First up, a massive caveat: I know no more than anyone else about what’s going on in the Conservative/Lib Dem negotiations. I may be a candidate – or ex-candidate – but I have no more information than the 50 million other people who are following developments through the media.
What I can say is that I’ve had a number of comments from people who voted for me who are very angry about the possibility that the Lib Dems will do a deal with the Conservatives. As I have an email address for the specific purpose of passing on comments to the party’s high command, I have been able to report the broad sentiments, and I can say the Lib Dem negotiating team is well aware of the strength of feeling among party members and Lib Dem voters.
But like most things of political importance, it isn’t quite as simple as it may seem. And there are two things that are central to this.
Firstly, I hope people can now see why Nick Clegg and all of us who stood for the Lib Dems were so reluctant to answer the question “Which party will you side with in the event of a hung Parliament?”
The answer we gave constantly was “Please vote for our policies, not for a possible coalition.” I dressed this up differently. On several occasions I told people “It’s like meeting a new person and instead of saying ‘Who are you? – tell me something about yourself’ you say ‘Tell me who your friends are, or might be?’”
We stood on our four main platforms – fair taxes, a better deal for education, a boost to the economy through creating ‘green jobs’, and cleaning up politics – on the basis that, if there was a hung Parliament, we would use those four issues as our bargaining counters so Lib Dem votes turn into real action. That is what is happening in the current negotiations, and if people want politicians to do what they say they’d do, no-one can hold the current negotiations against us.
Of course the big question is: what can we reasonably get from the Conservatives? To me, and to many other Lib Dem voters, a fundamental issue is meaningful electoral reform, but can the Conservatives deliver it? I suspect David Cameron would be willing, as I sense he sees it as part of bringing his party into the 21st century. But could he take his party with him? Probably not.
Which could then throw us into discussions with Labour, and also the Scottish, Welsh and Ulster parties, given that ‘Lab + Lib Dem = minority’. After all, Gordon Brown is promising an immediate referendum on electoral reform, albeit with the discredited Alternative Vote system.
But – and this is my second central issue – could Labour deliver meaningful electoral reform? There are plenty of Labour MPs who are no keener on ditching the first-past-the-post voting system than the dinosaurs we know inhabit the Tory ranks. Given that a Lab/Lib/nationalists alliance would only just have a majority, it would only take a handful of rebel Labour MPs to kill off proportional representation.
I am desperate to see PR happen. I remember the discussions in the 1970s about it, and want Nick Clegg to use all his current power to get PR. But some of the media commentators are assuming his power is greater than it might be.
That’s why the best thing everyone – Lib Dem voters, sympathisers, and party members – can do is to be patient and trust the negotiating process. It’s not a nice feeling, but it’s the best and most respectful thing we can do in the circumstances.
[Written at 10.30am, Monday 10 May 2010]