CHEERS! TO AD-LIBBING!
It’s hard to avoid clichés when your country faces a historic moment. Commentators are spewing over themselves with barely restrained excitement as new drama unfolds almost hourly; the first hung parliament in thirty years blah, the begging for a man who came a definitive third in the polls despite his early promise blah, euphoria and resentment from voters at the prospect of our first Liberal government (in shades at least–more of which in a minute) blah blah, and at the ending of a thirteen year Labour era and the synonomous finale of a man who probably thought he was doing the right thing. Oh, and also, Sam Cam’s purple dress and probable Manolo Blah-niks.
Of soothsayers and sensible shoes
Suddenly, everyone is a soothsayer. We have the champion of Smythson installed in No.10, and over the bump of a weekend, Britain has her very own Jackie-O oozing glamour, predict a few rather excited men wearing grey suits from sensible Marks & Spencer.
It will never work, predicts half the country. What will happen when….and a million questions proceed about spending cuts, asylum amnesties, additional runways and, the already-tired-before-we-even-got-to-a-referendum-question on electoral reform (or AV, as the Tories quaintly refer to a system which barely resembles proportional representation).
Sweet or sour grapes?
Alistair Campbell is not alone in condemning Clegg’s choice of coalition partner. Lib-Dem and Labour voters all over the country are allegedly furious at the unnatural partnership. Sour grapes, cry the blues, yet louder.
In this cacophony, it is almost hard to see the wood for the trees. But, wood there certainly is. In the solid oak of English democracy. Everyone may not like this result – perhaps me included – but, make no mistake, this is a victory of sorts for democracy.
Nick Clegg deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt. His party is run on impeccably democratic principles, and Clegg has followed those throughout the campaign when he said that the party with the most votes was the party with whom his democrats would seek to form an alliance. Nothing unnatural about that, one may observe. In a democracy – however flawed it is – the party who leads at the polls takes the title.
For whom the vote tolls
The country voted for a hung parliament. The public was not sufficiently convinced that any of these three parties alone could, or should, lead us into the future. Many of us who voted Lib-Dem knew that we were voting for a hung parliament. Short of drastic personality change, the voting public always was unlikely to bring in a majority Lib-Dem government. Our choices, therefore, were always that our preferred party – itself no doubt flawed – would prop up either Labour or the Tories. No big surprise there. Moreover, a lot of people voted Lib-Dem because they could not bring themselves to vote for Labour, for a myriad of reasons, including the Iraq war, and/or for Brown himself. Now, everyone seems surprised that Labour have not cosied their way back into another consecutive term, at almost any cost. The fact that people are surprised is, perhaps, the only genuine surprise.
Too big for his cloggs?
Many Lib-Dem and Labour voters are decrying foul play by Clegg. A turncoat, a failure, a power-grabber. Shock. Is he, really, a Tory?
Make no mistake about this. Clegg may or may not prove to be an effective leader of the Lib-Dems in office. He may or may not have made a terrible mistake in accepting the office of Deputy Prime Minister rather than one of the big departments. His party may or may not manage to have any meaningful influence on the policies that matter to them, including any future referendum on electoral reform. There is absolutely no doubt that many of the Lib-Dem manifesto policies will barely see the light of day, But Clegg had no choice but to form a government with David Cameron. There was no mandate, on any grounds whatsoever, in our swinging democracy for Clegg to join forces with Labour.
The massive loss of Labour seats, combined with the 305 Tory seats, meant that there had been – in fact – a clear winner of sorts last Thursday. For a Prime Minister massively out of favour with his party and the public to then form a new government (for the second time without an electoral mandate) would have been to throw eggs at the name of democracy itself. That was doubly so given the number of prominent Labour backbenchers who had come out vehemently against any Lib-Lab coalition, no matter how the likes of Diane Abbot tried to retreat late last night from that position. If Labour had then elected a new leader, that incoming Prime Minister would have had even less moral high ground upon which to pledge a stable government. By then, there probably would have been a vote of no confidence in the government anyway, and the country would be back at the polls.
Be careful what you wish for
Many Lib-Dem voters – myself included – did not want a Tory government. But the harsh reality is that the fact of a Tory government was always possible, perhaps even likely given the damage Labour has done on so many fronts over the last few years. Nick Clegg has given his party the opportunity to influence and govern. Vince Cable has been given a prominent position. Heavy compromises have been made already that never would have been made if the Tories had run themselves as a minority government. We have a promise that there now will be a five-year strong government. We have some semblance of stability ahead that no other combination of forces, or minority government, could have given, following the outcome of last Thursday’s vote. Seeking out optimism, the centre-left now has some opportunity to influence the right for the good of the country. That would have been sorely lacking in a rainbow coalition, without majority public support, which Labour’s backbenchers were too divided – or maybe arrogant – to recognize.
Soothsayers aside, we have no gauge upon which we can predict the outcome of this unlikely, maybe unnatural, coalition government. There are mature political players from both sides at the head of all the major departments. For those who care about civil liberties, it is even just possible (and I hold my breathe and barely dare say it) that Ken Clarke at the helm may even prove to be a more sensible and workable Minister of Justice than jack Straw, whose hypocrisy over human rights only matched that of veteran Conservative Michael Howard.
An ad-lib government. Cheers!
Britons showed at the polls last week that they were fed up with political excesses and with the arrogance of leadership. The forced compromise of a coalition government may just be enough to put back the trust into our electoral system. This government may be ad-libbing all the way, and every crystal ball can see some very significant hurdles. Some of those are likely to arise from the in-fighting that would have been there amongst the Tories on Europe whether they were with the Lib-Dems or not. And the LIb-Dems are going to have to suck a lot of bad-tasting eggs, like it or not. But they are in power. A small, probably squeaky voice to be sure, and they will need to make themselves heard by all means possible.
For those voters whose memories are already sufficiently rose-tinted to forget the worst abuses of Labour in office, the tiny prospect that this coalition may prevent the worst abuses of the Tories in office ought to be enough to stop the slaughter of Nick Clegg. He asked the voters to vote for him, not for David Cameron. As the man who said he would seek to form an alliance with the party who captured the strongest public vote, Clegg has kept his word. That is not to be underestimated in our political era. Now let’s see if Cameron will keep his. Anyone fancy a guess?
London, May 12th 2010