Home > General Politics, Labour Party News, Laughable Lib Dems, Terrible Tories > Will Nick Clegg prefer the Conservatives?

Will Nick Clegg prefer the Conservatives?

The Times carries an article this morning outlining bits and pieces of what Clegg has apparently said in an interview, to the effect that he will not support Gordon Brown in the event of a hung parliament.

‘Clegg said the election was now effectively a two-horse race between the Tories and the Lib Dems. “Labour is increasingly irrelevant. The question now [about what would happen] is one in which the Labour party plays no role,” he said.

‘Senior Lib Dem sources have revealed that if the party secures a high share of the vote in the election, it will demand equal status in any coalition. Regardless of the number of seats it wins, it will open negotiations with a demand for half the seats in cabinet. “If more and more people support the Liberal Democrats, clearly that gives us a really powerful legitimacy to push for the things we want,” Clegg said.’

If Clegg seriously believes that Labour is ‘increasingly irrelevant’, he is in need of a reality check. I have little sympathy for Labour as it stands – it has brought misfortune upon itself. But if Clegg was to prop up a Cameron government? Labour almost automatically becomes the only legitimate opposition again.

As for demanding half of all cabinet seats in a hung parliament coalition, according to ‘senior Lib Dem sources’, well that seems exactly the sort of grandstanding that we’ve witnessed at every by-election since Blair stepped down. High Lib Dem vote? Clearly the people recognize that Nick Clegg is the messiah…and he denies it! There’s your proof! Alleluia.

How does all this stack up in terms of electoral positioning? The big swing in the polls seems to have come from disaffected Labour votes, and to hold on to them, one has to continually denigrate Labour in just the terms that Nick Clegg has done – treating them as irrelevant. However, in attempting to straddle both wavering Tories and a Labour vote, Clegg seems to stretch himself too thin.

“I tie my hands in the following sense: that the party that has more votes and seats, but doesn’t get an absolute majority — I support them,” Clegg said.

Saying pretty much outright that he’ll back a Tory government if it has the largest number of votes and seats will surely send all those potential votes straight back to Labour – and as it is being played up by the Times as a preference for Cameron, this seems precisely the message that will get across. It also places into acute contradiction the many Left policies that Lib-Dems tout on the doorstep with their view of the bankruptcy of FPTP.

A fair chunk of Clegg’s interview was also dedicated towards pushing David Cameron towards electoral reform, and Cameron has in turn flirted with the idea, saying that he’ll demand laws which cause a general election within six months of a change of Prime Minister, or that he may support a referendum on AV.

Yet this falls far short of what Clegg wants – and far short, also, of what most of the groups campaigning for reform have been demanding. Propping up a Tory government in return for such measly scraps would once and for all torpedo the claim of the Lib-Dems to be a party of genuine reform, and would also probably stabilise Labour.

What Clegg and the rest don’t seem to have banked on is that if Labour goes into opposition, it will be once more free to oppose the government from the Left. The opposition will be opportunistic in the extreme, and in any mass campaign, the Labour heirarchy will play the same role as it did in the 1980s and 1990s – delaying, braking, restraining.

It would be opposition nonetheless, and would eat away at any Lib-Dem support, which would naturally suffer from their being in government – especially as a prop to the Conservatives. In short, this weekend’s interviews with Cameron and Clegg seem to have yielded nothing more than hot air and frenzied media speculation. Again.

At least there’s no more talk by Martin Kettle and co about a National Government.

  1. NH
    April 25, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Haven’t the Lib Dems taken votes from disaffected left of centre voters who think the New Labour is basically a right of centre Government? I don’t see how they will keep these voters if they get into bed with the Tories.

  2. Barney Stannard
    April 25, 2010 at 11:50 am

    I don’t imagine this reasoning is entirely removed from issues of policy – Clegg is undoubtedly closer to the Conservatives than he is to Labour. But one could read the decision not to prop up Labour as being justified by Clegg’s views that the driving force in politics is the need for accountability etc and that siding with a Labour party who came third in the popular vote (as looks reasonably likely) would not play well with that narrative. It also wouldn’t be very democratic.

