The Lib Dems promise to back the 'largest' party - but do they mean votes or seats?

It’s entirely possible that Labour could end up with the most seats but a smaller share of the vote than the Tories.

So then, how do we, under the crazy first-past-the-post electoral system that we’re lumbered with, define the word 'largest'.

I only ask, because, as Labour’s opinion poll ratings start to shrink and suddenly they start thinking that perhaps, this time, it would be best to do a bit of planning for how a coalition agreement might be hammered out, rather than trying to sort it on the fly (prompted by the publication of Andrew Adonis’s new book on the chaos that occurred last time), it suddenly seems a very relevant question.

In 2010, we in the Lib Dems were very clear that in any potential coalition negotiations, we would talk to the largest party first; and by largest we meant 'most seats'. Andrew Stunnell (part of the Lib Dem negotiation team last time round) has now come out and said the same will hold true next time, should the same come to pass.

But is 'most seats' actually the right answer? Given the bias in the system, it’s entirely possible that Labour could end up with the most seats but a smaller share of the vote than the Tories. Under that scenario, how best to decide who gets first bite of the cherry – especially in a party like ours that believes passionately in a proportional voting system?

And suppose the combined UKIP-Tory vote suddenly gives them a perceived mandate; Monday’s ICM poll gave them 46 per cent of the vote, compared to a 'progressive' share of 45 per cent. Who has the largest mandate under that scenario? It's a point the Tories can’t really make, as the opposite was true in 2010, but the Lib Dems could and should.

Given that Monday’s ICM poll results would leave Labour with a massive 68 seat majority despite only getting 34 per cent of the vote, it’s a moot point – how the Tories must regret the loss of the boundary changes now. But UKIP getting 18 per cent of the popular vote and 0 seats would surely call the legitimacy of any mandate into question?

Of course, you’ll say, this all presumes that the Lib Dems have any seats left to form a coalition with. But even the ICM score of 11 per cent, our lowest share with them since 1997, would still give us 35 seats on a uniform swing. If the UKIP vote starts to bleed back to the Tories, suddenly that share looks very important.

There’ll be a lot of chatter, speculation and positioning between now and the 2015 election. But come the morning of 8 May, how the leader of the Lib Dems interprets the word 'largest' is likely to have a profound impact on who forms the next government.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.