I argue urgently that we Lib Dems should not enter into any formal pact with anyone, but should remain in opposition to a minority Conservative and Unionist government.
I won’t pretend that last night was not horribly disappointing, as First Past The Post radically distorted our representation as usual. I went through this disappointment before, in February 1974 , in the election that first brought me in to political activity. Then, there was an even greater buzz about Jeremy Thorpe than there has been about Nick Clegg – and Thorpe was a spectacularly charismatic figure.
Third party politics really had seemed utterly dead in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Thorpe had inherited a parliamentary party that really could squeeze into a taxi, and Thorpe’s style, underpinned by Jo Grimond’s genuine radicalism, was an achievement more stunning than anything the Liberals or Lib Dems have managed since. It seemed to represent a re-ordering of the political system to accommodate the radical social changes of the 1960’s (and remember it was Liberal MP David Steel’s private member’s bill which liberalised abortion).
When Thorpe’s Liberal Party’s opinion polls rating during the first 1974 campaign hit the 23% level the Lib Dems gained yesterday, that was a quadrupling of support. When the actual percentage share at the ballot was 19.3% it was a huge letdown – and incredibly, 19.3% gave the Liberals just 14 seats – probably the most infamous result FTPT has ever delivered. 19.3% of the vote for 2.3% of the seats!!
That election morning was worse than this one. I had, age 15, worked almost every single non-school hour for 4 months leading up to the election, and had not slept for 96 hours, being out delivering leaflets. I shall never forget the burning sense of injustice.
The second election in October 1974 led to the Lib-Lab pact, which actually was highly succesful for three years in rescuing a near Greek economic situation. But the Liberals got no credit for it. The “Winter of Discontent” actually occurred after the Liberals withdrew from the Lib-Lab pact, but nonetheless the Liberals were swept backwards by Thatcherism in 1979.
That could easily repeat now. A Lib-Lab pact to claw back the dire economic situation would almost certainly be followed in time by a massive Tory backlash for keeping New Lab in power and losses of Lib Dems seats.
On the other hand, we have the scenario I blogged as tempting before yesterday’s vote:
a Cameron administration, with a tiny majority, propped up by some Northern Irish bigots, would inflict such pain on the majority of our society that, before falling after a few years, they would put the Tories out for a generation at least.
In so doing, they would greatly enhance the cause of Scottish and Welsh independence, and with the Lib Dems the second most popular party and the challenger in the large majority of Tory seats, the Tory demise would sweep in a radical change in more promising circumstances.
I rejected this scenario in favour of a good Lib Dem performance yesterday – but given the actual result, I believe the above is the best scenario we have. Let the Tories run a minority administration with unpleasant allies, restraining their excesses. In the next general election the Lib Dems will poised nationally to pick up a huge bonanza of Tory seats. Cameron will meantime be in the minority government position that killed Callaghan and Major electorally. But he will also face the problem that the electorate always punish anyone who inflicts an unnecessary election on them.
So play it long and cool. Resist the tempations of instant power and ministerial limousines, and especially resist blandishments of referenda on electoral reform in which the entire Murdoch and Tory media empires will again be deployed against us to devastating effect.