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Sunday, February 06, 2005


Serious about power

Is anyone in the Liberal Democrats thinking seriously about the possibility of a hung parliament?

debate was sparked off today on the Political Betting website by an article in today's Independent on Sunday by Alan Watkins - one of the very few pundits who entertains the idea.

A comfortable Labour majority remains the likeliest outcome, as predicted by
Peter Kellner in today's Sunday Times. But a hung parliament is not so far fetched.

If you want to delve into the number-crunching, look at the Political Betting site. The politics of such a situation is more interesting. The Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power - how would they handle it?

First, Charles Kennedy is right not to keep banging on about hung parliaments. If David Steel or Paddy Ashdown were still in charge, the issue would have been turned into a major plank in the Liberal Democrat platform. Far better that, instead of perpetually raising the issue of pacts and deals, the party campaigns on its own merits and talks openly about a hung parliament only when it happens.

Second, the Liberal Democrats are far better equipped in terms of negotiating skills. In David Steel's day, making concessions ahead of negotiations was portrayed as realism and a sign that one was "serious about power". There is less danger of that with
Andrew Stunell MP, the party's leading expert in NOC councils, as chief whip, or with the experience of the Scottish and Welsh coalitions.

Conrad Russell, having spoken to many of the Liberal Democrat councillors with experience of deals, once noted,

"It is absolutely fatal to attempt to negotiate by appeasement. You cannot persuade people to do things for you merely by being nice to them. If you do what they want without real hard concessions in return, they lose all incentive to give you anything you want. Never trade hard substance for a promise: it destroys any incentive to keep a promise when it is made."
Third, however, the Liberal Democrats need to decide what they would want to get out of such negotiations. Some of the party's younger MPs seem so hungry for power that there is a risk of accepting a deal at any price just to get bums on the back seats of ministerial Daimlers.

Conrad Russell again:

"The trouble with wanting anything at any price is, that is the price you will end up paying. The other trouble is that if you want something at any price, you will probably not get it at all."

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