  3. April 25, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Barney, I don’t know how ‘reasonably likely’ a Liberal emergence as second over and above Labour is. I suspect a lot of it is hype, though there’ll unquestionably be a shift to the Liberals even in places like Canterbury, where Tories hold solid majorities, from the Labour vote. Mostly because Labourites have fewer people active on the ground.

    But even in that event, how is siding with the party that comes third not democratic? If Labour and the Lib-Dems between them hold a majority of the popular vote, then it’s just as democratic – from the point of view of the electoral system – for them to coalesce as it is for the Tories to form a minority gov’t.

    I don’t really see how accountability bears on the issue either, to be honest. That is to say, once elected, none of them are accountable, and if accountability is in any way related to electoral reform – as it seems to be in the Lib-Dem worldview – then there’s absolutely no chance of change with a Tory gov’t.

  4. Barney Stannard
    April 25, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Well, reasonably likely in the sense that it is not unreasonable to believe it will happen.

    Why it isn’t democratic: because a) it would reject the vote of the plurality of the voting electorate; b) because it could well be leveraged on the peculiarities of our electoral mechanism. c) because a coalition of 1st and 2nd would represent more of the voting public.

    It isn’t a watertight case, but it would be difficult to say that the coalition of the second and third parties on this basis would have stunning legitimacy.

    In terms of accountability: I’ve always viewed the primary benefit of democracy is that one can kick the buggers out. I think that isn’t an uncommon view. For Labour to survive in Government with, say, 28% of the vote would not be the most glorious endorsement of that benefit.

    Re the chances of reform with a Tory government: I’m not really sure what the evidence is that Labour would offer anything beyond AV. They had 13 years to reform the system, and they have no real motive to change given the massive bias towards them the current system has.

  5. April 25, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    It wouldn’t reject the plurality of the vote. If Labour and the Liberals get between them a higher share of the vote than the Conservatives, then isn’t that the plurality? As far as legitimacy goes, it really depends on the scale. If you command a majority in the Commons, that’s legitimacy, as far as government is concerned.

    We all have our own scales on which legitimacy is measured – and a Tory government (unsurprisingly) doesn’t feature on my scale of legitimacy at all – but that’s not the scale I was measuring with. I was simply going by who commands a majority from amongst the people who get elected.

    As for accountability, the entire system isn’t exactly conducive to that, as the minority vote in each constituency is simply ignored. Whether or not a hung parliament results or, as in the last election, an absolute majority from 35% of the vote (or anything short of 49% of the vote, a rule which even a Conservative government will almost certainly fall foul of), accountability is poor.

    But the difference, from the point of view of the Lib-Dems and reform is that Labour is not flat out opposed to electoral reform. Reform is more talked about within Labour than ever in the history of the party – whereas the Conservatives are flat opposed to proportional representation.

  6. Barney Stannard
    April 25, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    You knew what I meant by ‘the plurality’.

    Yes of course legitimacy is a matter of scale – I could argue the Tories are the most legitimate in my eyes as they contain a higher proportion of capable people, Labour because they have the most people in touch with the workers, the Greens because they care most about the planet, and the Monster Raving Loony Party as those who are most in touch with reality. As we are in a democracy I was going for the most votes as my benchmark. On that benchmark 1st and 2nd beats 2nd and 3rd everytime.

    Yes, you must be right. The system doesn’t promote accountability (relative to…? party list PR?) – therefore arguments from accountability don’t run.

    I suppose on reflection you may be right about the reform actually. The Labour party may be so desperate to cling on to power they will suddenly rediscover their democratic princples and vote for the system that maximises their influence. At least the Tories in their opposition (misguided I think) have some principle. It may be based on self-interest but at least it is long term self-interest rather than grubbing around for anything available. The spectacle of the Labour Government’s sudden enthusiasm for the electoral reform it put on the back-burner for years as soon as they look like losing power is somewhat nauseating. But, yes, the mechanical point you made does stand. I concede it.

