Hypothesis 1: Any meaningful electoral reform in the UK would effectively prevent the Tories from ever having an overall majority again. Because of this, the Tories, whatever overtures they may be giving Clegg at the moment, can never credibly commit to real electoral reform.
The Tories have been a minority party in UK politics for three-quarters of a century. That may seem odd, given that they’ve come out with an overall majority of MPs in nine elections since, but you have to go all the way back to Stanley Baldwin in 1931 to find the last leader of the Conservatives to lead the party to get over 50% of the votes in a general election*. Even in Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide, the Tories only managed 44% of the vote, but won a large majority of seats as the opposition vote was split between Labour and the SDP/Liberal Alliance. Winston Churchill, now considered one of the greatest Prime Ministers of all time, never even actually won an election on the popular vote. During his three elections as Tory leader, he managed to win a majority of MPs in just one, and even then with a slightly lower percentage of the national vote than Labour.
The Conservatives know all this, and David Cameron, a former student of politics, knows it as well as an of them. The history of the Conservative party since universal suffrage has been of a declining popular vote, mitigated only by the gradual split of the center-left between Labour and the Liberals. With the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, this had been good enough to secure frequent parliamentary majorities for the Tories, but under any even remotely proportional system their hopes for an overall majority would almost completely disappear. Their choices would either be eternal opposition, or a shift to the left for occasional coalition governments. Neither are particularly appealing to die-hard Tories.
Even if they do promise electoral reform, simple game theory shows that they would never deliver on that promise. If any move towards proportionality was actually passed, the Lib Dems would have an immediate incentive to vote down the government, precipitate a general election under the new system and reap the spoils of a big increase of seats, with the Tories losing out. Conversely, if the Tories continually delay or water-down electoral reform proposals, the only power the Lib Dems have over them is to trigger an election under FPTP, in which the Tories would have a very good chance of getting an overall majority. The choice for the Tories would be between a probable increase in seats under a FPTP election, or a definite, permanent decrease in seats under a proportional election. It would be naive to the point of stupidity to believe that they’d ever choose the latter, no matter what promises they may make in coalition negotiations.
Hypothesis 2: The benefits of electoral reform to the Liberal Democrats far outweigh any concessions the Tories may give in a coalition government.
The Lib Dems were the big story of the election campaign. After Clegg’s performance in the TV debates, they managed to leapfrog Labour into what looked like a secure second-place in a polls and, even with the electoral system stacked against them, pretty much every observer assumed they’d make big gains in terms of seats. On the day, these gains completely failed to materialise, as even though their vote went up slightly, they still managed to lose 5 seats. What happened? Well, in simple terms, soft Labour supporters deserted them for fear that they’d prop up a Tory government, and soft Tory supporters deserted them for fear they’d prop up a Labour government. Coupled with a vote distribution where they made big gains in seats where they didn’t have a chance, and losses in a lot of their marginal seats, it added up to a pretty disastrous result for the party.
However the party may have underperformed, though, they ended up in the immensely powerful position where it’s effectively impossible to form a majority government without them. This is probably the only chance they’re going to get for at least a generation to have a real impact in national politics, and they need to use it wisely. They effectively have two choices; form a coalition with the Conservatives and try to push through Lib Dem policies within government (with or without places at the Cabinet table), or shack up with Labour and focus on electoral reform.
As explained above, any coalition with the Tories can’t credibly include electoral reform, so the Lib Dems would have to focus on getting seats at Cabinet and/or notable policy victories. On the Cabinet, their best possible outcome is having Vince Cable appointed Chancellor, which would give them quite a bit of power, but taint the party’s national image as they’ll be associated with the big spending cuts and tax rises that the Chancellor will inevitably have to make. Without a seat at cabinet, they can gain certain promises of policy implementation, but backbench Tories will be unlikely to allow them too much influence outside of the areas where the Lib Dems and Tories already agree. Both scenarios have a similar issue with the credibility of Tory promises; the Tories’ best strategy is to wait a few months to a year and call another general election, with a good chance of winning an overall majority. They can simply keep delaying the Lib Dems’ policies until that point.
After a year or so in government with the Tories, the Lib Dems would be thrust back out into the political wilderness. A chunk of left-wing vote would immediately desert them following the coalition with the Tories, and with memories of the 2010 election, voters would be suspicious for a generation or more of the party’s ability to make any real gains in seats, no matter what the polls say. Whatever they may be able to achieve in government, it’s unlikely to be worth decades of political irrelevance.
