It’s been difficult to blog about this, as, well, this is ongoing and changing hourly.
The Liberal Democrats commenced negotiations with the Conservative Party out of respect for the Tories having the largest number of seats in the new Parliament, to remain consistent with their own campaign pledge to first negotiate with the largest party in the event of a hung parliament, and perhaps to remain committed to the new buzzphrase: “a strong and stable government in the national interest”.
Between Friday morning and the end of the day yesterday, it did appear, against my own progressive inclinations, that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives would either work out a formal coalition or a “confidence and supply” agreement to have the Lib Dems support a minority government. Gordon Brown, still serving as Prime Minister out of constitutional necessity (if The Sun had its way, who in hell would be running the country while the Lib Dems and the Tories dithered?), and the Labour party stood aside, allowing the negotiations between the other two parties to progress.
Cracks in this seemingly inevitable result began to appear yesterday, when it emerged that Labour and the Lib Dems held discussions, indeed Nick Clegg met with Gordon Brown at least twice. Late this afternoon, a member of the Lib Dem negotiation team publicly acknowledged “the representations” of Labour. After nearly four full days of negotiations, this was the first time that the script wasn’t “everything is going swimmingly with the Tories” to “hang on, there is this other party with a lot of seats over there who have been saying things . . . ” Indeed, they formally approached Labour as an alternative.
Well, Gordon Brown has finally grown a pair. Responding to this formal approach, he has agreed to the key policy positions of the Lib Dems, critically including electoral reform (his words: “political and electoral change”). He hyped the idea of a “progressive coalition” representing the “progressive majority” of the population. Also, he has agreed to step down as Labour leader, with a new leader to be elected by the annual Party Conference in October.
So, why the Lib Dem dalliance with Labour? Some ideas:
1. The Parliamentary Party simply can not tolerate either a formal coalition or even supporting a minority Tory government, and Labour is Plan B.
2. The Lib Dems tried their best in negotiating with the Tories out of obligation, with an open mind, and the Tories just are not giving them enough.
3. They’re close to getting what they want from the Tories, and this is a bluff in an attempt to extract more.
As for the pros and cons of any outcome facing the various parties, I may have something given time, but in lieu of that, there were a series of excellent and insightful comments to my last post, especially that of “John” at the very end of the comment string.
What is clearly happening here is that both the Tories and Labour are wooing the Liberal Democrats. Labour is offering the best deal in ideological and instrumental terms: a formal coalition, which last occurred in the United Kingdom during the Second World War, with policies that more closely match those of the Liberal Democrats (but see Alex Mortimer in cif for a critique on electoral reform).
However, the Tories still may be perceived in many quarters as offering a preferable offer in terms of democratic legitimacy. I disagree with this critique of a Lib-Lab coalition (propped up by various and sundry nationalist / green / non-sectarian Northern Irish parties), but it’s one held by readers of The Sun, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail . . .