Nick Clegg’s party (and the Lib Dems are more of a party than their two larger rivals) have possibly to make two crucial decisions if they hold the balance of power after our obsolete electoral system has delivered its arbitrary results after 6 May. Anything one says now is of course speculative, but so be it!
The first decision is straightforward. The more some pedants talk about the convention that the Queen is bound to invite the incumbent Prime Minister to form a government as though it places Gordon Brown in pole position, the more they mislead themselves and the public. First, the convention violates democratic principle.
The Queen should go first to the leader of the largest party in terms of votes. Of more practical weight, as Ted Heath discovered in 1974, is that the real decision lies in political realities and in the House of Commons. Even if Brown, as the possible leader of a parliamentary party with more seats in the chamber even on a minority vote, should decide to form a minority government, he would still have to command a majority and the other parties could bring him down. More to the point, the public would rise in revulsion.
That said, it seems to me that Clegg would have more scope than being bound to some level of backing for a Cameron-led government with the largest vote-share if he cannot secure a reasonable deal with Cameron. There would then be a strong case for a progressive alliance with Labour, shorn of Brown and Mandelson, with the prospect of electoral reform in the grasp of his party. After all, between them, they would have a larger electoral mandate than a go-it-alone Conservative administration bound to economic policies that both parties oppose.
The second decision should be equally straightforward. The Lib Dems should insist on giving the public the choice of proportional representation for elections to Parliament at a referendum on electoral reform. Anything less would be an outrage. Brown’s phoney proposal for a choice between two majoritarian systems is an abuse of power. It is also a baited trap. The Lib Dems would benefit greatly from the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV), as Brown well knows. AV would replace the two-party system and embed a three-party system, guaranteeing the Lib Dems a permanent place in our politics and potentially creating a semi-permanent “progressive coalition”.
But it would also block the possibility of pluralist democracy in this country. It would perpetuate many of the worst features of the current political system, continuing the semi-permanent occupation of “safe seats” and the complacent and self-serving nature of the bulk of MPs who need fear no real challenge. It would at a stroke end Clegg’s claim to represent real change to the way British politics are conducted.