Dear Mr Clegg, can I trust you? (The case for a hung parliament)

For immediate release, 6 April 2010

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE LEADER OF THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

Dear Mr Clegg,

Can I trust you?

The Prime Minister announced today that the General Election will take place on 6 May 2010. I now have four weeks to choose who to vote for – and it’s not as easy as I thought it would be.

Labour might be an option if they were offering a change in leadership. But I cannot in all good conscience vote back into power a man who has never received an electoral mandate for his position, and spent ten years putting the economy at immense risk before seeing it all collapse around him. The Conservatives would be my only logical choice then, but they really do just feel like more of the same. They sound as if they’re led by the results of a focus group rather than a clear plan to fix the country’s problems. Like millions of other middle class voters, I know this country is in a deep hole and that little changes here or there are not going to solve anything.

So, here is my problem. I want my vote to mean something and to make a difference to the future of this great nation. The Lib Dems seem to be my only hope. But I need to know that I can trust you.

Let’s be honest. You won’t win the election outright, and you’ll never be Prime Minister. I know you have to campaign as if you could win, but we all know you won’t. In this election, though, you could prevent the Conservatives from obtaining an ouright majority. A vote for you is probably a vote for a hung Parliament.

Now, before you protest, I happen to think that could be a really good thing. But I need to know I can trust you.

If we do get a hung Parliament after 6 May, I need to know that you will not think of yourself as a “king maker”. One of the problems right now is that MPs seem to have forgotten that they are in public service – in the “service of the public”. If you focus on your role as “king maker” to either Labour or the Tories, you will be in danger of acting as if Parliament itself were the end goal. You’ll never be Prime Minister, but you do have the opportunity to go down in history as one of the most extraordinary political leaders of all time. To do that, you need to do what other great leaders have all done in times of national crisis – put the country’s interests before your own; put the people’s interests before your party’s.

A hung Parliament in which the Lib Dems hold the balance of power will be able to do a number of things that a Conservative or Labour government could not. Assuming you form a coalition with the Conservatives, a hung Parliament would allow the Tories to break their election promises on government spending without losing face. We cannot solve the economic woes of Britain while ring fencing NHS (or any other public entity’s) spending. We are in a huge debt crisis, and it would be good to be treated as adults on this issue, especially during the next few weeks of campaigning. I will see how much I can trust you on this issue by what you say about debt and public spending whilst on the campaign trail. You will win my vote if you tell me the truth, and tell me that it must be fixed. Can I trust you to force whichever party you align with to do the right thing, and not just the expedient thing? Can I trust you to use your mandate to reduce public debt, slash public spending (including unecessary benefits), get rid of bureaucracy and set our country on a growth path again?

I know there are no magic wands and easy solutions. Believe me, the last few years have been tough on me and my family, and we know what it takes to cut back and aim to merely survive for a time. We also know the good feeling that comes from making it through those tough times – and knowing it is not mere illusion and that we haven’t mortgaged our children’s future to do so.

There is no doubt that Vince Cable is the most credible of all options for the role of Chancellor – I hope you would hold out for him to be appointed as such. His recent performance on the televised “Chancellor’s debate” showed he is head and shoulders above either of the other two candidates. He seems to have always been saying the right thing about the economy and would be a superb corrective to two decades of Mr Brown’s policies. I’d trust him with the economy. Can I trust you to make sure he gets the job, even at the expense of your role in the Cabinet?

I’d also like to trust you to get fully behind Mr Cameron if you do form a coalition. You could be tempted to continue petty politics and undermine him at every opportunity. But a much more important contribution to Britain, including restoring Britain’s lost international credibility, would be to support his policies (after taking a few weeks to hammer out some of the details that you would rightly be able to insist upon given your position in a hung Parliament). Can I trust you to support them as if we were a nation at war and needed a government of national unity?

I grew up in South Africa, and my first vote in a National Election was the historic vote in 1994 that saw Mr Mandela swept into power. Although he had an overwhelming majority at the polls, he nevertheless insisted on a government of national unity, focused on the task of nation building. The United Kingdom feels a lot more divided than it has ever been, and it is bruised too – in many ways. Can I trust you, Mr Clegg, to be part of the solution? Can I trust you to rise above politicking and put your country first? Can I trust you to make the best use of a hung Parliament?

I look forward to hearing from you in the next four weeks, and especially to see you in the televised debates. I have a feeling you’ll do very well in them, as the other two leaders try to say nothing much more than “we’re not them” as they jeer at each other. Please stand above this pettiness, and give us a vision of what it’s going to take to really fix this nation.

I want my vote to count on 6 May. I think you might be just what our country needs right now. As crazy as it sounds, a hung Parliament might be the best case scenario. But it’s a risky strategy, and I am nervous. Forgive me asking, Mr Clegg, but can I trust you?

