or a party of inveterate fence-sitters, Friday 7th May 2010 may prove the time that the Liberal Democrats are forced to get up off their haunches. In the event of a hung parliament, with neither Labour or the Tories commanding an overall parliamentary majority following the general election, the pressure on the Lib Dems to clarify who they will support in forming an administration will be intense.
With the opinion polls showing a strong likelihood of a hung parliament, this is no abstract question. The tiny swing needed to deprive Labour of an overall majority is mirrored by the almighty swing needed to guarantee David Cameron a comfortable five-year lease in Downing Street. There is a large, misty grey swamp between Labour losing the next election and the Tories winning it. This is the new battlefield of British politics and, in our three-party system, requires armies to unite against a common enemy.
But instead of facing up to this huge strategic reality and picking a side, Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, is adopting Gladstonian levels of piety as political suitors begin a-calling. Clegg wants to see how the parliamentary arithmetic stacks up before making any decisions about who he will jump into bed with, hiding behind the position that the party with the largest number of seats should have the chance to form an administration. All very sporting, but what about principle? Is Clegg seriously saying that in the (thankfully) unlikely event of the BNP or UKIP winning the most seats he would stand passively by and let them try to form a government? Of course not. So it is equally necessary to articulate who the Lib Dems would support and in what circumstances.
Of course, for electoral reasons, Clegg has to be anti-Labour enough to attract floating Tories in the south and sufficiently anti-Tory to nab disillusioned Labour voters in the north. But when it comes to hard choices about government, such naked opportunism will not wash. The Lib Dems need to decide if they are players or spectators in British politics. This is the moment when they either blossom into a potential party of government or fluff their chance at real credibility.
The late Roy Jenkins' analysis was that the 20th Century was a Conservative one because Liberals and Labour worked against rather than in concert with each other. Jenkins was wrong on many issues, but fundamentally right on this. Britain is not an inherently right-wing country, but the right has prospered because the forces ranged against it have remained divided.
This isn't to argue for mergers, coalitions or even pacts between Labour and the Lib Dems. It is, however, a call to co-operate where this makes progressive centre-left politics more likely to flourish.
But some Lib Dems urge caution, citing their experiences of being courted by Tony Blair in 1997. Some got light-headed with talk of a pact ahead of New Labour's 1997 landslide, ignoring the immutable fact that the sheer scale of Labour's victory made talk of power-sharing with a minority party simply untenable.
But there are other, happier precedents too. Co-operations with Labour in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament should point to the possibility of a Westminster alliance holding up. So why won't Clegg at least rule out a deal with the Tories? Partly because that is what some elements in his party would like to see. Namely, those economic liberals in the party who are intuitively anti-Labour and actually believe David Cameron's rhetoric.
But the Lib Dems are an amalgam, a mixture of traditions including contrary social liberals, the diaspora of the old SDP as well as economic pro-European liberals. Clegg must know in his heart of hearts that he simply cannot deliver his party in a straight deal to fall in behind the Tories. The DNA of liberal democracy is not labourist, but it is certainly social democratic and strongly hostile to the Tories. So Clegg will tread carefully, conscious that being Lib Dem leader is akin to being a shepherd herding cats with no sense about where you're going. And the party likes it that way.
Seal the deal
For Labour then, the question is how to “seal the deal” with the yellow peril and counter David Cameron's similarly amorous leg-humping of Clegg's party. Gordon Brown's platform of political reform should be music to their ears. With a clear promise of a referendum on electoral reform during the next parliament, Lib Dems should realise that there is only one realistic choice, both in terms of working with the grain of their philosophical traditions, and acting in their own naked self-interest. A deal with the Tories, undoubtedly favoured by those on the right of the party, would be a betrayal of their traditions and offers no chance whatsoever of electoral reform.
For many in the Labour party the Lib Dems are an infuriating nuisance. Pious, inconsistent and hopelessly naive. All of which is undoubtedly true. But they are also Labour's ‘kissing cousins' sharing many philosophical traits and policy assumptions. It would be foolish for Labour and the Lib Dems not to seek collaboration when they agree on so much and especially where the stakes are so high.
And despite whatever differences remain, blood should be thicker than water.