Until last Friday, my Facebook newsfeed had been pretty tedious. I’ve been a Liberal Democrat for 20 years, and most of my Facebook “friends” are in the party. They spent the election using the social networking site to vie for supremacy in pavement politics: one would update his status to “has knocked on 10,000 doors in this election”, to be bettered minutes later by someone who had “knocked on 20,000”.
But as coalition talks continue, the newsfeed has become a lot more interesting.
As proportional representation slips down the list of priorities put forward by Nick Clegg (behind economic stability), there is a sense of real unease among many members. “Stick to the bottom line — implemented & genuine PR, not just some claptrap commission . . . Lib/Lab/Others is over 50 per cent of the popular vote — not exactly shabby,” goes a typical post.
“We must insist the new parliament introduces a fair voting system and a new election under new rules within a year,” is the rallying call by another, pushing a demonstration at Reading Civic Centre.
These posts get plenty of “Likes”. And listening in on the social network exchanges, Clegg clearly has a problem here. In an election where “Labour with 8.0m votes; LibDem with 6.3m; Labour get nearly FIVE TIMES the seats”, the sense of unfairness is raw. Oddly, Clegg would have had a freer hand here if 80 Lib Dem MPs had been returned.
Scores of “Friends” are now members of competing Facebook pages backing electoral reform. “We want the Liberal Democrats to insist on Proportional Representation”, has approaching 2,000 members. “Every vote counts” is also popular, as is “We want proportional representation”.
As they rally to these, Lib Dems who are still hurting from the result, still looking at options they know will split either the party or its support base, are the target of Tory “friends”. A thread starts in good humour, maybe with an expression of sympathy, or musing about what happens now, but soon the mood changes.
The comment thread from an MP who lost lost last Thursday is typical. One “friend” posted “Sorry for the loss of the vote”, and followed up with a plea to be careful about a tie-up with the Tories. It quickly got ill-tempered, with one “friend” saying it would be “unfair and undemocratic” for Clegg to “prop up the losers”; and we’re quickly back into a debate about whether Thatcher “f*cked us over good and proper”.
“It’s going to happen Ed. Accept political reality,” hectors one of my oldest friends. “Recognise that constructive engagement on a pragmatic centre-right basis is what you’ve ended up with, rather than hankering after Labour and a referendum on PR that will likely be rejected by that public. Your party won’t be forgiven at the polls in six months.” This followed a link I’d shared to a long, moderately worded article by the academic and former staffer Richard Grayson that urged a Lib-Lab tie-up.
That kind of finger-wagging is common, and Tory friends have been most active on Lib Dems’ Walls. “If they turn down a deal with the Tories and go for a Lib/Lab pact, they run the gauntlet and deserve everything they get,” writes another in response to a post by former staffer: “I voted Lib Dem for a number of reasons. One of which was to keep the Tories out.”
What does all this show about how a coalition decision would play out in the Lib Dems? The Facebook chatter shows that by letting PR slip further down the list of priorities, Clegg will be putting himself in hot water with the membership.
The postings from Tories also tell us a great deal. Cameron and his team have been appropriate, measured and sensible — but beyond those Cabinet Office negotiations the Tories aren’t playing so nicely.
And do we detect in the shrill tone from Tory supporters a hint that, if this deal falls through, their anger will have to turn inward?
Eduardo Reyes was vice-chair of the Student Liberal Democrats. He worked for the Liberal Democrats from 1995-98, and has been a party election agent and council candidate.