Why a rainbow coalition falls short

Allister Heath
HOW chaotic – but how predictable. All those warnings about the consequences of a hung parliament, including in this newspaper, have turned out to be right, and spectacularly so. The Prime Minister’s resignation yesterday afternoon (though he could theoretically stick around until the Autumn) ought to have been the biggest, most important story – yet it was almost immediately overshadowed by its impact on the power play between the three parties. The Liberal Democrats spent all day putting themselves and their grannies up for sale, dangling the prospect of their support in return for as many concessions as possible on voting reform from both main parties. Yet only somebody who had been living on the moon these past few weeks would have found any of this to be truly surprising.

It is worth taking stock on Brown’s last ditch attempt to unite the left and change the voting system without a referendum. Ramming through a change in the voting system through Parliament, even if it were possible, would trigger outrage in the country. In practice, it would be virtually impossible for anybody to get the vote through: many Labour politicians would vote against a change to the first-past-the post system. Brown has promised something he cannot deliver – and the Lib Dems will eventually work this out.

Talk of a “progressive rainbow coalition” including Labour, the Lib Dems, the SDLP, the Welsh nationalists and the Scottish nationalists is flawed in other ways too. It is true that all the parties represented in Parliament are firmly left-wing in their policies, apart from the Tories and Northern Ireland’s DUP (to divide beliefs into “left” and “right” is problematic but will have to do for the time being). But this doesn’t mean that 62 per cent of the electorate is on the “left” – many back parties that don’t properly represent their views.

The reason I can write this with confidence are the findings of opinion polls as well as the British Social Attitudes Survey. The British are conservative on crime – a strong majority is way to the “right” even of the Tory party on that issue. On Europe, a big minority supports immediate withdrawal from the EU and the vast majority supports repatriating powers back to London, a policy that every government since the 1970s has rejected. There has been a hardening of attitudes towards welfare claimants and a greater acceptance of inequality.

On some issues, of course, the public is very much on the left (voters hate the City and would probably shut down many of the jobs held by readers of this newspapers, if they were given half the chance). Their is widespread support for the 50 per cent tax rate. Voters often hold ideologically inconsistent views and fuse nationalism, liberalism and socialism in all sorts of ways. But it is wrong to look at the votes of the parties and assume that conservative views are only held by Tory voters. In Scotland, many business people and supporters of lower taxes vote Scottish nationalist, even though that party rejects those policies. In England, many vote Liberal Democrat because they incorrectly perceive them to be centrist, because they hate the Tories (even though they may agree with many of their policies) or because they are voting tactically to defeat Labour candidates. There is no such thing as an obvious, overwhelming “progressive majority”; the sooner Brown and the Lib Dems work that one out the better for all our sakes.