Alex Massie

A Tory-Liberal Coalition is Easier than a Lib-Lab Pact?

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I'm glad to see that more people - Iain Dale, John Rentoul, Iain Martin among them - are paying attention to Labour's eclipse. At present Labour could finish third in the popular vote for the first time since 1922 and yet many people seem to assume that a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition or arrangement of some sort is the most likely, even inevitable, outcome of a hung parliament. I don't believe this is the case and not only because of Nick Clegg's attack on "desperate" Gordon Brown this morning.

The Liberal Democrats have based their campaign for proportional representation on the grounds that it is unfair that, as they did in 2005, you could win 22% of the votes cast but only 9% of the parliamentary seats. There is some merit to this argument too.

But it would be grossly undermined if the Lib Dems were to do a deal with a Labour party that, say, had 42% of the seats on 27% of the vote. Indeed, the logic of long-standing Liberal Democrat positions is that the party should look to deal with the winners of the popular vote, not the one that has accrued the most seats due to the vagaries and absurdities of the electoral system.

Now perhaps they could finesse their way around this but if Labour finish third and perhaps even if they come second then the Liberals have to dilute or perhaps even betray their principles to do a deal with Labour. Well, you may say, they won't have any difficulty doing that!

And perhaps they won't but doing so will cripple their claims to distinctness and difference. So flirting with Labour is a risky business for the Liberals.

One consequence of the televised debates, too, is that share of the vote now carries more weight, morally though not constitutionally, than simply winning more seats. The election is increasingly framed as a presidential-style contest between the leaders, not simply a battle between parties.

This matters because it makes it more difficult for the Liberals to do a deal with Labour regardless of who happens to be leading Labour. If Gordon Brown can't claim a proper mandate in the event that Labour finish third in votes then nor can anyone who might replace him as leader. No-one will have voted for David Miliband or Alan Johnson or Ed Balls or Harriet Harman to be Prime Minister and even though there's no constitutional impediment that would prevent Labour from ditching Gordon and electing a new PM it's not obvious that the public would wear a second consecutive PM who did not enjoy much in the way of a popular mandate.

The alternative - titter ye not - would be for Nick Clegg to become Prime Minister leading a Lib-Lab coalition but, again, it's difficult to see Labour accepting that.

One of the things - indeed the benefits - of an unwritten constitution is that legitimacy is, in the end, subject to public approval and the electorate's sense of what is and what it not on. This is, of course, a flexible and often inchoate sense that's endlessly adaptable and often difficult to divine. Nevertheless it is real (and will, for example, constrain King Charles from behaving as though he were still Prince of Wales).

So, in addition to compromising his claims to being the Change Chap, if Clegg were to prop up Labour he might also offend the public's sense of fair play. Equally, supporting Labour just so he can get a referendum on PR would be just the kind of pork-barrel, transactional politics that is more of the same and not any kind of "new" politics.Tom Bradby has an intriguing post suggesting that Clegg may recognise this and, thus, decide to leave PR for another day.

All this assumes that Labour do finish third in the popular vote. And they may not! Nevertheless, as things stand I suspect that a putative Lib-Lab pact is much more fraught with difficulty than many pundits suppose.

Which would leave a deal to be done with the Tories. As Danny Finkelstein astutely points out today this ought not to be anathema to Clegg (even if it might be to many Lib Dem councillors). Again, there is enough common ground for this to happen. Consider:

Simplifying the tax code, public spending restraint, education reform, civil liberties, decentralisation, localism, welfare refom
- there's enough here to provide a pretty ambitious Programme for Government.

The main thing preventing a Tory-Liberal coalition seems to be the notion that It Can't Happen. But that's what people said about voting Liberal Democrat this time last week. And we have seen how that can change and change quickly.

And, as Sunder Katwala points out, if there's a Party of Coalition in British political history it's the Tories....