I keep being told by Labour commentators and supporters that for the Lib Dems to do a deal with the Conservatives would be to walk away from the only chance of the electoral reform that the Lib Dems have always fought for. I keep being told that only Labour offers that chance.
I’m certainly not sanguine about what Cameron is likely to offer, but I am starting to wonder about the smoke and mirrors on the other side as well. Obviously, Labour has had thirteen years of vast parliamentary majorities to reform the system and restrained their eagerness, so we are right to be cynical about their late conversion.
But they could have blown all that doubt away – and put the Lib Dems in a tricky bind – if they had come out immediately after the election and very publicly made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. Brown gone, Citizens Convention, referendum on STV, open to generous negotiation on all other Lib Dem policies. Something so obviously better than what we’re likely to get out of Cameron that Clegg might be tempted to go against common sense, honour and democracy and seek an alliance of the two smaller parties against the larger one.
This would have been absolutely impossible on Friday, of course, when Clegg stuck to his word and allowed the party with the most votes to take the first shot at government. But there have been three days of talks with the Conservatives now, with amicable briefing on both sides; no-one can say Clegg hasn’t tried. If he’s not getting the results we want, the imperatives on him to stay in negotiations with Cameron shrink by the hour. I’m not sure Clegg would do it anyway – I suspect the democratic instinct is too strong. But it would be worth Labour having a try, wouldn’t it, if only to show him up?
So where’s the offer that could tip the balance? Why hasn’t it been on the table since Saturday morning, when Sunny first pointed out the need for Labour to give Clegg a proper incentive? Why are we still today hearing briefing noises about AV, for god’s sake, a system not even proportional and can sometimes be more disproportional than FPTP? What do all the Labour supporters who chanted “We want PR” in Smith Square on Saturday think of the fact that their party of choice hasn’t actually put down a firm commitment to it?
I doubt Labour wants a LibLab coalition at all. I don’t think they care enough about electoral reform to go after it – the majority of their MPs certainly don’t. Think about this from their tribal point of view. If we go into alliance with the Tories, we’ll be wiped out in the north, Wales and worst of all Scotland. Labour are looking at the prospect of winning back all the votes it has lost to us over the last ten years and laying claim to being the “only progressive party”. The only conceivable drawback to this plan for them is that it doesn’t involve electoral reform. And Labour’s MPs don’t, by and large, don’t care about electoral reform, or have the habit of listening to the grassroots that do.
Labour are doing what they, by design of Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, have always been best at doing: creating enough sound and fury to seem like they are mounting a passionate argument. But the substance is not there. The necessaries have never actually been done, and as things stand no real prospect of a LibLab deal has been created. So, if and when a Lib/Con deal is concluded, expect Labour to suddenly and smoothly slip into wounded innocent progressive gear.