that way than by actually joining a coalition government.

  9. Simon Tatham Says:

    I’m not sure how you get from Clegg’s quoted comments here to your paraphrase that “Clegg is saying that *he* will try first to form a Government with the Conservatives”.

    Perhaps there are further comments from Clegg elsewhere that clarify it, but going just by what you’ve quoted here, it looks more to me as if Clegg is saying something more like the following: that if the Conservatives get the most seats and votes, then the first thing that should happen is that *the Conservatives* get to go round asking other parties if they want to (er) coalish, and only if everyone refuses will any set of smaller parties get a turn to try to make a deal with each other. In other words, Clegg appears to be talking about the stage of the process *before* he personally gets to start proactively initiating any kind of discussion with anyone.

    I see nothing in the quoted text to suggest whether Clegg intends to accept or refuse such an offer from the Conservatives, should one show up.

    • gowers Says:

      That’s a good point, but I think Clegg has made it clear on other occasions that the interpretation I give to his words is what he means. I’ll try to back that up with another quotation when I get the time to look for one, which won’t be for a few hours.

  10. deevybee Says:

    Just to say I completely agree. I donated to LibDems last time and voted for them. I was horrified when they went into coalition with Tories and proceeded to support them in pushing through things like bedroom tax and Health and Social Care bill.
    As described here, I left the party because of this:
    It would make much more sense for them to ask their own members what party they would prefer to see in a coalition with LDs, rather than just saying the one with most votes wins. Thanks for exposing the logical inconsistencies in their views.

  11. Felipe Pait (@pait) Says:

    What you say suggests that a US-style checks and balances system, with separate votes for executive and legislative branches and 2 legislative chambers, might give options that reflect more accurately your preferences. I know there’s no perfect form of voting but some systems just give more better results.

  12. Mark Myword Says:

    I am broadly centrist, leaning to the right. I favour voting reform (STV if you ask). I support remaining in the EU but I realise the present situation is a festering sore on the body politic. A referendum may not lance that boil, but at least it has a chance. So I support a referendum on our membership of the EU and would campaign to remain in. On AGW I am a ‘dont know’, but support moves to diversify enegy supply. I am in a constituency with a Lib Dem MP – I shall support him because I admire the courage the Lib Dems showed in going into coalition for the good of the country. It is taught in Government 101, that following an election the incumbent caretaker Government (do not forget that David Cameron and Nick Clegg etc are still Ministers), has the first chance to form a new Government which has the confidence of the House. On the projections you give, no two parties alone can achieve that

  13. Jonathan Says:

    It is argued here that the incumbent has the right to try to form a government, even if not the party with the most votes.

    I’d assume that Clegg is trying to answer in a way this sort of question in a way which does not appear to commit him to coalition with one party because it weakens his party’s bargaining position in coalition talks.

    Having said that, given that the lib-dems are currently saying they were forced to go along with the conservatives relatively illiberal policies (e.g cuts to legal aid) because they had to pick their fights on other issues, and given that we are no longer in a supposed ‘financial emergency’ I can’t see how they could possibly justify going into coalition with the conservatives again.

    It seems to me that if you are a left -leaning liberal, then the best case scenario in current conditions is a lab-lib coalition, not least because it’s the scenario which in theory frees the lib dems to concentrate on specifically liberal issues.

    It seems that currently your best strategy in a constituency which is essentially a lab vs lib contest is to vote lab.

  14. Maurice (@mywashpot) Says:

    I propose the following change to our voting system: every polling booth must contain a red pencil and a blue pencil for the use of Liberal Democrat voters. Should there be a hung parliament where Liberal Democrats MPs could give either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party a majority, the colour of Liberal Democrat votes should be counted and the Liberal Democrat leadership forced into coalition with the Labour Party (if more Lib Dem votes were made in red pencil) or the Conservative Party (if more Lib Dems were made in blue pencil). Thus, they could have AV (if they want it) without forcing it on anyone else and their members and voters could feel that democracy (rather than horse-trading) had determined their choice of coalition partners.