  7. Barney Stannard
    April 25, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Also. On your scale a Tory government isn’t even legitimate?

  8. April 25, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    It’s a tough one. Clegg will position himself to extract the most he possibly can. He might prefer the Tories, but then again, a successful career in bourgeois politics demands one is flexible with one’s principles. But we must remember he’s not a free agent. Yes, after this election there will be a degree of euphoria in LibDem ranks for pulling off their best result in 80 years, but the party has expectations and siding with one might be too much to for the LibDem left or right to stomach. Having built the party into kingmaker position, Clegg won’t want to see it break up along its fault lines.

  9. Dan Ashton
    April 26, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Sustained Lib Dem participation in any government could surely threaten the continued existence of the party. The one platform which both its West Country conservative, and middle-class radical wings share is electoral reform. It is the only thing which holds them together, and its realisation could feasibly presage its breakup into free-market and left-leaning tendencies.

    Their ideal strategy would presumably be a quick entrance, exchanging Lib Dem support of a budget for a referendum on PR. This won’t happen. The Tories will dangle reform in front of Clegg until they feel strong enough to call another poll, and the Liberals have already come out against propping up a Labour government in the most conceivable circumstances. The illusion that the Lib Dems are an anti-establishment party may excite their newfound supporters, but this can’t last much longer,

    • April 26, 2010 at 1:06 pm

      Agreed. The contradictions which are destroying Labour – trying to be both a pro-worker party (even trying to tip its hat in that direction) while also trying to push the same anti-equality, anti-worker policies of the opposition – apply just as much to the Lib-Dems. Perhaps even moreso as a lot of Lib-Dem support is starry-eyed and bushy tailed, and doesn’t have the same ‘glutton for punishment’ attitude of Labourites who have been party members for thirty years, or who come from areas where Labour is who you vote for.

  10. tory boys never grow up
    April 26, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Anyone who has seen how the Lib Dems behave in local government will know that what they do post election will be based 100% on opportunism rather than any principled position. They will do whatever they think is necessary in order to have a stake in power. As a party they are supremely relaxed about facing in different directions at the same time and tailoring what they say for different audiences – anyone who doesn’t believe me should just compare their election leaflets for leafy suburbs and inner cities.

    Yes there may be a few principled Lib Dems who will wave their hands around and complain – but that will be the sum of their protests – you don’t often see Lib Dems withdrawing from power sharing coalitions on grounds of principle at local government level.

    And for all those who may think that Vince Cable is a sound Keynesian (which he is) – it would only take a blink of an eyelid for him to be replaced by some of the Yellow Book zealots. I find it hard to recollect a politician who has become so quickly intoxicated by power as Nick Clegg – if we are to believe 10% of the briefing reported this weekend, and just remember he is only sniffing the vapours at present.

  11. Barney Stannard
    April 26, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    Although it is blindingly obvious, perhaps the most interesting point of all of this is that even if we can guess the result of the polls we don’t know what the result will be in terms of Government. Clegg appears to be horse-trading already. Arrogant say the Conservatives and Labour. Possibly (I don’t know). But it is either that or no one voting Lib-Dem knows what they are voting for, as I guess we all agree that Lib-Lab would look remarkably different from Lib-Con.

    In normal multi-party systems voters have a better idea of what they are going to get. There are lots of parties and each has their own traditional loyalties. You vote for the JPF and you know they’ll probably hook up with the PFJ. Obviously there is variation and horse-trading but c’est la vie.

    But here nobody knows what the Libs will do. Best bet (as everyone is pointing out) is that they’ll hold the other two to ransom to secure one or more of PR, Vince as Chancellor or (this must be a journalists’ joke) Nick Clegg in No. 10. But whether that ends us up with Labour robbing the rich/redistributing fairly or the Tories to free people to make the country richer/raid the public sector…we do not know.

