Monday, May 10, 2010

In bed with the Tories? I was for three years.

Understandably there is a lot of talk around the blogosphere about the ongoing negotiations between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives.

The reality is that this is an inevitable consequence of the election result. More people voted Conservative than voted Labour, and by a wide margin, and it is right that we talk to them first, particularly as they offered.

There are many in the party who are uncomfortable with this.

Well they'd better get used to it.

If we do achieve our long term objective of electoral reform it will become the norm, and the strongest position to be in when beginning negotiations is to make it clear that we are open to a deal with either of the other sides. That is how we will get our agenda adopted.

Back in 2001 we faced a similar situation on Oxfordshire County Council. The numbers were such that any 2 of the 3 main parties could form an administration. We entered into negotiations with each of the others, and they even spoke briefly to each other.

I was a member of our negotiating team. We had our red lines and our additional objectives. Our aim was to negotiate on the basis of our manifesto to win the maximum number of our policies as possible. Our expectation was that we would end up doing a deal with Labour.

It didn't turn out like that. It quickly became apparent that although there was more common policy between us and Labour they a) didn't know what they wanted, b) didn't know how to negotiate and c) didn't have any agreement in their own group about what they were trying to achieve.

In contrast the Conservatives were very clear about what they wanted, knew how to negotiate and had the backing of their group to do so. They also had some very constructive ideas about a clear framework for how we could work together and resolve day to day disagreements (which turned out to be both useful and well used).

It didn't take long for us to realise that, whatever the policy differences, a working arrangement with the Conservatives was the only way forward.

There are clearly parallels with the national position now, with some key exceptions:

1 Even if we want to do a deal with Labour the numbers still don't stack up easily.
2 The negotiations are taking place in the full glare of media publicity.
3 There is no fixed date for the next election.

I have every sympathy with the position Nick finds himself in. Whatever he does it will be the wrong thing to do in the eyes of many.

From what I can see Nick and the team are going about things in the right way.

They are focusing on the need to form a stable Government which can sort out the economy in the national interest. This is both the right priority and the right message to send out at this stage.

They are negotiating a deal that delivers as many of our key manifesto priorities as possible.

They are clearly working hard at it, but not letting themselves be rushed.

They are consulting widely within the party.

And, if today's rumours are true, they are trying to find a way to deal the big risk of partnership Government under our system - the lack of a fixed term parliament.

If they do come to some agreement with the Conservatives there will, of course, be a lot of people who are not happy. Those who feel that we have much more in common with Labour than those nasty Tories.

There is some truth in that, I certainly see myself as on the centre-left, and worked hard to ensure that our manifesto reflected that political position.

However we would not be negotiating with the Labour party we have things in common with, we would be negotiating with a failed Labour Government of ID Cards, bombing Iraq, Tuition Fees, unfair taxation and an economic meltdown. A party that, until 10pm Thursday, was attacking us for our progressive views on such issues as Trident and Immigration.

Of course the other thing we have to bear in mind is the electoral impact of all this.

In Oxfordshire we did not fare well at the following County elections - although this was probably more down to our own organisational issues than any political backlash.

Nationally the risk is that we lose whichever way we turn. If we get into bed with the Tories we risk losing Labour waverers and tactical voters. If we go with Labour we risk losing soft Tory voters.

However the potential upside is greater. We have an opportunity to show that the Liberal Democrats are capable of sharing power, of putting the national interest ahead of narrow party interest and that political parties can actually work together successfully for the benefit of the country.

In the meantime we just have to trust the team. We couldn't have a more able negotiating team and at this point we have to let them do their job.


Norfolk Blogger said...

And what was the reuslt of you being in bed with the Tories ? You lsot your seat, less Liberal influence in the long term, and a lose lose situation.

Liberal Neil said...

Yes, but I don't think there was a direct link between the three years deal and the results, at least it wasn't something that came up on doorsteps as an issue.