What should the Liberal Democrats do in event of a hung Parliament?

For a long time, the thought of a hung Parliament was a promised land to Liberal Democrats. In as much as the party had a long-term strategy after the demise of Paddy Ashdown’s flirtations with Tony Blair (which brought some important successes but ended in failure) it was a Rennardism-based one of gradually building up strength in the House of Commons seat by seat.

The plan, rarely stated in public or written down, but a plan nonetheless was that the number of Lib Dem MPs would eventually be high enough to ensure a hung Parliament. At which point the party could secure major political reforms to the voting and political funding systems. Followed by a real chance of a Liberal Democrat-led government under the new rules.

Then came 2010.

For all the many lessons that can be learnt about how the 2010 hung Parliament was handled, the biggest is that there was no good way forward. Having such a disparate coalition of support meant that whatever the Lib Dems did, disaster beckoned. Perhaps disaster rather than catastrophe could have been secured at the next general election, but there was just too much irreconcilable between those who voted Lib Dem and really didn’t want a Labour Prime Minister and those who voted Lib Dem and really didn’t want a Conservative Prime Minister. Hence my long banging of the drum for a core votes strategy.

But even with such an approach, there is the question of what to do if a hung Parliament gets served up again.

How the 2017 general election was nearly far, far worse for the Liberal Democrats

The 2017 general election was not exactly a glorious episode for the Liberal Democrats. But it was nearly much worse. more

The party had a close escape in 2017. If you think that election result was disappointing, imagine what it would have been like with a few seats different and the Lib Dems having the choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn led parties. Winning a few more seats could have turned out far worse.

The approach taken in 2017 had been to try to avoid the question completely by ruling out any coalition option and so trying to minimise the usual debilitating distraction of so much of the party’s general election media coverage being taken up by the question. Tim Farron did manage to avoid that question dominating media coverage, though the dominance of questions about his theology made these old distractions seem rather attractive by contrast.

All of which leaves a question about what approach to take next time round.

Over to you… what would you do?

31 responses to “What should the Liberal Democrats do in event of a hung Parliament?”

  1. I think we should make a point of arguing that a hung parliament would be a good thing, then creating a set of policies to lead over a restricted time frame, (NHS&socialcare, housing, Brexit, Political&electoral reform, etc.) without which we can rightly argue that we shouldn’t cooperate. This changes the conversation towards us, and means if there’s a hung parliement, either another party can cooperate with us or they can go cooperate with eachother. If we get in, we can argue that, in say two and a half years time from then, using our points, to argue we need more, or we want a snap election, setting that time-frame in advance.

  2. I would not go into coalition with either. We would always be the whipping post for the larger party as proven by the last coalition. All good policies theirs all bad ours. Doesn’t matter what we say we will always be accused of being in bed and agreeing with them. Never again I say.

  3. No coalition. Support on individual policies but ONLY if there is a commitment staying in EU and to PR via STV to be implemented with 12 months and a new Election then held

  4. Under the current system which so heavily favours the two big parties, the ‘winning’ party with no overall majority is likely to fall short by only a small number of seats and will almost certainly outnumber a potential coalition partner by a large amount, which is what happened in 2010, and less obviously in 2017. For the smaller party therefore, coalition is a poisoned chalice; voters are not interested in parliamentary arithmetic, only in the failure of the smaller party to do what it promised in its manifesto.
    I was in favour of the 2010 coalition but I have since changed my mind. Unless we come out of an election with a substantial number of seats we only invite trouble by propping up a much larger party. What would count as substantial is for our strategists to decide, but if we don’t hit that number we should remain in opposition treating each government proposal on its merits and so sometimes voting the government, sometimes against.

  5. We have a clear list of solid demands that are unique Lib Dem policies, we publish it during the campaign. We stress though, that we really don’t expect a coalition because Labour nor the Tories would never go for our demands, it would betray their voters.
    I don’t think it’s unavoidable for the smaller party to come out on top in a coalition, we just have to push a narrative that portrays us as the ones making the demands.

