Leading article: Clegg must hold out for PR

Share
Related Topics

We all, sadly, feared it: that the Liberal Democrat surge in the opinion polls following the first leaders' television debate would dissipate, and, in the end, the slow puncture was more like a catastrophic blow-out.

No one could quite believe the exit poll published the moment voting ended on Thursday, yet, through a morning of peculiar, unpredictable results, it proved bang on the money. Nick Clegg had indeed been squeezed hard, and normal service resumed in an electoral system suited simply to two heavyweights slugging it out.

Except that, this time, the consequences are different. We have voted for a hung parliament. Despite his disappointments, that gives Mr Clegg a position of great significance. So, as he wrestles with the affections of David Cameron and Gordon Brown, and weighs up the national interest, a portentous abstraction repeated by all on Friday, what should he do?

We respect Mr Clegg's position that the Conservative Party leader deserves the first chance to woo him. The Tories polled two million votes more than Labour, and at 306 seats, nearly 50 ahead of Labour, Mr Cameron is pretty close to the 326-seat finishing line.

But is Mr Cameron's "big, open and comprehensive" offer outlined in his impressive manner really what it seems? There will be, he has said, no negotiating on the timing of cuts in public spending. Nor on renewing the Trident programme. Nor on the Tories' lamentable approach to our European partners – where's the national interest in that? Nor on immigration.

True, Mr Clegg might win the odd dog biscuit. More money for schools with disadvantaged pupils; a slightly more progressive approach to income tax; and they don't disagree on identity cards. But, as we argued last week, and as 1,000 demonstrators gathered in London's Smith Square yesterday to remind him, there is one issue above all others on which Mr Clegg needs to focus. That is the reform of an electoral system which required 119,000 votes to elect each Lib Dem MP, while the Tories needed 35,000 and each Labour MP a mere 33,000. It is an overwhelming injustice and an affront to democracy.

Unfortunately, Mr Clegg has sent out conflicting signals: that the lack of an offer of electoral reform was a block to a coalition deal, and then that it was not. Mr Cameron's offer of a talking shop is Roy Jenkins Lite. We've been there, and we know what the outcome will be.

Mr Brown, in his own dogged way, waits ready to pounce. He has already offered a not-necessarily-more-proportional system and on Friday he tried to spoil the two younger men's dalliance, with a hint that a more proportional system might be put to a referendum.

How keenly, then, we feel the loss of Alan Watkins, our veteran political commentator, who died yesterday and who used to write about the prospect of a hung parliament with such amused scepticism.

He would have explained why Mr Clegg might decide that either a formal deal or a "confidence and supply" arrangement with the Tories might be the best approach. And he would have mused lightly on the idea that Mr Clegg might prop up Gordon Brown – in a "coalition of losers" – and how it might come close to fomenting civil disturbance.

Mr Clegg may – and here is the rub – believe that to join with Mr Brown in those circumstances, and then to take his case for electoral reform to the electorate, in the teeth of a hostile press, would end in certain defeat, thereby consigning the cause to the dustbin for another 30 or 50 years. That is indeed a risk.

But remember this? "There is the chance to resettle things in a new way. It is very unusual and I don't want people to be bamboozled or bullied or frightened by the other parties into saying they cannot take a chance on big change this time." That is what Mr Clegg told this paper last week. "Let us not squander this once-in-a-generation chance."

They were stirring words, and apply today to the choice he faces. This may be the greatest gamble Mr Clegg will ever make – but it is a gamble that those on the progressive wing of British politics believe he cannot duck. Put Mr Cameron in No 10, formally or not, and the Lib Dems get a little bit of what they want, and maybe one or two of them will get a warmish glow. Bet the house on red (rather than on Mr Brown, who will surely stand down soon), and the Lib Dems get what they have wanted for generations: a chance to sweep away a corrupt and discredited system, and maybe, just maybe, win the greatest single change to our constitution in 100 years. We suggest the latter.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little