Which leaves Labour.
Hypothesis 3: Labour are willing, and capable of implementing electoral reform with the Liberal Democrats.
Unlike the Tories, Labour have been making big signals in favour of electoral reform, both before, and especially since, the election. While they’ve failed to do so since coming to power in 1997, there’s good reason to believe they’re actually serious this time around. For one, while they would also be hugely unlikely to form a majority government themselves under a proportional system, they’re in general much happier with the idea of coalition government than the Tories are, as they consider the Lib Dems to be a fairly good fit in terms of a partner for a center-left government. The fact that the Tories would never have the chance to form a government alone again would certainly make reform that much more appealing to Labour back-benchers.
More importantly, a promise by Labour toward electoral reform would be completely credible from a Lib Dems point of view. Consider the number of seats such a coalition would have. Labour, plus the SDLP and Sylvia Hermon, who vote with them, have 262 seats, and the Lib Dems and Alliance have 58. With Sinn Fein abstentionism, they’ll need 323 seats for a majority, which means they’re two short, and will have to get either the SNP or Plaid Cymru on board for a tiny majority. Everyone involved would know that the government would be inherently unstable, and it’s precisely this instability which would give credibility to a Labour promise to electoral reform; the government couldn’t possibly hold itself together long enough to do anything else.
Labour and the Lib Dems could come to a simple agreement; form a new parliament, and almost immediately pass a single bill, calling a referendum on electoral reform. The coalition would only need to hold itself together for a single vote, which could be won with the support of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and likely the Greens’ new MP, all of whom stand to gain from a more proportional system. The only plausible reform that could be implemented would be Instant Run-off Voting, which was proposed by Gordon Brown before the election under the name ‘Alternative Vote’. Not only would it be supported by all parties involved, but by leaving the constituencies as they are it could be implemented much more quickly than any system that requires the creation of multi-seat constituencies.
IRV also has the benefit of being far more likely to pass in a referendum. It keeps the single-seat constituencies exactly as they are, and in the majority of cases, people’s MPs would be the same as elected under the old system. It also has the perhaps unexpected side-effect that the BNP and other extremist parties would actually be less likely to get a seat under it than under FPTP, assuaging common fears that proportional representation would open the gateways to a swathe of BNP MPs. The effects of the reform would probably be a sizable increase in Lib Dem seats, a small decrease in Labour seats and quite a large decrease in Tory seats, with perhaps a couple of extra seats for the regional parties.
With indications that Brown may be willing to step down as Labour leader as part of a deal, this scenario would also present the perfect opportunity to have a somewhat orderly leadership election in the party, which could happen during the weeks leading up to the referendum. A new Labour leader, elected maybe a few days after the referendum result, could then immediately ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament, precipitating a new election under the new rules. This new leader could then credibly lead a coalition government with the Lib Dems after the election, having removed the taint of Brown and receiving his/her own mandate.
Trying to form such a short term arrangement with Labour would undoubtedly be messy for the Lib Dems. It would leave Gordon Brown as PM, even if only for a few weeks. It would require the parties to run a referendum campaign (something they’re not used to in the UK), while at the same time preparing for a second general election in as many months. It may well irritate voters who don’t want to have to go to the polls two more times before they see a stable government. It will seem opportunist for the Lib Dems to push for an electoral reform referendum when the country is in a fiscal hole and needs a stable government. It will also be difficult for Clegg to rebuff the Tories after Cameron has (in public, at least) been portraying himself as very open to Lib Dem involvement in a Conservative-led government.
But, for all this, it’s still the Liberal Democrats’ best choice. This is their only chance in a generation to implement the sort of reform that they need to become a significant force in British politics. It would be easier, more expedient and politically safer in the short term to take Cameron’s offer and side with the Tories, but it would be a mistake, one which may well prevent the Liberal Democrats from ever getting the chance to serve in government again.
* Not only was this election the only time under universal suffrage that any party actually got a majority of the votes, but it would interest those Tories with an instinctive fear of coalition to know that, even though they had a huge majority of seats, the Tories still went into coalition following the election, serving under Ramsay MacDonald, former Labour PM, as Prime Minister.