Both Tories and Lib Dems will only have themselves to blame if lack of an electoral pact lets SNP in, writes Allan Massie
Pollsters and commentators are agreed on one thing: neither the Conservatives nor Labour will be able to form a majority government in the next parliament.
Pollsters and commentators may be wrong, of course. Opinion may swing one way or another in the next weeks. Nevertheless, they may well be right, and their assumption is in line with the long-term trend which has seen the either/or two-party dominance wither. Between them Labour and the Conservatives now get around two-thirds of the votes cast in general elections.
One consequence is that, even if the quirks of the outdated first-past-the post system should happen to give either of them a parliamentary majority, that majority will not accurately reflect public opinion. You would have a single-party government that a majority of the electorate didn’t vote for.
Such a government may have power, but not authority.
Of course, nobody votes for a coalition, or at least few people do. One might have thought Liberal Democrat voters an exception to this rule. After all, everyone knew in 2010 that there would be no Liberal Democrat majority. Everyone knew that the Liberal Democrat leaders were hoping for a hung parliament. That duly arrived. It was clear that the Conservatives hadn’t won the election, equally clear, however, that the incumbent Labour government had lost it. So, after a good deal of discussion, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition was formed. Whereupon, almost immediately, support for the Liberal Democrats fell away sharply. One wonders what those who voted for them in 2010 thought they were voting for.
Against expectation, the coalition has lasted for a full parliament. Despite occasional differences of opinion, the two parties have worked well together. They have delivered stable government. The United Kingdom has made a faster and fuller recovery from the financial crash of 2008 than any other European country, even Germany. Some important reforms have been effected. The economy is growing, employment at a record high, and unemployment falling. Thanks to the Liberal Democrats, many of the low-paid no longer pay income tax and others have seen their tax bill reduced. The most impressive thing has been the way in which the members of the so-called Quartet – David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander – have worked together in the formulation and execution of economic and fiscal policy.
In short, the coalition has been on the whole a success, and we have reason to be grateful to the leaders of both parties. Yet now they go into the election in opposition to each other, even though the two most probable outcomes are either a minority Labour government supported by the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, or a renewal of the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition.
One might have thought that this second possibility would have led to some form of electoral pact or informal agreement between the two parties, for this would surely have made a second coalition more likely.
There is no such pact, however, for two reasons. First, many in the Tory parliamentary party have disliked and resented the coalition. Some hope still for a Tory majority. Some would like to see the Tories running a minority government. A handful would rather come to an agreement with Ukip than with the Liberal Democrats. As for the Lib Dems, the old Liberal Party’s experience of coalition with the Tories has alerted them to the danger of being swallowed up bit by bit by their partner. That was what happened to Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists in the early years of the 20th century. It was the fate of that section of the Liberal Party which joined the National Government in the 1930s. So the Liberal Democrats’ wariness is understandable.
Nevertheless an agreement which would have seen Tories stepping aside in some Lib-Dem seats, Lib Dems doing likewise in some Tory ones would have made sense.
It would have made particular sense here in Scotland where the two parties are in danger of being squeezed by the SNP in constituencies where Labour is all but irrelevant. The Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats are Unionist parties whose immediate interest and first aim is, and should be, to check and defeat the SNP. This being so, it is foolish to divide the anti-Nationalist vote. There are constituencies where Unionists outnumber Nationalists by two to one, but in which a vote split between the Tories and the Lib Dems may allow the SNP to come through and win by a short head.
What makes the situation more irritating from a Unionist point of view is that there is probably very little that Ruth Davidson and leading Lib Dems like Alistair Carmichael, Michael Moore and Willie Rennie couldn’t agree on. All of them, I assume, would agree that if, as seems likely, there is another hung parliament, the best outcome would be a renewal of the coalition. It seems obvious, therefore, that there are several constituencies where one of the two parties should have stepped aside to give the other a free run. If the SNP should win a handful of seats in rural Scotland with say, just over 30 per cent of the vote, while between them the Tories and the Lib Dems have 55-60 per cent, the folly of failing to come to such an agreement will be undeniable.
Since the party leaders haven’t come to such an agreement, Scottish Tory and Scottish Liberal Democrat voters will have to use their own judgment. They have two interests in this election. The first is to defeat the SNP by voting for whichever candidate seems better-placed to win in their constituency. Failing to do this risks letting the SNP candidate win on a minority vote. Their second interest is that the next UK government should again be a Tory/Lib-Dem coalition. This is particularly the case for the Scottish Tories. A single-party Tory government would have insufficient electoral support here to possess any true authority; a Tory/Lib-Dem coalition would again represent a sizeable body of Scottish opinion.
Although the SNP has dishonestly persisted in representing the present coalition as a Tory government, which it hasn’t been, it’s worth remembering that in 2010 the combined Tory and Lib Dem vote in Scotland was bigger than the SNP one. The apparent seepage of Labour votes to the SNP makes it unlikely that this will be the case again. Nevertheless, the sum of votes cast for the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats will still be substantial.
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