It’s called the Great Lib Con. You voted for an end to foreign wars, nuclear power, Trident and for a more positive attitude to immigration and Europe. You got a Tory government. On Tuesday, many liberal-left voters in Scotland were incoherent with rage when they discovered that they’d actually voted for David Cameron when they thought they were voting for Charles Kennedy. How the F@@k did that happen? I’ll never vote Liberal Democrat EVER again! were some of the more moderate comments on the new political order.
Now, as someone who urged tactical voting to change the electoral system, I suppose I have to take my share of the blame for this. Before the election, a number of people asked me if there wasn’t a danger of “letting the Tories back in” if they lent their votes to the Libdems. My reply was if we took that attitude, nothing would ever change. We’d be left for ever with a reactionary two-party duopoly in Westminster.
Bumping up the Liberal Democrat vote, which seemed to be building nicely during the campaign thanks to Nick Clegg’s TVcoup, seemed the surest way of delivering a fatal blow to the corrupt and undemocratic Westminster system. But tactical voting isn’t an exact science. The Liberal surge faded fatefully on polling day, and that fatally weakened the third force. Labour rejected a “coalition of losers” and the rest is history.
So, am I eating my words in the cold aftermath to the Great Lib Con? Is it humble pie time for misguided, too-clever-by-half hack? Perhaps – but I’m not alone: electoral reformers like Billy Bragg have also been seen with pastry crumbs on their chins. Others, including journalists on the Guardian and Independent newspapers, have been eating hats and running naked down high streets. No, I really didn’t expect that there would be a formal coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. My forecast was that there would either be a Tory minority administration after a hung parliament, or a Liberal-Labour progressive alliance. In the end – ha ha ha – we got the Nick and Dave show. George Osborne in charge of the public finances. Iain Duncan Smith in charge of welfare. Liam Fox with his finger on the nuclear trigger. Five non returnable years of Conservative government.
It was a shock certainly. If you think Tory government is the end of the world – and who knows it might come to that – then you’re probably right to think that we’ve all been lib-conned. But the inconvenient truth is that the coalition deal, if you study it, is actually a rather good one. It wasn’t just the five cabinet seats or the fifteen junior ministerial posts. Or the referendum on AV, which isn’t actually proportional representation. No, reading the document, I can understand why the Liberal Democrat negotiators were astonished when they saw what the Cameron Tories were offering them. An elected House of Lords with PR, curbing the power of the executive in the Commons, repealing Labour’s anti-civil liberties legislation, reforming the banks, the £10,000 tax threshold, scrapping ID cards, tax powers for Holyrood, no third runway at Heathrow, etc. Also, the Liberal Democrats negotiated opt out on clauses things like nuclear power, married couples allowance.
Yes, the penalty is that the Libdems have to sit – metaphorically at least – alongside the “nutters” as Nick Clegg described the Tories’ far right partners in the European Parliament. Libdems will have to accept a cap on immigration, the renewal of the Trident missile system, savage cuts in public spending, probably withdrawal of benefits from many lower income families. There may be all manner of nasties lurking in the Tory in-tray that we don’t know about.
But was there an alternative? The Lib-Lab progressive realignment that we all talked about was a non-starter, and not just because Labour MPs like Tom Harris and Douglas Alexander refused to sup with the hated Nats. On Tuesday it became clear that there was not only a deep mistrust of the Liberal Democrats on the Labour benches, but a profound antipathy to thoroughgoing political reform. Senior Labour figures like John Reid and David Blunkett ensured that no deal would be struck by launching very public condemnation of the talks even as Labour and the Liberal Democrats were sitting in Number Ten trying to find common ground. This wasn’t isolated indiscipline either: the ex-ministers were clearly speaking for many on the Labour backbenches.
No guarantees on electoral reform or the rest of the reform agenda were forthcoming. So, what were the Libdems to do? Accept no deal from Labour or a great deal from the Cameron Conservatives? Difficult choice, I know – and one I’m glad I will never have to make. The Tory offer was carefully calibrated to deliver genuine and far reaching reform in exchange for stable government – stable Conservative government. The Liberal Democrats may end up as human shields for Tory cuts, and they have a hell of a job justifying themselves in Scotland. But here’s a thought: Alex Salmond only managed to secure power, and the first nationalist administration in history, by doing a deal with the Tories. Sometimes, party leaders have to deal with the devil.
Last week reminded me a little of the 1992 general election when everyone expected the Tories to be wiped out in Scotland, and they returned with an extra two Scottish seats, as well as retaining control in Westminster. There were howls of anguish and gloomy forecasts of the end of civilisation as we know it. Five years later the Tories really were wiped out, such was the force of the Scottish tactical vote against them. That led to an irreversible process of constitutional reform which led to Scotland regaining its parliament after 300 years.
I’m not saying that’s going to happen again. But what we can say is that the process of political and constitutional revolution that was begun in the Scottish Parliament has now moved south. Westminster will be radically changed under this coalition. And so will Scotland, because the Calman reforms and other constitutional changes, will take us much further down the road to federalism. Of course, many suspect this Lib-Con deal was cooked up before the election by two public schoolboys seeking to edge Labour out of power for a generation. But if so, all you can say is that Labour fell for it hook, line and plonker.