  6. In 2017, Tim Farron did not totally rule out coalition, he specified electoral reform as an automatic precondition, as well as a change in political direction of both Labour and Conservatives. In the circumstances, both larger parties also rejected working with us.

    The 2010 coalition was accepted on the basis of promise of electoral reform under proposal from the Labour Party: in retrospect this was dumb beyond belief. The other major mistake was to neutralise too many Lib Dem MPs by involving them in government, this weakened the ability to object to decisions. Suppose there were double the number of Lib Dem MPs, this would be far too few for a partnership, the result would be cannibalisation (again).

    A no overall control parliament with a sizeable Liberal Democrat contingent is only likely post Brexit, in dire economic conditions created by the combined irresponsibility of both Conservatives and Labour: Lib Dems would be on a hiding for nothing.

    I would recommend the Party always say it is open for informal discussions with all parliamentary parties, that formal substantive talks would happen if there was a clear prospect of an agreement (in other words not to rule out cooperation ab initio).

    However in the likely conditions, after informal talks, I would expect a lot of urgency and pressure, but insufficient agreement. If the economic situation were as bad as I suppose it would be, the Liberal Democrat Party should then advocate that Labour and Conservatives work together to resolve the crisis, using information form informal talks to outline what a Con-Lab deal could look like. Incidentally in such circumstances, the Party would have to put aside past grievances and work closely with SNP MPs.

  7. Good question and one we need resolved before next election ( ie soon).

    Easy to say will decide issue by issue, plus we will be regularly putting Lib Dem policies up to try and win support for these in Parliament.

    This works politically pre and post polling day. If you vote Lib Dem you’ll only get a Lib Dem working on our priorities. Of course we’ll work with other parties where we agree.

    The differences from 2010 context are vast:
    – coalition experience has proved we can “do” government, and remain united. Therefore not joining a future coalition isn’t running scared of responsibility or capability.
    – Plus the other two parties are so extreme and politics so divided the “threat” of calling another GE is now remote, as we’re not in landslide territory for anyone.
    – A minority government for some years would not be impossible or unworkable, as no majority in Parliament for most of last 8 years.

    We therefore take the long route to convincing the public PR is a stable form of government, even if it produces coalition and/or minorities.

  8. Surely, whatever we may think of the DUP, they have shown us what is the right thing to do in terms of controlling the agenda while keeping your party relatively free from losing its core base of support.

    Not only has the DUP secured considerable funding for Northern Ireland without any formal coalition agreement, but whatever mistakes the Tories make, including the desperately dreadful ones on Brexit, the DUP comes out of it more or less squeaky clean.

    If only the Lib Dems in 2010 had stood to one side and eschewed a formal coalition agreement, they could have avoided the contamination of the student fees fiasco (which we now know to be costing the economy more than had they never been increased), but we could have played really hard ball on voting reform and held our nerve in threatening to remove support had it not been delivered in the form of real PR.

    The excuse was that the UK was in such desperate straits that it needed stable government, but with hindsight we can see that was not absolutely true and that multi party support would have been there for the most vital policies defending public finances, without going all the way down the worst of the Tory austerity road.

    • A fundamental difference between us and the DUP is the latter’s detatchment from mainland British politics. The DUP does not compete for votes with the Tories, so is shielded from what happened to us in 2015 when our former coalition partners took most of our seats. Also the DUP doesn’t care very much about most UK government policy, only the bits that affect Northern Ireland. So it could easily be bought off with a bung.

      Moreover, whereas our 2015 electoral catastrophe shows the danger of not having much of a core vote, the DUP vote is ultra-tribal. Can you imagine DUP voters switching to Sinn Féin, or even SDLP, because they were not satisfied with the deal the DUP got from the Tories?

      All in all, the DUP is fundamentally in a very safe place for doing deals with parties in need of a few extra votes. This is a luxury the Lib Dems would never have, whatever the circumstances. So any comparison between our Coalition and the Con-DUP deal is comparing apples and Oranges (pun intended).

