When, aged 16 in 1988, I got up to deliver Focus leaflets at 6am, went out canvassing voters during the dark days after the SDP-Liberal merger and found myself dealing with the continuing Owenite SDP in by-elections in Epping and Vauxhall, or even — most embarrassingly — when I stood on the back of battle buses (well, open-topped vans), urging the electorate through a loudhailer to “go for gold”, the Lib Dem colour, could I have imagined that a representative of the party to which I then belonged could ever become deputy prime minister?
No. And that is just one reason why now, however short-lived the euphoria may be, I rejoice to see the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Tories. Already we hear the voices of recrimination. Lib Dem supporters, apparently, will be angry that their votes have propped up a Tory administration that failed to win a majority. Some of them will be, for sure. Just as some of them would have been if the Lib Dems had helped obtain a rainbow coalition led by Labour.
That’s the problem with hung parliaments. That’s the problem with a system that has been so skewed that, for the better part of a century, one party or the other has managed to get often-overwhelming majorities while never winning an overall majority of the popular vote. The people speak. And the people have got used to the idea that if, say, 40 per cent of them favour one party, that’s enough for a tyranny of the minority to rule.
Well, times change. Instead of a minority of the vote allowing one party to form a government, the electorate still doesn’t decide who rules — but its representatives, who, in this case, represent an overall majority both in seats and votes, do. What irks Labour tribalists so much about Nick Clegg’s decision to join with the Tories is, I suspect, their sense that the Liberal Democrats are not a proper party; that their votes properly belong to Labour, and that their natural role in such a situation should be as subservient fellow progressives, happy to fall in line and accept crumbs from the table of their big, collectivist brother.
This is a deeply patronising and thoroughly wrong-headed view. Never mind that the Lib Dems have, in many ways, been consistently to the left of New Labour — on a personal note, I can say that the seeds of my friendship with the former Tribune editor and Labour NEC member Mark Seddon were sown when Tony Blair won his party’s leadership and we found ourselves, somewhat to our puzzlement, agreeing in our opposition to him.
More than that, there is a bloody-minded radicalism, always present in the old Liberal Party and still there in the Liberal Democrats, that represents a left-wing individualism totally antithetical to the class-solidarity conformism that Labour never escapes.
Yet Labour obstinately refuses to recognise that. Its members are tribal in their soul. Liberals wouldn’t want to belong to any tribe that would have them as members. A result of this, incidentally, is an instinctive libertarianism that finds more echoes in the views of Tory civil libertarians such as David Davis and Alan Duncan (who used to argue bravely in favour of drug liberalisation) than in a People’s Party that all too often seems merely to want people to be the same.
I would have welcomed a Lib Dem-Labour coalition that could have represented an obvious reunion of the progressive centre left. In the end, however, that not only appeared unviable in terms of Commons numbers, but also in terms of Labour intransigence. (Not Old Labour intransigence — remember, John Reid, the Blairite ex-home secretary, was one of the most vehement in his opposition to a deal. This was not principled. It was tribal.)
So, what was the alternative? The Liberal Democrats have been committed throughout the party’s life to electoral reform. The inevitable consequence of that is coalition government. To turn down a deal with the only partner available — a partner that has showed itself greatly willing — in order to preserve some puerile purity would have been for the party to fail the one time it was put to the test. You believe in coalition government? Fine, show it. And the Lib Dems are doing so.
The safety net
Some will object that the Liberal Democrats have nothing in common with the Conservatives. This is quite wrong, especially when they are led by a man who has made a point of saying that he is not “ideological”, a man whose patrician background should not overshadow the more important point about the tradition of One-Nation Toryism in which he stands.
Michael Heseltine quoted Winston Churchill on BBC News yesterday as being in favour of a safety net, below which no one should be allowed to fall, and beyond which people should be able to do as they wish. This is exactly what Liberals believe. What makes them left-wing is that they believe that that safety net should be hung so high that it provides excellence for all.
What makes Labour different is that, in its heart, it always wants to curtail or interfere with the activities of those who either have no need of or who wish to disregard that safety net. It always seeks to control. It’s no wonder that the ultimate nanny-state party introduced the surveillance state.
Labour criticised David Cameron for his presumption that he would have the right to rule after this election. Perhaps the People’s Party should look to itself. Its slavish conformism led it to embrace a supposedly election-guaranteeing New Labour ideology it should have shunned. Nobody has the right to rule. And nobody has the right to tell the cussed, awkward individualists who still make up the radical core of the Liberal Democrats whom they should go into government with.
A vote for the Lib Dems was neither a vote for the Tories nor one for Labour. There is no such thing as an anti-Tory majority in this country, just as there is no anti-Labour majority. The best — and most meaningless — thing one could say is that there is a non-Tory majority, just as there is a non-Labour majority.
So, where does that leave us? Well, if the people spoke, then this time they left it up to the Lib Dems. Now is the time to trust them. True progressive politics entails going beyond an infantile obsession with two-party battles — when all of us know that life, and the big issues that affect us all, are so much more complicated and nuanced than that.
I, for one, welcome coalition government — which means majority government for the first time since the Second World War.
As Paddy Ashdown said last night: “Hooray! Hooray!”