Getting what you really, really want

I'm not going to criticize the LibDems for going into coalition with the Tories. Negotiating an agreement between parties is not only the normal way of forming a government in a democracy in which no party gets 50% of the vote, it is the right way.

But the secret of any negotiation is to make sure you get what is really important to you. You need to strip out the inessential and concentrate on the essential. If you can find agreement on other things, fine. That's icing on the cake. But there's no point in getting the icing without getting the cake.


I'd invite people to think back three years to the Assembly election in 2007. Plaid were in a very similar position then to that in which the LibDems have found themselves in the last week. We had the choice between dealing with one party or a combination of other parties. Either way we would be in government. The choice was ours to make.

We dealt with the Tories and LibDems first, and came up with what I thought was a very good programme for government. But the one thing that we wanted above anything else was a referendum to give the Senedd primary lawmaking powers; and the only way of getting that was to agree a deal with Labour, because getting the referendum required a two-thirds majority in the Senedd. Everything else could be achieved by the simple majority that a coalition with the Tories and LibDems would have given us ... but Labour could effectively veto the referendum.

Going into the 2007 election, it was clear that Labour had no intention of holding that referendum any time in the foreseeable future. Back then, Peter Hain was talking about it taking a generation, others were saying at least ten years. The chances of getting them to agree to a referendum—and to campaign for a Yes vote in it as well—seemed to be about zero.

But we did it. We knew the basic instinct of a party like Labour is to be in power rather than in opposition.


Now look at the LibDems. The LibDems have always said that they think a fair voting system is fundamental. Yet it is now clear that they had not kept the demand for the Single Transferable Vote as an option in a referendum on electoral reform on the negotiating table. At some stage, perhaps during their negotiations with the Tories, or perhaps before they even went into the first meeting, they decided that they would only press for a referendum which included the Alternative Vote option. But having abandoned STV, they still pressed on with a whole host of other issues.

Then, when they walked away from the negotiations to talk to Labour, the Tories were able to shout after them to come back, saying they would now give the LibDems exactly what they had asked for with regard to electoral reform. The Tories did not say, "Come back and we'll meet you half way by including AV but not STV in a referendum."

Now I can't guess at what the response would have been if the LibDems had stuck to their core principles. Perhaps they might have responded by saying, "OK, a step in the right direction is better than nothing" and we would be where we are now. But at least they would have had the option of saying, "No, if you accept it's right that the people should decide about the voting system in a referendum, then why shouldn't that referendum include both options?" In my opinion the Tories would have agreed to that: first, because the big thing was to concede the principle of a referendum and second, because—just as with Labour in 2007—the basic instinct of a party like the Tories is to be in power rather than in opposition.


Only a week or so ago I, like others, urged people who would normally vote Plaid to vote LibDem in seats where they stood the best chance of beating one of the two main parties. I did that for the sole reason that the LibDems, if given the opportunity, would put a more proportional voting system at the centre of their negotiations if they held the balance of power. They have betrayed the confidence I had in them.

They should have stood firm on what they believed in and let the Tories try and govern as a minority rather than compromise their core principle. As I said in other posts, the other parties did have enough votes to get a referendum thorough either as a short term alliance with that one aim, or in opposition. Then, after a referendum, we would elect a new parliament in which the numbers of seats better reflected the number of people who voted for each party.

But, by tying themselves to the Tories, the LibDems will now not be able to break ranks. Yes, there will be a referendum where we will be asked to choose between FPTP and AV only. I am sure that either Plaid, the SNP or the Greens will put forward an amendment while the referendum bill is being debated to include an option on STV. But it will be voted down, and we will then witness the ultimate tragedy of the LibDems voting against STV, simply because they have bound themselves to an agreement with the Tories that does not allow for it.

And it will be a tragedy not only for them, but for democracy itself since, as I noted here, the vast majority of the public—62% to 13%—had supported the LibDems in wanting to see STV used for elections to Westminster.


Of course, when this referendum comes I will vote for AV, because I think it is a step in the right direction. But it contains no element of proportionality, and so in the next Westminster election one or other of the usual two parties will almost certainly get yet another artificially inflated majority of seats despite getting only a minority of the vote, and the LibDems will be unceremoniously dumped. The knife-edge result we just had was a once in a generation opportunity that they failed to take. They have sacrificed not only a fair electoral system, but their own future as well, in return for the promise of five of their politicians having a seat at the Cabinet table for five years.

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Anonymous said...

Take Back Parliament are organizing two demonstrations in Cardiff, the first on Saturday, May 15 and the second on Saturday, June 19.
I sincerely hope that the people of Wales will gather there to show their support for a fairer voting system.
For more information visit

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