  9. One of the issues for me was the apparant ‘cosiness’ – not just the Rose Garden, but throughout the Parliament. We need to ensure that some of the arcane ‘traditions’ of Governement and Parliament are thrown out. Whilst we may be working with another or more parties for the betterment of our residents Members from other groups are not ‘honorable friends’ more ‘honorable colleagues’. This would immediately differentiate on the news. I am also very uncreatin about ‘collective Cabinet responsibility’; this needs reworking – as has been the case in many local Government Cabinets

    I would agree that there are a number of ‘red lines’ that I thought there were but watered down, and agree with Frank that PR is a given – not any other alternative system either, with a weakly ‘led’ campaign in favour [actually turned out to be vigorous opposition], and I would argue for a second referendum rather than outright ‘staying in’ given the current state of play on the issue.

  10. No coalition with either main party. No confidence and supply deal either (unless cast iron commitment to implementation of STV).

    We provide total clarity on which key policies we will support (our policies) and which we will oppose. In that way we get some leverage where party policies overlap. Whether we oppose, abstain or support any confidence motion will depend on the policies being proposed by the minority part(ies) seeking to govern but with no longer term commitment. If the numbers are tight, a lot of attention will continue to be given to the LibDem policy positions.

    In the longer term, if we get PR, we will need to re-enter coalition politics to wield real power but that might be a generation off. Not next time.

  11. There were two huge problems with 2010.
    Student fees – enough said, even the ‘we can abstain’ position would have ended in disaster, as Tories would still have had the votes.
    5 year promise of government. If we had been able to get out of power on our terms after 3 years max, then our message could have been ‘economy stabilised but we won’t support all this other Tory nonsense’.
    Instead we went into 2014 Euros seen as the Tories lapdog and got slaughtered. We then didn’t have the guts to replace Clegg before 2015.
    Hope we have learned some lessons, its not the principle of coalition that’s the issue, it’s how you use the power provided.

  12. we need to turn the ‘who will you do a deal with’ question on its head, and say:
    1- if WE don’t get enough seats to form the next government then we will look to other MPs, across the house, to work with us to deliver OUR manifesto.
    2- we will fight for our manifesto and make that the agenda, we will not discuss theirs. Ours, as always, will stack-up, be cohesive, researched and financed; theirs will be, as usual, headline grabbing, dog-whistle, vote-buying and more lies.
    3- We will not be in any coalition with any other party, because just look what it did to us last time, when we did the right thing for the country but got shafted as a consequence.
    We have to rise above the cosy duopoly of the media’s two-party system and show that we have the courage and the promise to do something very different. We are nothing like the Conservatives or Labour; unlike them we believe in all the people of our country, not just the ones who vote for us or sponsor us; we believe in the EU and the UN, and we will make the UK leading players in both again, for the benefit of the UK and our position in the world.
    Any discussion with any other faction in parliament must be on the red-line basis of voting reform within a year. Both the two old parties are internal coalitions of so many different groups that they could never, in either case, coalesce to agree a deal with us, but some factions of both could…
    – though, in truth, many examples at Council level make clear that the Tory and Labour leaderships would rather do a deal with each other, just to keep us out of any power sharing option.

  13. No coalition. I am ex Conservative and joined the LibDems because I am attracted to what the party stands for. I believe that there are a lot more like me in Labour and Conservative who would follow. Don’t muddy the water have a clear message so voters know what they are voting for.
    If the next parliament is hung only do what is best for country on each issue and make sure everyone knows. The voter forgets very quickly the good and always remembers the bad because the media will continually remind them.

  14. It’s reasonable to assume Corbyn will lead Labour into the next election. May might or might not be Tory leader, but it’s always harder to sell a deal with the incumbent goverment, though for once it wouldn’t have lost its majority because it already doesn’t have one.

