Political Journalists Really Don’t Know What They’re Talking About

When it comes to the Lib Dems, political journalists are utterly clueless, and this means that a lot of people have severe misunderstandings about the likely result of the election if there’s a hung parliament.

I *keep* seeing two subjects coming up, over and again, in these discussions. These are “a Tory/Lib Dem/UKIP/DUP block” and “Nick Clegg would prefer a deal with the Tories than with Labour”.

The first is impossible. The second doesn’t matter. And both for the same reason.

What political journalists on all sides simply don’t get about the Lib Dems is that no matter how much the leadership push the “centrism” message, the party is fundamentally different from Labour, UKIP, or the Tories, the right-authoritarian parties journalists are used to talking about. In those parties, the leader makes the decisions and that’s the end of the matter. The leader can be deposed, but otherwise what he says goes.

In this respect, the Lib Dems are hugely different. Party policy is decided by the party, democratically, and if there’s a deal with another party *that* has to be decided democratically, too.

If there’s a situation after the election where the Lib Dems may be able to make a deal with one or more other parties, there’s a process in place, it’s not just the leader’s whim. That process is as follows:

The party will talk with the largest other party first, but *will* talk with any other party that can reasonably make an offer.
There is a five-person negotiating team who will go into any discussions and try to hammer out an agreement.
That agreement will be put to the party’s MPs, who would have to agree with it.
It will then be put to the Federal Executive, the party’s elected ruling body, who would also have to agree with it.
And then it will be put to a special party conference, who would have to support it by a two-thirds majority. (And it was said at Spring Conference this year that this would apply even to a supply and confidence agreement, not just to coalitions).

Yes, Nick Clegg’s view (if he’s still the leader, which would depend on him being re-elected in Sheffield Hallam, the election going well enough that he doesn’t feel obliged to stand down, and other such matters that are for the electorate to decide) will certainly be listened to by the party — but so would the views of, for example, Andrew George, the long-time MP for St Ives, who’s ruled out a coalition with the Tories. So would the views of Tim Farron, the party’s former president who’s widely tipped as the next leader, who says he’d prefer supply and confidence to a coalition. And so would the views of party members throughout the country.

It may well be the case that Nick Clegg might have a preference for working with the Tories over working with Labour. It may also be that he’d actually prefer to work with Labour — he’s not said one way or the other. That preference, whether it exists or not, doesn’t really matter. What matters is what the other parties offer, and how much the Lib Dem party members trust them to deliver it. Last time, the coalition agreement contained a large number of things that were very important to Lib Dem members, but which the Tories later reneged on.

My feeling of the mood of the party, which may well be wrong, is that the membership as a whole don’t want another coalition — with either party — unless there’s an absolutely *spectacular* offer, and that between the Tories’ current position and their behaviour this Parliament, it’s very unlikely they’ll make one, or that we’d believe them if they did.

I think the party as a whole are most likely to go for supply and confidence rather than a coalition, and more likely to support a Labour minority government than a Conservative one, all else being equal.

One thing that will *never* happen, though, is an agreement involving the DUP or UKIP. The Lib Dems are a broad church, but what unites the entire party is liberalism on social issues — the rule of law, free movement, internationalism, human rights. These are anathema to extreme authoritarian parties like UKIP or the DUP, in a way they aren’t to at least the moderate end of the Tories or Labour, and there is simply no point at which those parties and the Lib Dems overlap in views (that’s even ignoring the fact that neither of those parties will get enough members to make a difference in forming a stable coalition).

An agreement involving the SNP is more likely, though still difficult. The SNP are nationalists, which causes natural suspicion in the Lib Dems, and there’s a lot of bad feeling between the two parties in Scotland in the wake of the referendum which might make a deal impossible on a pure personality level on both sides. Unlike UKIP or the DUP, though, there is a reasonable amount of policy overlap, including on several Lib Dem priorities, so it’s not completely impossible. I’d put the chances fairly low, though.

So if you read anything talking about a deal with UKIP or the DUP, you know the journalist is either clueless (and therefore not to be trusted on anything else in the article either…) or deliberately misrepresenting the facts. And if you read anything about Nick Clegg’s opinions, just think “that’s interesting. I wonder what the opinions of the other 45,454 Lib Dem members are?”

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8 Responses to Political Journalists Really Don’t Know What They’re Talking About

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Thanks, Andrew, very helpful as usual.

  2. TAD says:

    It’s easy to be principled and high-minded about things before the election, but after the election the Lib Dems may be confronted with a simple reality…….join an imperfekt coalition and get a seat at the table (swallowing your pride a bit in the process), or be prepared to wander around in the political wilderness for the next 6 years or so. After the election, reality tends to trump idealism.

  3. Pingback: » 2015 General Election Day 27: Cordon sanitaire ¦ What You Can Get Away With

  4. Well explained Andrew. Watched Nick Clegg on ITV’s The Agenda last night. I thought Nick did well, he looked quite relaxed and would not be forced to reveal another ‘red line’.

  5. whittso says:

    Helpful, thanks.

    However, it does seem to be newsworthy (albeit not deserving of the handwaving around ‘red lines) that Nick Clegg is making such clear comments (no arrangement with the SNP or UKIP, negotiate with the largest party first, only talk to others after those discussions have failed, it’s for other parties to call us, not for us to call them) that it can’t help but bias the negotiations & possible outcomes. These are pretty unequivocal statements, and I don’t see why he’s setting them out. (Probably because I’m not close enough to Lib Dem politics to understand I guess – I welcome any enlightenment?)

    It makes me think of three possibilities (not neccessarily exclusive of each other)
    – he’s trying to influence the outcome and given the lack of formal power you outline, he’s going public and going hard to sway discussions
    – he’s trying to create building up a good negotiating hand, by setting out objections to a labour/snp/lib dem deal which he knows there will be a lot of call for and he wants it to be visibly difficult so he can win policy compromises
    -he’s gaming scenarios – seeing that in the context of a ‘good’ lib dem result that means he can stay as leader for the Lib Dems the Tories would be the natural party to enter an arrangement, so he’s leaning that way, and in the context of a less good result he would stand down anyway and a successor would have more scope to take a different tack

    All of this is, of course, idle and baseless speculation. Fun though.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’m afraid that it could be any of the three you outline. Clegg keeps his cards very close to his chest, and in my experience trying to predict his motives is rather unproductive. I would hope it’s the second of your three possibilities.

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