Thursday, 27 May 2010

The history lesson

I wish I had before the election. You'll remember that I argued right after the election that I made the now-obvious mistake of voting LibDem on the premise that, as a (now determined) foreigner in your country, I didn't fully see your political spectrum in its true colours; that, having arrived after the election of Labour in 1997, I came to see the LibDems as the only viable (in a FPTP system) alternative to the left of the government.

BUT, now, Vernon Bogdnor's article in last week's New Statesman explains why, really, nothing of the Con-Dem pact should come as a surprise, and why many (my wife among them, who has been ever so good in not singing 'I told you so' as I mope around the house) were right not to believe in the idea of 'progressive coalition' on the left. Some highlights:
The present coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has long ante­cedents. The Conservatives were in coalition with dissident Liberals in 1895, when the Liberal Unionists joined them to resist Home Rule; from 1916 to 1922, when a group of Liberals led by Lloyd George joined with the Conservatives to win the First World War and secure postwar reconstruction; and again, in 1931, in the National Government. [...]

The Liberals have formed coalitions with the Conservatives, but they have never been in a peacetime coalition with Labour. Though it may be a bit much to conjure the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald, as John Reid and David Blunkett did during the fraught period that led to the creation of the new government, it should be rememberered that the Liberals have supported minority Labour governments - in 1924, 1929-31 and during the Lib-Lab pact in 1977-78.

Ominously, Bogdanor points out that 'coalition government has always benefited the Conservatives.' Uh-oh.

However, I was not the only one fooled it seems.

The last YouGov survey before the election, on 5 May, found that 43 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters described themselves as centre left or left, as compared with 29 per cent who described themselves as centrist and 9 per cent who described themselves as centre right or right. Moreover, 39 per cent of Lib Dem voters thought the party was left or centre left, as compared with the 33 per cent who thought it was centrist and 5 per cent who thought it was right or centre right. Nick Clegg appeared to agree with them: last year, he wrote a pamphlet entitled The Liberal Moment, in which he argued that "progressive conservatism" would prove a contradiction in terms. A Populus poll for the Times on 8 May revealed that, while a minority Conservative government was the favourite option, attracting 53 per cent support, a Liberal Democrat-Labour arrangement was preferred to a Liberal-Conservative one by 51 per cent to 46. In forming the coalition, the Liberal Demo­crats may have ignored the views both of their members and those who voted for them.
This we already knew, in a sort-of way, so it's nice to have the numbers to support it. So there are a lot of us naive numpties. But are we entirely to blame? Could Nick and the wafflers of the centre-right have been playing a bit of a game with us?
Nick Clegg was tactically shrewd in not making his preference known; had he done so, the Lib Dems would have secured fewer than the 57 seats they won. But in Oxford West and Abingdon, the seat lost by Dr Evan Harris, leaflets were delivered to electors telling them that voting Liberal Democrat was the only way to keep the Conservatives out, given that Labour, a distant third, had no chance. David Cameron agreed, saying that if one voted on the Thursday for the Lib Dems, one would wake up on the Friday with Gordon Brown. Perhaps the leaflet should have said that voting Liberal Democrat was the only way to keep the Conservatives in; indeed, after the election, the defeated Harris endorsed the coalition with the Conservatives. Perhaps in Labour-Lib Dem marginals, electors were told that voting Liberal Democrat was the only way to keep Labour out, since the Conservatives, a poor third, had no chance? As a campaign guide published by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors declared: "You can secure support from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour and, similarly, in a Tory area secure Labour votes by being anti-Tory."
Ah ha! So we was tricked! The LibDem manifesto was political Rohypnol, slipped into our drinks by the friendlier, left-leaning charmers of the party, while Laws and the right of the party rubbed their hands in anticipation of our drugged, compliant corpses. Vince, oh Vince! I believed you when you said - like Alistair - that cutting now would hurt the still-feeble recovery. I trusted you! And now look. I feel so... terribly, terribly... afraid of a double-dip recession. Have you no shame?

Bogdanor's full article, again, is here. He says a lot more, besides, about why the LibDems had no choice, really, and the truth about potential electoral reform, the only good thing that might come of all of this. Do check it out.

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