Yours sincerely,

Dr Graeme Codrington
London, SW20

NOTE: This open letter may be freely re-used in any online or offline publication, provided it is accompanied by the following credit line – “Written by Graeme Codrington, founder of TomorrowToday Ltd, http://www.graemecodrington.com”.

13 thoughts on “Dear Mr Clegg, can I trust you? (The case for a hung parliament)”

  1. I am transferring two important comments and my replies from Facebook to here, so we can keep the conversations in one place.

    Jonathan Stone commented:

    I am not wishing to be pedant but do suspect facts would be important to you? So strictly speaking we never elect any anybody as Prime Minister (never have) so while you say “…vote back into power a man who has never been elected to his position” so what I suspect you mean is that he has never received an electoral mandate as leader of the Labour party in a General Election? While I am looking forward to the live TV debates, we must remember that we don’t strictly vote for a Prime Minister but an individual to represent us in the ‘house’ on the basis of their parties policies and the party winning the largest or majority of seats will be asked by the Queen to form a Government.

  2. Jonathan, it *IS* being pedantic :-). But since it is the British way to pounce on some pedantic point, make that “the big issue” and completely ignore everything else, I’ll sort it out immediately. Thanks for alerting me to this, and making sure I get my terminology spot on.

  3. Gavin Foster then commented:
    I completely disagree. Jonathan Stone is not being pedantic, and this is not just a matter of getting the terminology right. This letter is fundamentally misconceived and, I think, should be withdrawn. In our system you do not vote for a party leader, nor for a party – you vote for your local constituency MP. That is the only vote you get. Everything else is out of your hands. So if there are questions of trust to be asked, they should be asked of your local candidates. Articles like this re-enforce a superficial, unsophisticated “tabloid” view of politics and ignoring the real issues that our vote can actually influence. Why don’t you write to your local candidates instead? In an envelope?

  4. Gavin,

    This will probably be a long reply because there are multiple issues to address, and I don’t want to mix them all up.

    While you are technically correct, of course (and I am trying to be very careful knowing I am conversing with someone who has studied constitutional law at Oxford). However, the reality of the Westminster system is that the party leader becomes an embodiment as well as a mouthpiece for key policies that distinguish the parties. Your local candidate very often has to “tow the party line” in key votes and on key issues. So, you could (and probably should) take the time to contact your local candidates and ask appropriate questions. But the easier option – and the option the parties are relying on – is that you will just listen to the party leader.

    But it goes further than that.

    What does my local Tory candidate believe about funding the NHS? What does my local Lib Dem candidate believe about immigration policy? What does my local Labour candidate believe about the tax rates? Who cares really, because they have little to no say in these issues. The leader of the majority party will appoint the Cabinet, and the Cabinet will manage policies that impact at a national and international (and also local) level.

    Now, if we had proportional representation, that would make a difference, and mean your local candidate was very important and influential. But we don’t, so they’re not.

    So, constitutional law is one thing. The reality and pragmatics of politics is another. We know who the next PM will be (well, we know who the choices are). So, while technically we don’t vote for a PM, when we vote we know which PM we’re voting for. Important legal distinction – yes, of course (and especially if you’re writing an exam about it). But the reality is different. (It’s like the ludicrous semantics that mean that all the UK’s universities are free, “except for the fees they’re allowed to charge”. Seriously, according to the law and official government policy, university is free. Except everyone knows it isn’t.)

    BTW, I have sent this letter to Lib Dem HQ, as well as my local Lib Dem candidate’s office. As it happens, the Lib Dems are the only party who have ever come to my door, and whose candidate’s name I know without looking it up. But when I vote on 6 May, I won’t have my local candidate in mind. Maybe next election, I’ll have the luxury of being concerned about local issues and which local candidate will be the best for me in my constituency. But in 2010, the issues are big – they’re national, and the important issue is getting big policy decisions right (budget, public spending, infrastructure, Europe, immigration, trade, etc). When I vote on 6 May, I will definitely be thinking of which man I would like to be in charge, and I know my vote will influence that.

    Finally, the reason I won’t write to my local candidate on anything that needs an envelope is that it is the 21st century. In fact, I am going to be disappointed if the Lib Dems don’t find my letter by themselves, seeing as I have posted in on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and my blog. Any party that wants to get my vote should at least know how to use Google alerts to track what people are saying about them.

  5. Having said all that, Gavin, I’d be very interested in your thoughts on my central point. I think that a hung Parliament, where Vince Cable becomes Chancellor (or is hugely influential) and the Tories are able to go back on their election promises of ringfencing public spending without losing face, could be very good for the country. It is risky, and only possible with remarkably selfless leadership from Nick Clegg. What do you think?

  6. Today I received an email from Lib Dem HQ – they directed me to a piece written by Nick Clegg in which he sets out what they would do in the case of a hung Parliament. You can read it here: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6975890.ece

  7. On Monday, 19 April, it was reported that thw Lib Dems were polling at number 1, trailed by the Conservative and Labour. However, statisticians were warning that this would not result in an electoral win for them, as Labour are still likely to win more seats in Parliament (due to how constituencies are divided up).

