At the last general election my niece, a young graduate, voted Lib Dem. Part perhaps caught up in Clegg-mania but more supporting a left of centre agenda that wasn’t Labour she had hopes of a bright new political world. Well of course the Lib Dems didn’t win but by entering a coalition with the Tories she has ended up with a government she didn’t vote for and found the manifesto she did vote for wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
Under the present electoral voting system, in normal times as in 2010, only two parties could have won the general election – the Conservatives or Labour. They could have won it in a number of ways – with an outright majority, as the largest party governing in minority or as a coalition. It was the Conservatives who in the end won the prize, but it could have been Labour. It was never going to be the Lib Dems.
Hence I would argue that the only party to present to the country a dishonest manifesto was the Lib Dems. The Labour party had to deliver a manifesto it could honour because as the party of government it knew what was possible and would not have been given the latitude of breaking its promises because it didn’t know what was going on.
The Conservatives would have had more lee-way here because the opposition party would always be in the dark on the state of the nation’s finances and other obligations the out going administration would have tied it in to. Yet it would have presented a programme for government which by and large it intended to follow.
The minor parties – yes even the BNP – would have presented honest manifestos because they knew that they would not form the next government or for many administrations to come. Their message would be of a Britain they wanted to see and if they had a chance of winning one seat what their MP would do for those constituents.
Yet it was only the Lib Dems, out of stupidity and vanity, presented a manifesto for government when there was never a snowballs chance in hell it would govern. Perhaps because it had been allowed a place in the TV debates the party felt it had to compete with Labour and the Tories. Indeed that has always been its stance – but in the past it had the safety of knowing it would never be elected so what promises it made would never have to be kept. It should also not be forgotten that although it is now a party of government the Clegg-mania election was a disaster for the Lib Dems with their seats dropping from 62 to 57.
As I write this the Home Secretary, Teresa May, has just been presenting to the House of Commons the changes to the rules governing the detention of terror suspects. This was a manifesto pledge by the Lib Dems to scrap these detentions but now in coalition with the Tories yet again they have had to go back on their pledge. One TV commentator said he did not believe this would harm the Lib Dems as they would argue, as so often in recent months, they were now in coalition so had to compromise on the issue. However he went on to say that the pledge was made because the Lib Dems never believed they would have to carry it out yet here they were in government seeing their election promises fall one by one.
When I recently attended the Fabian Society New Year Conference the key note speech was given by Ed Miliband in which he went out of his way to offer the hand of partnership to Lib Dems to form a progressive alliance in British politics. The offer was to disaffected Lib Dem voters who seem to be switching to Labour in their droves. It was also to those Lib Dem elected politicians who did not support the coalition with the Tories or the trashing of all the Lib Dems stand for.
There is a lot of anger in the Labour Party towards the Lib Dems. Not because they did not enter a coalition with Labour but because they did with the Tories - hence are supporting their policy of cut and burn and in the process disowning their manifesto.
Had the Lib Dems been honest at the last election they would have presented not the manifesto of dreams but manifestos for coalition. The party would have stated it knew it would not govern but believed it could be a party of government as has been the case. Therefore there would have been two manifestos, one for Labour and one for the Tories, which would have set out their terms of business. On that basis the two main parties would have known what a coalition with the Lib Dems meant – and more importantly the Lib Dems would have had a mandate from the voters for such a deal.
It is relevant because come the next general election the three main parties will again face each other. It is possible a Conservative-Lib Dem or a Labour – Lib Dem coalition could be the outcome if the Lib Dems survive as a meaningful political force.
The problem for the Lib Dems is come the next election their party could be in total disarray. Ed Miliband may have wooed the majority of their voters and Clegg and Co could preside over a mere rump. How many Lib Dem MPs will be ready to disown their discredited leadership and throw in their lot with or work alongside a resurgent Labour? In the meantime I hope the Lib Dem ministers enjoy their limos – because the price of their political dishonesty will be paid in full at the ballot box.
(A version of the above article appeared in The Morning Star on January 28 2011)