Sunday, 9 May 2010

Nick's 'Cleggacy'

Nick Clegg - as predicted before the election - has emerged as kingmaker, albeit one with less of a personal mandate than was expected. His decision appears to be an unenviable one - does he prop up Gordon Brown, a man whom Clegg seems to personally dislike, and his fetid Labour party? Or David Cameron and the Tories, the party that inspires the most hatred from their opponents? The ideological basis of Liberalism and the Liberal Democrat party is such that common ground can be found in both cases. Like the Tories, Liberalism favours a small state, and a reduction of political control over society. Like New Labour, Liberalism is a party of the middle and lower-middle classes. The dilemma is complex, but that should not mask the fact that the Liberal Democrats have an unprecedented opportunity. A plethora of options is a positive situation, not a negative one.

Given this, Nick Clegg should be looking to the long term. Whilst he may be tempted to take David Cameron's offer of a coalition, this would harm the party in the long run. At the next election, assuming the coalition was successful, the Tories would be able to campaign alone and a polarised Conservative versus Labour election would squeeze out the LibDems. If the coalition were unsuccessful it would be even more damaging to the LibDems at the next election.

What Nick should do therefore, is relatively simple. Sometimes the easy option is the hard option. The LibDems should categorically refuse to be in a coalition with the Conservatives. There is no way that this option would be positive for the LibDems. Instead Nick Clegg should insist that David Cameron forms a minority government. In a time of financial crisis politics should be looking to consensus, not division. Forming a coalition is an exclusive act disguised as an inclusive one. If Cameron wishes to pass laws through Parliament he should design them to be popular across all parties. Let the election result herald a new era of non-partisan politics, the topic which gained Clegg most support in the election debates. Cameron has spoken much of the national interest, so let him design legislation that meets with the support of all of the nation. Cameron would be Prime Minister of all within the nation, not only those who voted for him. Britain is a pluralistic country, a 'community of communities'. How better to represent this than by forcing the government to win the support of people who nominally oppose them. Clegg should promise to let good bills pass, and poor ones fail. An end to the 'elected dictatorship' is surely in the national interest. Clegg should support the Tories, albeit from an arms length.

The call for proportional representation grows in the country. The LibDems have mooted the idea of demanding PR as a prerequisite for coalition. Gordon Brown has offered full PR if the LibDems work with the Labour party. Instead, Nick Clegg should use the fractured majority-less House of Commons for his own benefit. The fact that the (anti-Reform) Tories do not have a majority means that they cannot, by definition, prevent Bills from passing. Clegg can, early in the new Parliamentary session introduce a Private Members Bill for Parliamentary Reform. It can be considered, reasoned Reform, based on a great deal of research (much of which the LibDems have already conducted). With the support of the Labour members, as well as the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, and the other small parties (all of which stand to increase their influence under a proportional system), the Bill would pass, and Clegg would be able to claim a personal triumph for Parliamentary Reform. If the Bill were well designed, it would be able to gain much popular support, and some Tory members may even be induced to support it. Alternatively, Clegg need only pass a Bill granting a referendum on Parliamentary Reform to achieve the same aim, albeit with less of a personal victory.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats experienced a shocking squeeze in the last week of the campaign, as Labour and Conservative supporters abandoned their desire to vote idealistically not tactically. The strength of the LibDem campaign was also their undoing -they were not Labour or the Tories. This is, in general, the LibDem's greatest strength and weakness. By using this, however, they can maximise personal partisan gain, as well as ensure the consensus-based governance that a hung parliament mandates. Nick Clegg has an opportunity to achieve Parliamentary Reform, and stand to watch the Conservative party struggle to remain popular as they make drastic cuts in public spending. Clegg can go into the next election (which will be soon) having achieved Parliamentary Reform, campaigning against a Tory party which has savagely cut the economy and a Labour party still disliked by the vast majority of the public. In effect, Clegg must stop thinking about the last election and instead look to the next. The Liberal Democrats won 23% of the popular vote on Thursday. Under this plan, Nick Clegg could not only ensure that the LibDems fought the next election under a system which would grant them a representative share of the seats, but would be doing so against two parties who were hugely unpopular and with parliamentary reform under his belt. That is a remarkable opportunity for Nick Clegg, and for the future of the Liberal Democrat party.