POLITICS

Liberal Democrats Prefer Coalition With Labour, As Clegg Outlines Differences With Tories

15/09/2013 09:17 BST | Updated 15/09/2013 10:46 BST
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Liberal Democrats prefer a coalition with Labour, rather than their current bedfellows in the Conservative Party, according to two new polls of councillors and activists.

But Nick Clegg and other senior Lib Dems cautioned against showing a preference, with the leader telling the BBC's the party will go into 2015 saying "let us finish the job, but finish the job fairly".

The Deputy Prime Minister told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show that there have so far been no discussions with Tories about whether the two parties will continue their coalition in the event of a hung Parliament, and declined to say whether he would prefer a partnership with Conservatives or Labour, insisting that the decision would depend on the precise outcome of the poll.

In his speech on Saturday evening, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the party was shielding the country from the Tories most ambitious cuts, and highlighted the differences between the the two parties.

He told a rally of activists on the first night of the conference: "I want you to join me in getting back out there and telling everyone this: we are the party of fairness; we are the party of freedom; and, yes, we are the party of jobs."

He denounced "bizarre" Tory ideas about employment rights and said only the Lib Dems could speak credibly about creating and defending jobs, while Business Secretary Vince Cable spoke of "tensions" with Conservative ministers over climate change and Energy Secretary Ed Davey said he was in "constant battles" over wind power generation.

"It is my genuine belief that if we go back to the bad old days, not of coalition or balanced politics, but of either the left or the right dominating government on their own, you will get a recovery which is neither fair nor sustainable," Clegg told the BBC.

"I think Labour would wreck the recovery, and under the Conservatives - who don't have the same commitment to fairness which we do - you would get the wrong kind of recovery."

Asked if he was "leaning towards" the Tories, Clegg said: "Far from it, I don't want to see the wrong kind of recovery. I don't want to see the kind of recovery where under the Conservatives they would risk our exit from the European single market, jeopardising millions of jobs, they would resuscitate some of these ideas that we've blocked in government like giving employers the right to fire anyone at will.

"I don't think they would care as much as we do about boosting manufacturing and other parts of the economy, not just financial services.

"I think there would be a real danger, particularly with a small Conservative majority, that they would pursue ideological cuts rather than the pragmatic approach to deficit reduction we have taken in this coalition."

Some Lib Dems, including former Treasury spokesman and serial Clegg critic Lord Oakeshott, have urged the party to ditch the alliance with the Tories "sixth months to a year" before going to the polls.

However former leader Paddy Ashdown told HuffPost UK that was a "completely crazy idea", adding "I don’t know any Lib Dems whom I have respect for who are proposing such a thing."

"First of all you are at the wheel of a ship that is passing through the storm. You can’t say 'excuse me, I want to hop off' - it's the craziest idea I have heard in my life.

"We will we be judged on how well we governed. We will carry this through right through to polling day. I am pretty confident it will be judged in our favour."

He added: "You have to go until the close of polls and then be judged on how you have done."

Ashdown, who will lead the party's election campaign in 2015, put the coalition's success rate at "70-75% of what I expected" and praised Clegg as an "outstanding political figure" who he was "devoted to".

But party sources said Clegg wanted the Lib Dems to be bold in claiming credit, in the 20 months remaining before the 2015 election, not only for what they have achieved in government but also for what they have prevented the Conservatives from doing.

The second day of the conference saw education minister David Laws launch government guidance designed to make school uniforms more affordable for parents, while Davey was announcing cash incentives for windfarm developers in the Scottish islands.

Though the new polls show activists on the ground prefer a deal with Labour if there is a hung parliament in 2015, senior Lib Dems refuse to be drawn on which party they would prefer to forge a coalition with if there is no clear winner in 2015.

Ashdown, who opposed the pact with the Tories in 2010, admitted he was "wrong" about that and suggested that - although their hearts are "on the centre-left" - a second coalition with Conservatives would be acceptable to the party.

He told The Observer: "Instinctively, I hate both of them. When you ask me to choose between Labour or Tories, it's like asking me whether I'd rather be run over by a train or a bus.

"Wherever our hearts lie - everybody knows where that is, it's on the centre-left - the reality is that we do business in the national interest with those who the electorate have asked us to do business with."

And employment minister Jo Swinson told the Independent on Sunday: "I’m perhaps not the most tribal of politicians.

"Working in a mature and adult way where you recognise what your shared goal is - that is not something which I think would be particularly more difficult with Labour than it is with the Conservatives."

The Independent on Sunday published a poll conducted by the website Liberal Democrat Voice, which found that 39% of activists questioned would prefer a Lib Dem-Labour coalition after 2015, compared with just 15% who favour another coalition with the Conservatives.

A further 15% of those questioned said that, in the event of a hung parliament, Clegg's party should forge a "confidence and supply" agreement with Labour, under which Lib Dems would not enter coalition but would undertake not to bring down the minority government or vote against its Budget. Just 6% wanted an arrangement of this kind with Tories.

Meanwhile, a ComRes poll for BBC2's Sunday Politics found that 38% of Lib Dem councillors would support an alliance with Labour, with 16% favouring a repeat of the deal with the Conservatives. But almost a quarter (23%) said the party should not form another coalition.

Some 38% of councillors backed Cable as their preferred candidate to replace Clegg if he quit as party leader, with party president Tim Farron on 27% and Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander on 10%.

Clegg faces a possible clash with activists on Monday, when he will take the unusual step of speaking in the debate on economic policy against a centre-left proposal to ditch the Government's austerity plans.

Meanwhile, the flagship Lib Dem policy of a "mansion tax" on residential properties worth more than £2 million came under attack from the economist ex-wife of former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne.

Vicky Pryce told the Mail on Sunday: 'It is a tax that is set at an arbitrary level with no economic justification for that level or the rate imposed... It is a myth that there is a magic source of income available from taxing houses."

Lord Adonis - a member of the Labour team who negotiated with the Lib Dems over a possible pact in 2010 - gave a scathing assessment of the Lib Dems' performance in coalition.

He wrote in The Observer: "Clegg made a series of serious misjudgments which are costing the country (and his party) dear.

"He has given David Cameron a large majority in return for little more than the power to apply an occasional brake - a power he would have possessed more strongly had the Tories formed a minority government. For the Lib Dems, it has been an exercise in irrelevance. For the country, it has yielded years of austerity economics for which they never voted."

  • Liberal Democrat Voice interviewed 696 Lib Dem members online between September 11 and 13. ComRes interviewed 580 out of 2,576 Lib Dem councillors in England and Wales by online survey between August 22 and September 6.