Tuesday 14 September 2010

Why the Tory-LibDem electoral pact kite won't fly

New Tory MP Nicholas Boles' call for a Tory-LibDem electoral pact looks like an important piece of kite-flying. James Forsyth of the Spectator notes that "the truth is that Boles is a key figure, one of the early modernisers and a member of the Cameron circle. That he is publicly floating the possibility of an electoral pact shows that it is a subject of discussion amongst those at the very top".

This is the Boles pact proposal.

If large numbers of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs feel that the harsh but necessary measures being implemented by the coalition are destroying their chances of being re-elected, they will begin to panic and look for opportunities to bolt.

That’s why I conclude my book with a call for an electoral pact. This autumn both David Cameron and Nick Clegg should ask their parties to approve a binding agreement to fight the 2015 general election as coalition partners.


If the voters choose to keep our current system of electing MPs, as I fervently hope they will, the pact would give parliamentary candidates in constituencies in seats held by a coalition party a free run against other parties ... We would also agree on which coalition party should contest the most marginal seats of the opposition parties. If the voters do decide to embrace the alternative vote, the pact would require each of the coalition partners to urge their supporters to give their second preference vote to the candidate from the other coalition party.

Still, the kite isn't going to fly.

Firstly, Boles' proposal is very similar in the form to the SDP-Liberal alliance which fought the 1983 and 1987 elections before the (at the time controversial and very difficult) merger of the two parties formed the Liberal Democrats. A smaller party entering such a pact could hardly expect to retain its political independence. The whole point of the Boles proposal is to remove it, fusing the two parties prospects for a full decade. Liberal Democrats do not want to merge with the Conservative Party and, to the extent that they think about it, most Tories would reciprocate the thought. There is - across the parties as a whole - much less long-term compatibility between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats than when those two centre parties merged a generation ago.

This is undoubtedly sincere on Boles' part. (In that, it is in contrast to the previous episodes in the well-established Cameron tradition of love-bombing the LibDems in order to overshadow their party conference). But neither the timing nor the content will be welcomed by the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg will categorically repeat that there is no chance of this happening. There has been a notable, if quiet shift away from Clegg stressing the parties' shared liberal conservative vision to stressing what his own party can gain in hard-fought negotiations inside the government. That will be the tone of the party conference.

Secondly, Boles is asking the Liberal Democrats to throw away the "doctrine of the mandate" which Nick Clegg set out before the last election. The key point about his proposal is the attempt to make it "binding" in nature. Whatever happened, the LibDems would have to back the Conservatives in the next Parliament if it mattered (while the Tories would probably have sacrificed a shot at a majority). What the Clegg doctrine suggests is that, if the Labour party had more seats and votes than the Tories in a hung parliament at the next election, then the Liberal Democrats would talk first to Labour on the grounds that they would have greater legitimacy to explore first whether a government was possible. In a hung Parliament, this is the moment of greatest LibDem influence, unless they accept Boles' advice.

Thirdly, there is now only one practical way to open up the possibility of a weaker de facto pact. That would be for Boles to advocate the Alternative Vote, which he opposes. That necessitates some pluralist approach to party politics, at the very least to attract the votes of supporters of other parties. Under first-past-the-post, the pact among two entire parties won't happen (though the Conservatives would certainly offer a "coupon" deal to National Liberal refugees if the Coalition broke down). But there is a difference between the two methods - with AV, it is up to the voters to vote Tory/LibDem and LibDem/Tory if they prefer. Boles' model instead seeks to remove voter choice by imposing a top-down pact - it is a safer option if the fear is that the voters might not approve of such a deal.

This blog set out during the Coalition negotiations why the Cameron Conservatives would gain most from the Disraeli option of going through with electoral reform - even full PR - if they made an electoral pact at the next election part of the price.

That Boles hopes to achieve this without changing the electoral system means that what he is offering the Liberal Democrats is simply the chance to lash themselves to the mast of the Coalition's austerity agenda - and to collude in an attempt to keep it going even if the voters don't want it - with little in return beyond losing their political identity to become a semi-permanent National Liberal wing of a new Tory-dominated alliance.

1 comment:

MatGB said...

"with little in return beyond losing their political identity to become a semi-permanent National Liberal wing of a new Tory-dominated alliance. "

Exactly. If offered, I've no doubt a small number of our MPs and members might be tempted by it, but it'd probably come with a precondition that the Tories expell the headbanging Cornerstones (and if we get AV, I wouldn't be surprised to see an exodus of the Right towards something that coalesces around, and takes over, UKIP).

But there's no way the Lib Dem party as a whole would accept it, and if it did lose the vote at conference, then I strongly suspect Caroline Lucas will have a few companions sat on her benches before the Parliament is out.

Now that would be interesting to watch.