Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 2 January 2011

More Lib Dem votes *will* get more Lib Dem policies

During my self-enforced blogging purdah, something that really started to annoy me is the misrepresentation of how coalition government and compromise politics actually works. This was typified by various comments about how, because the Lib Dems had "sold out" on their manifesto commitment to abolish tuition fees, that somehow more votes for Lib Dems would lead to more of this "selling out" and the idea that more votes for Lib Dems might have made it possible for that manifesto commitment to have been held to is somehow ridiculous. I have heard this point made many times by various commentators and activists from both major parties.

I remember listening to Evan Harris trying to explain this on Radio 5 Live with Shane Greer and Will Straw. I have a lot of respect for both Shane and Will but the way they ripped into Evan when he made the point that if the Lib Dems had had more votes and seats at the general election they would have been in a better position to deliver on the tuition fees pledge was very disappointing. Not least because I am sure they both understand full well the point that Evan was making. Shane even made a snarky comment along the lines of "Is that a pledge!!!?".

But let's look at the facts for a minute. The Lib Dems got 57 seats at the general election. Labour got 258 seats. The Conservatives got 307 seats. Part of the coalition negotiations were to work out which parts of each party's programme would be implemented in government. The 4 key pledges from the Lib Dem manifesto (political reform, the pupil premium, fairer taxes and green jobs) were all included in substantial part in the agreement. The tuition fees policy was not included in this way. In order for the pledge to abolish fees within the 6 year time horizon to have been realised in full, the rest of the manifesto in its entirety including the ways in which the revenue for this measure was planned needed to be available too. Once those started to be compromised upon it became very difficult to sustain the pledge.

Let's go to an extreme hypothetical here first. Let's imagine that the Lib Dems had got 326 seats back in May last year (yes, yes, I know). Then there would have been a Lib Dem majority and the manifesto in its entirety would have been implemented. The tuition fees pledge would have been stuck to as the Lib Dems would have had a majority on their own without the need for a coalition. So that is a definite example of where (many) more votes for the Lib Dems would have led to tuition fees being abolished.

Of course that did not happen. But we do not need to go to such extremes to be able to see how it could have worked. The Lib Dems plus the Conservatives (57 + 307) have a decent majority of close to 80. But the Lib Dems plus Labour (57 + 258) only got to 315 seats, 10 short of an overall majority. This meant that during the coalition negotiations it was very difficult for a Labour/Lib Dem coalition to be a viable solution. But let's hypothesise that the Lib Dems had got another 30 seats (equally taken from both Labour and the Conservatives). Then Lib Dem plus Labour would have been 87 + 243 which would have been 330 or a majority of 10. Not a huge majority but good enough to be going on with. That would then have meant that with a "doubly hung parliament" like this, the Lib Dems would have been in a better position to be able to get further concessions from either of the two bigger parties. Even if they had still have gone with the Conservatives eventually, the fact that a Labour coalition was viable (and given all the noise Labour have made about tuition fees since I would expect this is an area they would very much have been willing to compromise on) would have made it a lot more likely that a deal on tuition fees that was much closer to the Lib Dem manifesto pledge would have been struck. Given our quirky electoral system, even a small change of say 3% to 27% for the Lib Dems (taken equally from the other parties) could have seen a difference in seats of this magnitude. So if a few more hundred thousand people had voted for the party, they would have been much more likely to be able to deliver partially or even wholly on their pledge.

I am not arguing in this post for or against the existing policy. I am simply saying that this attempt by the political opponents of the Lib Dems (of both major parties) to try and somehow pretend that it is ridiculous to imagine more votes for Lib Dems would have led to more Lib Dem policies is completely disingenuous.

It is not ridiculous, it is self evident.


Paulie said...


Good to have you back regularly - and happy new year.

As a Labour supporter, it doesn't suit me politically to agree with you here, but I do.

The only real mistake the LibDems made during the election campaign was to make pledges - something Labour is hardly innocent of.

The willingness of parties to publish long manifestos containing pledges (and I know the pledge in question wasn't even in your manifesto) strikes me as a huge misreading of how democratic politics could and should work.

Every serious democratic theorist has warned about the daftness of making pledges when you're really standing for election saying 'vote for me and I will exercise my prerogatives in what I believe to be the national interest.' (The corollary being that I have to convince you that I do have the national interest at heart and that I'm a decent human being).

On the wider question of the economic strategy that you've signed up to, I hope the electorate will punish you for allowing an extremely right-wing party without a majority to behave as though it has a huge mandate for a particularly vindictive and ideological programme. But that's a different matter entirely - and the one that I think LibDems should be really concerned about - particularly if it is shown to be the disastrous gambit that many believe it to be.

Caron said...

I've said on many occasions that even if the British people had got the Parliament they asked for in May last year, there would be around 140 Liberal Democrats in it. That would have given us much greater proportionate weight within the coalition.

I think the difference we are making with less than half the MPs we should have according to our vote, less than ten percent of the total is phenomenal in the circumstances.

John Minard said...

How do we get this across to people - though it's so obvious to ourselves?

My thoughts, previously, was that we have to be brazen to break the cycle of Lib Dem abuse. You would never 'sell' a policy like Tuition Fees the way we did, bleeding all over the screens! Better just to say "sorry but we didn't win outright and most people, and students, voted for parties that supported tuition fees and Trident - and there's our key manifesto principles we don't want to sacrifice (let me just remind you of them), we've made it as fair as we can so that's that!"

Our low poll ratings are more to do with our very poor delivery and being seen as, twits - a bit of an embarrassment!

I've suggested before, our next conference needs to proclaim the slogan 'Join Us' for the very reasons you have stated.

sanbikinoraion said...

Unfortunately, Mark, I strongly suspect that even with a Lib Dem majority we wouls not have got our way on tuition fees because the PP leadership are actually strongly against removing tuition fees and we would have had the same argument of "we can't afford it anyway".