    It may be the polls or the attitude of the media will let us off the hook in the election campaign as they didn’t in 2010 or 2015, since there may be an expectation that the SNP rather than us will be kingmakers, despite likely SNP decline. But they may not and Mark has raised a very important question.

    I like the idea of setting out clearly at the start of the campaign a few flagship policies which would determine our actions if holding or sharing the balance. That throws the light on to policy issues and on to the policies we want to stress. So we’d better think hard about what they are.

    The problem about publicly taking a no coalition position, if we seem quite likely to hold the balance as we didn’t in 2017, is that British electors, English especially, fear weak government and despite local goverment experience, think a minority government will be weak and unstable (they haven’t really noticed we have a minority government right now and its weakness is nothing to do with its lack of a majority). I’d stick to insisting on talking about our red line policies and point out many discussions on options are fairly pointless until one knows the actual figures.

  15. Brexit is so important that we would need to deal with it irrespective of whether agreement can be reached on anything else. Therefore baseline should be People’s Vote with confidence and supply arrangement like the current one with the DUP just until the People’s Vote has taken place and no more, followed by another general election. If the other party wants more than that then the deal must include electoral reform (being open to discussion about the exact form that would take), otherwise no deal.

  16. I was against the coalition then and will be against a coalition now. We can vote issue by issue and retain our dignity and resist the temptation of power which so overwhelmed MPs at the time. No good will come of coalition.

  17. Only agree to co-operate with whichever party needs the LibDem support once proportional representation is on the statute books and the next election conducted on those rules…

  18. I think we have little choice than to take things as the electorate and our electoral system deliver them. If a coalition seems to be the sensible way forward then we should take it, learning lessons from our immediate past. We should point out that it is our electoral system that is the issue and that we will not commit ourselves to anything other than what is in our manifesto.

  19. Definitely no coalitions. LDems would Never live it down if they do it again, and it will decimate the party for decades. LDems will be blamed for everything the major parties do. Instead let the big parties tear themselves apart. Form alliances with the smaller parties. In that way you are free to support or attempt to block policies on an individual basis.

  20. It is a very good, question, Mark.

    Lets assume that Labour and the Tories are equal with 290-300 MPs including SNP in the Labour total and DUP in the Tory total. And lets assume the election takes place in the next 6 months.

    Our MPs would firstly have to answer one question in Parliament – do they have confidence in the incumbent – i.e. May. I think the answer would be no.

    The second question would be whether they have confidence in Labour/Corbyn? For me, the answer would be yes with 2 conditions:
    1. A whipped vote on a EU referendum and we would withdraw our confidence if it didn’t pass
    2. 20% of Government time to introduce our own bills as “Government Bills” – that is they could have financial implications and would get the parliamentary time that government bills get. They would be moved by our spokespeople but we would have to win parliamentary support for them and we wouldn’t have ministers.

    It would mean that Labour would have to secure a parliamentary majority including other parties – normally us – for their legislation. If we were introducing our own bills then we would need co-operation from Labour. So both parties would be mindful for the need for co-operation and supporting each others’ bills. Through out the time we would make it clear that if the Executive was not acting sensibly we would reserve our right to withdrawal our confidence.

    We could then campaign on our bills – may be doubling the pupil premium over the lifetime of a Parliament, Environment Bills, Reform of the House of Lords etc. Campaigning in the country on these things we would have a strong Lib Dem identity that is still influencing the country.

    We would act as guarantors against silliness and extremism in Corbyn’s Labour party which would appeal to soft Tories. We would support a sensible budget/finance bill. During the campaign we should answer this question clearly as above and then get back to talking to bread and butter issues – education, health etc.

    The first seats we have to win back are university type seats with a large student, youth and “concerned” middle class public sector vote. We should also say we back free university tuition (would we really vote against it if Corbyn proposed it?). This would enable us to squeeze the Labour vote and appeal to/reassure “soft Tories”. We could also list the first bills say 10 we would propose – I would have doubling the pupil premium and free school meals for all at the top which would switch the focus on bread and butter issues – not what would the Lib Dems do in a hung parliament.

