The Lib/Lab Lie

One of the larger running themes in political journalism — and especially blogging — over the last few weeks has been that there are rumours of rapprochement between Labour and the Lib Dems — Clegg and Balls jokingly exchanging tweets, Balls describing Clegg as a man of principle and so on. The implication has been that the two parties are preparing for the possibility of coalition, and there has been a lot of talk about Labour adopting various Lib Dem policies, and about the Lib Dems stressing their more left-wing positions and points of difference with the Tories.

The line in most political blogs has basically been “Labour are no longer confident of winning a majority, and want to leave the possibility of coalition open”.

Now, I don’t discount this as a possibility, and I think it a consummation devoutly to be wished — short of a Lib Dem majority government or a Lib Dem/Green coalition, a Lib/Lab coalition would be my preferred government. I would be ecstatic if these rumours were true, and even more so if the election made them a reality.

But I don’t believe that’s what’s happening for a second — or rather, I think that we would be seeing exactly these stories appearing now whether or not there was any behind-the-scenes planning for a Lib/Lab coalition. And I’m quite amazed that none of the political blogs I read have mentioned this.

The reason is simple. From the Lib Dems’ point of view, it’s a good idea to talk this up as much as possible — we’ve lost a lot of left-wing support because of the coalition with the Tories, and the single most convincing argument against voting Lib Dem now is “they’ll let the Tories in”. We need to win as many of those left-leaning voters back as possible, and aligning ourselves more with Labour is a way of doing that.

But it’s also, paradoxical as it may seem, in Labour’s interest to make the Lib Dems look good.

The first reason is simple — they want to keep many of the ex-Lib Dem voters who are now supporting them, and the best way to do that is to align their policies, somewhat, with the Lib Dems’. As the election gets closer, some of those voters will drift back, as always happens. If Labour can say “well, we have the policies you like from the Lib Dems, and we’ll probably go into coalition with them anyway”, then those voters are more likely to feel comfortable sticking with Labour rather than drifting back.

But the second reason is that Labour need to encourage *some* people to stop voting Labour and to vote Lib Dem instead. Honestly.

The next election is going to be a close one — it’s likely to lead to a slim Labour majority, but Labour’s lead in the polls is a fairly low one for an opposition party at this point in a parliament, and it might lead to a hung parliament, especially if the economic recovery continues.

So Labour needs not only to maximise its own number of seats, but to minimise the number of Tory wins, either to get an actual majority or, failing that, to make sure it’s the largest party in a hung parliament.

Now have a look at this. My apologies for linking to the Egregious Tory Tosser, but in this piece he’s largely correct. I’ve been saying all along that the Lib Dems will win about thirty-five seats in the next election, and he’s agreeing with me.

But look at the breakdown — of the twenty-two seats he thinks the Lib Dems will lose (and I largely agree with his assessment), eight will go to Labour, while fourteen would go to the Tories. And this will be entirely because of people moving from the Lib Dems to Labour.

Of course, if Labour and the Tories hadn’t both conspired to keep the godawful voting system we’ve got now, that wouldn’t be happening, but they both made their bed and now they’ve got to lie in it — people switching from Lib Dems to Labour will actually reduce Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in seats.

This means that the best strategy for Labour is the old anti-Tory “progressive front” nonsense — if they can come as close as possible to saying “Labour and the Lib Dems are on the same side against those evil Tories” without actually saying that, they’ll keep as many ex-Lib Dems as possible in Labour/Tory marginals and the odd three-way marginal, but give Labour supporters ‘permission’ to vote Lib Dem in Lib Dem/Tory seats (Labour have no fear of losing in the tiny number of Labour/Lib Dem marginals, though I’ll do everything in my power to see that John Leech, at least, keeps his seat).

So in the next sixteen months, leading up to the general election, it’s in the best interests of both Labour and the Lib Dems to portray the two parties as more alike than different. Expect more and more talk of Lib/Lab coalitions, how Vince Cable used to be a Labour member, how Andrew Adonis used to be a Lib Dem, how Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband ganged up to vote down the Tories on some minor but symbolic piece of legislation, and all that sort of thing.

For precisely the same reason, it’ll be in the Tories’ best interests to portray the Lib Dems as being like the Tories, so expect a constant run of stories, all coming from the Tory side, about right-wing Lib Dems like Jeremy Browne or David Laws “considering defection”. Again, whether those stories are true or not will have *absolutely no bearing* on whether they get reported — and when they do, the stories will be coming from the Tories, and the denials will come from the Lib Dems.

Honestly, this was obviously going to be the strategy from the *second* the AV referendum was lost, and it gives us no information whatsoever about what will happen *after* the election. It’s just each party doing the game-theoretically optimal thing in a situation with as stupid a voting system as we’ve got, and I’m amazed so many people seem to have taken the stories at face value.

It’s just yet another reason we need a sane voting system…

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7 Responses to The Lib/Lab Lie

  1. TAD says:

    Is there a scenario where the Lib Dems win so overwhelmingly that they wouldn’t need a coalition partner?

    • MatGB says:

      Theoretically, yes, FPTP has a weird domino effect. Unlike the Tories and Labour, the LDs have soft support almost everywhere in England, but it’s small soft support, they were the only party to not lose a single deposit in 2010 IIRC, there are parts of the country where one of the other two simply has no presence at all.

      So if the LDs start to get real support, more seats start falling to them than to the other two parties. Labour needs 35% minimum to get an overall majority but how big that majority is depends how other parties vote. If the LDs actually look like they might be first place in vote share, there’s a weird domino thing that happens that means they can actually win really big on less than 40% of the vote.

      Note, it requires the LDs to actually look like they’re going to win, at which point all the electoral calculus seat share calculators start to break and all bets are off in terms of what acually happens, FPTP can be very random in the way it works—Major in 1992 got more votes than Thatcher ever got, but far fewer seats.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        OK, ignore my reply — Mat is a proper expert on this stuff, while I just like to rant on the internet.

        • TAD says:

          I’d have to agree with Mat, although his scenario sounds like a “once-every-hundred years” kind of thing. But it’s plausible, and more likely to happen than a 3rd party winning outright in the US.

          • MatGB says:

            Note, it’s unlikely that the polls would get the LDs up to that level and be believed consistently, but if it does start to look like it’s going to happen, then it’s more likely to happen.

            The US system is in most States actively discriminatory against other parties, and in any single member district you’re likely to end up with two viable parties. As in one of the most important elections you have essentially the whole country as one district with one winner (the electoral college being, for this analysis, a detail of little relevence) you end up with entrenched two-party dynamics as any party that can’t effectively compete for the Presidency (and indeed each of the Governorships) is forced out and the smaller parties find it better to endorse candidates for larger parties (another weirdness that the rest of the world doesn’t quite get).

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Absolutely none. The way the Lib Dems’ support is thinly spread across the country, rather than in solid areas like the other main parties, along with the prevalence of tactical voting, means that the Lib Dems would actually have to get something like 60% of the vote to win even a tiny majority of seats. — a higher share of the vote than any party has ever won.
      You can tell just how badly the voting system is stacked against the Lib Dems (and even more stacked against smaller parties) by looking at the results last time:
      Tories — 36.1% of the vote, 306 seats
      Labour — 29%, 258 seats
      Lib Dems — 23%, 57 seats

      Given that the Lib Dems are currently polling around 14-17% (in the polls that are anything like accurate — YouGov has us as low as 8%, but YouGov are not particularly reliable) there’s simply no hope of a Lib Dem majority government at any time in the next decade (after that we may have a better voting system or some other major political upset).

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