  12. April 26, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Well, true, I suppose, for a given value of ‘don’t know’. There are plenty of things which are eminently predictable, for those of us who aren’t quite so starry eyed about the Lib-Dems nor what might in a previous generation have received the soubriquet ‘bourgeois politics’.

  13. Barney Stannard
    April 26, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    Yes – we do know he won’t call himself Comrade and abolish property. My actual point was the process: Clegg is selling himself as anti-politics and setting phsaers for accountability, but his success may, in the short run at least, have precisely the opposite effect.

    I understand that substantively none of the parties are anywhere near where you would like them. But surely there is some positive value, even in this system, in the process by which decisions are made and politics work. Specifically, if it is good for people to choose their own ends and own politics then, arguably, what is happening right now isn’t particularly good, at least in the short term. Make the best of a bad job and all that?

  14. April 26, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    I don’t think that a multi-party system offers anything different, as you seem to suggest above – certainly not in terms of accountability. As I set out in the article previous to this one, increasing the ability to horse trade at the top (regularised or not) decreases the ability of a body of party members to insist on a certain behaviour from the representatives they have essentially got elected.

    I think it is good for people to choose their own ends and their own politics…but I don’t see a ‘normal’ multi-party democracy as being any better than our own in serving those goals. This is why Ireland, Iceland, Germany and other ‘multi-party democracies’ have all faced the same questions as the UK, and have all addressed them in roughly analogous ways.

  15. tory boys never grow up
    April 27, 2010 at 12:24 pm


    I don’t think the situation is entirely analogous to what happens in the rest of Europe. In many countries there is an understanding that post election coalitions, as opposed to pre-election ones, are a fundamentally undemocratic way of operating e.g. the FDP in Germany usually gives an indication of its preferred coalition partners before and not after the election.

    Another indicator that the Lib Dems are only interested in power for power’s sake is that they continually fail to offer a referndum on their PR proposals. Given that the party’s all tend to either have different views on the position – or as in past elections, the two main parties have stood on a platform of no change – it is difficult to see how any election result, other than an outright LibDem majority, could be seen as providing consent from the electorate to change our elctoral system (and yes it is the elctorate’s system). But the LibDems would have no qualms in forcing through a change in the voting system even if they only represent a minority view.

  16. tory boys never grow up
    April 27, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    And yes I do support PR – but I do believe that there have to be checks and balances in the system to prevent minorities abusing their power (just like their have to be for majorities) and any major consitutional changes should be subject to referenda.

  17. April 27, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    I don’t think the Lib-Dems should have qualms about forcing through a change in voting systems. Isn’t this sort of ruthless exploitation what minority party status means, in parliament? Look at the DUP over the terrorism laws not so long ago.

  18. tory boys never grow up
    April 27, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    I think you will find that a certain Mr Hitler also forced through a change in voting systems when the Nazis were a minority party – doesn’t mean that it would be right in any of the cases noted.

  19. April 27, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    While the reductio ad Hitleram is gratifying, I think you’ll find that was preceded by a paramilitary and then state-backed campaign to suppress trades unions, the communist party and the SPD. Then was supplemented by paramilitaries standing around everyone while they voted – both in the elections and in the Reichstag.

    Hardly the same, nor even analogous.

  20. sandra lelyveld
    May 11, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    i honestly thought nick clegg would make a good p.m. at some point in the future, but the way he has turned now after saying the party with the most seats should goveren, he now is not thinking of the country or the people, only what he gets out of it. he has totally gone the other way and deserves to go with the labour party as he is so much like them, says one thing and does another and is only there for power and greed. good luck clegg i hope you fall hard. i live on the isle of wight which has the bigest majority in the country. and i now hope you never get in here, as we older people would suffer under you as we have with labour.

  1. May 8, 2010 at 10:31 am

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