  21. The problem with the Coalition was not going in to it, but the utter spinelessness of the Lib Dem Parliamentarians in it. On a number of topics they could have behaved with more integrity:

    Tuition fees – refuse to raise them from the £3k at which Labour had left them and accept the consequences.

    NHS Reforms – block Lansley’s reforms (which Cameron offered them the option to do).

    Public expenditure – insist on following Darling’s rate of reduction instead of Osborne’s.

    Electoral reform – insist on STV, and refuse to accept AV. They could have started by introducing STV for local elections.

    We probably would still have lost MPs, but even if we had gone back to the low 20s as prior to 1997, they would have been enough to block Tory EU referendum proposals.

    Politics is the art of the possible; Clegg and Alexander in particular seemed to have no understanding of this.

  22. No coalition, no Confidence & Supply. If Tory + DUP did not make a majority, then they should have had to rely on the tacit support of Labour Leavers, like their front bench and the Hoey-Field clique. Maybe they could have even formed a Grand Coalition. The Tory and Labour leaderships share support for Hard Brexit (but for different reasons). There is no way we could have had any influence over a loony-left or raving-right government with 12-20 MPs.

  23. In the current state of play I would argue that a Coalition could only work in our favour (and ultimately therefore in the country’s favour) where the Lib Dems are the largest party. Until then, the Lib Dems should only contribute through clear and transparent confidence and supply agreements, going from budget to budget, unless there is an overriding national imperative to form a more stable government (i.e. state of war).

    This might change in the event of a new, more moderate, centrist party becoming the largest party in the Commons, if that were to occur.

  24. Important question – and a good one and relevant.

    I think formal Coalition should be completely out of the question. We saw what happened last time. All the blame and none of the credit.

    I would suggest the weakest possible support – such as Confidence and Supply, in return for:
    1) support for SM+CU
    2) referendum on EU membership
    3) referendum on PR (using the same system as say Scottish or London Assembly or a named European nation e.g. Germany or Denmark). That way, it does not raise unknowns and you just point to (relatively) smooth running.

  25. We should rule out a coalition but in the event of a “hung” or “balanced” Parliament, if some stability is required then we could agree to a less formal Pact. That might be for a limited amount of time (e.g. 18 Months or two years) and require the other Party or Parties to agree to some of our policies. In retrospect, the Lib-Lab Pact of the 1970’s did deliver a few good outcomes, despite its difficulties. A new form of Pact could be beneficial if we are clear about what we want from it.

  26. To all those saying no coalition ever again I would simply ask how on earth do you see a stable government ever being formed in this country in the next decade or more that has any liberal content whatever?

    The problem we have (as others above have pointed out) is that we made a total mess of coalition last time. Too many in the party (quite understandably) are still in denial, clinging to the successes we did have whilst ignoring the bigger picture.

    We should never have accepted that a coalition includes cabinet responsibility. This made a nonsense of how our role in government was perceived. As someone said at the time, every time Cameron compromised he looked good, every time we compromised we looked bad. We totally shot ourselves in the foot financially by the loss of short money. And we got several key and iconic decisions totally wrong – tuition fees, NHS reform and bedroom tax being my top three. Many of us called for us to leave the coalition over one or more of these issues (mine was the NHS), and when the leadership failed to take a stand we called for the leader to go, and were pilloried for it within the party.

    Outside of the party, more importantly, the party’s role in coalition is now seen either as ‘traitors’ on the centre left or as ‘useful editors’ by the softer Tories, both constituencies we need to attract. I welcome much of what Vince is now saying about building a movement, but I fear we still have to be clearer about what that movement represents, and Borgen aside I don’t see “moderates” as a rallying point any more than “centrists”. And I really do feel we have to admit our failings in coalition and say we got it wrong, so that we can put behind us a lot of what has been said above.

    If we are not going to go into coalition, and we are clearly not going to win power on our own, why on earth should anyone vote for us? Which kind of explains our performance in 2017 and in the polls.

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