    What this means is that Nick Clegg’s pledge to work with the party that obtained a mandate will be easy to side step. Conservatives will have more of the popular vote and Labour more seats. This presents an interesting possibility. Clegg has to think about whether Lib Dem voters would align better with the Tories or Labour. It might be that Labour is a better alliance partner. It might also be that he is in a position of power enough to force Labour to go into coalition, but to take the PM’s job himself. Labour don’t like Gordon Brown either, and they know the country would revolt if he got another term as leader. However, this would be the stuff of nightmares, and would confirm the worst fears of all voters – that Nick Clegg is just another power-hungry politician like all the rest of them.

    The reason is that a Tory opposition would never work with Clegg as PM. They will block him, and force another election as soon as they can, hoping that new Lib Dem voters would be so upset as to either vote Tory or not vote at all. Nothing would get done.

    But, as I said in the original piece, a Tory-Lib Dem alliance has the potential to do some remarkable things. One that I didn’t initially mention, but which should be high on the priority list of “things that a hung Parliament can do better than a majority Parliament” would be electoral reform. All three parties are agreed it should happen. A hung Parliament would be the ideal time to do it.

    This just gets more and more interesting, doesn’t it?

    After last week’s first televised debate, I wish I had been quick enough off the mark with printing and selling t-shirts with the caption: “I agree with Nick” on it. I wonder what will happen after this week’s debates?

  8. Conversations are continuing on my Facebook page about this post. Here is an extract from an interaction between Gavin Foster and myself:

    GAVIN:
    1. In my opinion, the smart money is on *not* getting a hung parliament – our system doesn’t produce them very often.
    2. When it (rarely) does happen, they are a disaster – our whole system is based on combative rather than collaborative government, so it’s no surprise when hung parliaments are a flop.
    3. I very much doubt a hung parliament could … See morebe good for the economy. Have you seen what the business community think of the idea? http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8644260.stm
    4. Even if 1-3 are wrong, and a hung parliament would be a marvellous idea, how am I meant to vote for one?!

    GRAEME RESPONDS:
    In terms of the hung Parliament, I am not sure who’s moeny you’d be betting, but the “smart money” is pointing very firmly in that direction.

    I think there were three hung Parliaments in the last 100 years. The last one was 30 years ago, and wasn’t a great success. But Scotland has had one for many years. So has Germany. So have many, many mature democracies. I think that’s the point of the electoral reform that many parties are hoping for. You’re probably right that the hung Parliament will not be brilliant, but it gives a brief window of opportunity for some significant things to happen, including electoral reform.

    How to vote for it? Obviously, you can’t. You’re right on that. But, simplistically, it means voting for the party who would hold the balance of power. The Tories are trying to sell the “horror” of a hung Parliament to get people to vote them into a clear majority. Assuming you don’t want Labour to have another term as the government, then vote Lib Dem…. See more

    Now, we wait for 6 May and see what happens. Are you enjoying the debates? Are you watching them?

    I had a chance to look at the BBC article you recommended Gavin. It was interesting to note that the survey was a poll of “300 businesses”. I checked further and it appears to have been done online. So, my guess is that this does not represent the considered views of the FTSE 100 CEOs…

  9. GAVIN REPLIED:
    1. Both Scotland and Germany have electoral systems which are forms of proportional representation (Additional Member System, to be precise). These are systems which naturally encourage coalition governments. Ours does not. Hence hung parliaments don’t work very well here.
    2. The Tories tell me if I vote Lib Dem I’ll get Labour. Labour tells me if … See moreI vote Lib Dem I’ll get Tory. You tell me to vote Lib Dem and I’ll get a hung parliament. Surely (to return to my first point) I’m actually voting for my local MP – hence no other theory of how I should vote really works. Which is why your original article was so flawed. And still is.
    3. You seem very dismissive of the research published by the BBC. While no doubt your “guess” carries a great deal of weight in some circles, I shall wait to see an actual report or poll of some kind (any kind!) to contradict it.

    GRAEME RESPONDED:
    Gavin, I am not sure why your tone is so antagonistic. I don’t see the need.

    I think that the country is gearing up to “send a message” to Westminster. Part of that message is that we need electoral reform. Voting for Lib Dem is one way to “send that message”. The fact that Labour could end up third in the popular vote and still have the most seats in Parliament is proof of the need for the reform. And if we get reform (which I am certain we will – a hung Parliament will allow a step away from “first past the post”, although not going fully Prop. Rep.), then a hung Parliament would have been worth it.

    We can now sit back and both wait to see the “only poll that counts”. 7 May is going to be interesting. Although, if I am right, we’ll have to wait a week or so longer before we know who our next government will be.

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