  15. vznvzn Says:

    voting reform is a very hot political issue split down left/ right lines in many countries because fixing it would inherently/ likely/ maybe even inevitably lead to a more democratiic system and push policy emphasis/ leverage leftward. this is the case in the US.

    am hoping for a revolution in voting based on electronic voting, but so far its not materializing and have been long waiting. like you say, maybe not in our lifetime. the idea has shown up around elections in the US but there is no sustained/ concerted effort/ organization.

    imagine a cryptographically secure system that is unbreakable/ secure/ fraud proof in much the same way that bitcoin prevents double spending. users can verify their votes are recorded & that no fraud takes place via open databases. the technology exists, the will/ idea to implement it is nonexistent, stifling bureacracy effectively immediately kills any true innovation. 😦

  16. Alec Edgington Says:

    We in Cambridge can count ourselves lucky, compared with most of the country, to live in a marginal constituency. For people in constituencies that are bound to go to Labour, the Tories, or the Lib Dems (if there are any of the latter type left), a vote makes depressingly little difference, except perhaps as a protest. This may be a reason why voter turnout is generally so low. But Cambridge is a two-horse race, and too close to call, between Labour and the Lib Dems, so there is a strong motivation to vote for one of those two. It’s still far from an ideal situation — parties like the Greens lose out because people who sympathize with their policies can’t register that fact without ‘wasting’ their vote — but at least there is a meaningful choice between two local candidates.

    Nationally, however, the choice is between a Labour-led and a Tory-led government (whatever form that government may take). Here again, it is a two-horse race and too close to call (practically 50-50, according to the betting markets).

    A lot of people in Cambridge like Julian Huppert as an MP and would vote for him if the choice were that simple; but would much prefer a Labour-led government to a Tory-led one. And clearly that outcome is more likely if Labour win in Cambridge than if the Lib Dems win.

    So, if our aim is to maximize the chance of a Labour versus a Tory PM after this election, we should vote for our less-preferred candidate, even though our preferred candidate has a real chance of winning and every vote matters. It seems that the system is so broken that at times like this even we lucky ones are forced to vote tactically — or ‘double-tactically’, if you happen to support the Greens. AV, anyone?

    I’m sorry I haven’t been able to find a flaw in your argument. It might possibly change the logic if the Lib Dems were to state a more coherent position with respect to a post-election alliance. But I’m not holding my breath.

    • gowers Says:

      I might have considered voting Green if it were not for the wasted-vote argument. The one small crumb of comfort I draw there is that I can think of it as a kind of secret AV: I pretend that the election is held under AV, I put the Greens first, and then when they get eliminated my vote goes to my next choice.

      The potential flaw in this argument is that the wasted-vote argument might be swaying so many people that under AV the Greens would in fact have a good chance of winning the seat. But I think that is probably not the case in Cambridge.

  17. Joshua Dane Davies Says:

    Clegg has underlined quite clearly what he insists will be his party red lines will be if he is to form a coalition, all of which will be rabidly opposed by the majority of tories (Enviroment, Increased public sector wages etc). He is also quite obviously still pro eu. I think it is hugely unlikley that gthere will be another conlib coalition-however if those red lines are met as well as the core of the lib dem manifesto I think an EU ref would be worth the risk.

  18. Richard Baron Says:

    Part of the problem is that we are not used to hung Parliaments and the formation of coalitions. But if this sort of thing is going to happen regularly, I suggest it would be worth giving serious thought to what the ground rules should be over the next year, and getting them into the Cabinet Manual by the end of 2016. The point is that at that stage, no-one will have any idea how the parties will stand at the time of the next election. This ignorance should reduce opportunities to negotiate ground rules in order to gain party advantage.

    I would recommend the same approach for the television debates. The precise rules for each election should be agreed in the year following the preceding election.

  19. gowers Says:

    Well, that escalated quickly.

  20. davidellis2 Says:

    Of course, with hindsight we now know that a majority of voters did *not* prefer a Labour-SNP-Lib-Dem coalition: 50.5% of the popular vote went to the Conservatives and all parties (economically) equivalent or to the right of them (UUP, DUP, UKIP). But given what Nick Clegg (in common with most of us) thought he knew from the polls, I (belatedly) agree that his position on coalition-forming was strange.

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