Set out below – without the accompaniment of editorial comment for the moment – is the full text of an email we received today from Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, in response to our letter (see ’Lib Dems, please do the right thing for British democracy’, 8 May). We welcome your comments on this communication.
Thank you very much for your e-mail. I am very grateful to you for contacting me and understand entirely your concerns about the fast moving events of this past week.
In this reply I will try to set out what happened and why, explain my position and hope to persuade you at least to understand the logic of the decision taken by my colleagues and by me. Of course, I realise there will need to be further conversations and explanations and I have already started holding meetings locally to deal with people’s concerns and worries. I know that I and other colleagues are also very keen to meet with people outside our own areas and where there is no current Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. I hope you will also look at my website or our party’s website
regularly for more up to date information.
The events of last week
Everybody now knows the result of the general election. With one constituency left (which is voting at the end of this month), the Conservatives won 306 seats and 36% support among those voting; Labour won 258 seats with 29% of voters backing them, and Liberal Democrats won 57 seats with 23% electoral support. Other parties and independents won 28 seats with 12 % of support. Nick Clegg had made a commitment during the election campaign, perfectly correctly in my view, that if no party gained a majority of seats in the election we should talk first to the party which had the strongest public mandate. In this election, both in terms of seats and votes, this was clearly the Conservative Party.
On Saturday last all the Liberal Democrat MPs and our party governing body (the Federal Executive) confirmed that we wanted our negotiators to talk first to the Conservative Party to see how much of our manifesto and election priorities they would agree for implementation if we made an agreement with them. Good progress was made in the talks on Sunday and Monday and surprisingly large numbers of concessions were made by the Conservatives. In particular, the Conservatives accepted that all four of our major election priorities could form part of a Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition programme.
Liberal Democrat political priorities
The four political priorities for Liberal Democrats are all aimed at achieving a fairer Britain.
1. FAIR TAXES, putting money back in the pockets of those on low and medium incomes – taking everybody with an income of under £10,000 out of tax altogether and with the burden transferred to very high earners and those living in very valuable homes.
2. A FAIR FUTURE, creating jobs by making Britain greener – by breaking up the banks and getting them to lend again to protect real businesses, being honest about the tough choices needed to cut the deficit, and green growth and investment in jobs that last, specifically in the construction and energy industries and by investing in infrastructure.
3. A FAIR CHANCE FOR EVERY CHILD – with a programme of £2.5 billion to make sure children get the individual attention they need and by reducing class sizes for 5, 6 and 7 year olds and supporting all youngsters as they begin school.
4. A FAIR DEAL by cleaning up politics – giving the public the right to sack corrupt MPs, restoring and protecting civil liberties with a Freedom Bill, and completely reforming the political process at Westminster be fair votes, an elected second chamber and all politicians paying full British taxes.
The events of this week
Over the weekend Labour indicated they would also be willing to talk to us about forming an alternative progressive coalition. I believed strongly that we should do this and our party agreed on Monday that we should also open talks with Labour. These began on Monday evening and immediately after the cabinet meeting when Gordon Brown announced that he would stand down later this year as Labour leader and Prime Minister. The first meeting with Labour was not encouraging. Labour negotiators were unwilling to move on any of the issues where we had different views on major areas of policy. For example, they wouldn’t accept that a third runway at Heathrow should not go ahead; they were unwilling to abandon identity cards; they insisted on keeping nuclear power, and perhaps most importantly, they were unwilling to consider any further progress towards a fair voting system in the House of Commons. Indeed they made clear that they couldn’t guarantee that all Labour MPs would even vote for a referendum on the Alternative Vote.
On Tuesday Liberal Democrats met to consider reports from our negotiators on their talks with the Conservatives and Labour. It was clear that the Conservatives were still willing to move further and faster in our direction than Labour. It was also becoming more and more obvious that the numbers necessary to secure a regular majority for a joint Labour/Liberal Democrat programme were not going to be guaranteed.
The combined votes of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats currently add up to 363; the combined votes of Labour and Liberal Democrats add up to 315. A majority of all the seats in parliament needs 326; taking away the five Sinn Fein MPs who do not traditionally take up their seats, it would be necessary to have 324 to be sure of a majority. Although the combination of the votes of the other parties (Democratic Unionists, SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Social Democratic and the single Alliance Party, Green and Independent MPs) would provide a total which gave a majority if they all voted with all Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, more and more Labour MPs were going public in the media saying that they would not vote for a referendum on the new voting system and calling on Labour to go into opposition. By Tuesday afternoon it was clear that Labour negotiators were unable or unwilling or both to reach a secure coalition deal on behalf of Labour with my party.
A last round of negotiations was therefore begun with the Conservatives. The results were reported back to me and all the Liberal Democrat members of parliament and our federal executive late on Tuesday night. By this time Gordon Brown had decided that he could not put together a majority government and had resigned as Prime Minister. He advised the Queen to ask David Cameron to form a government and Mr Cameron accepted.
There were then two options left for me and my colleagues. We could leave the Conservatives to govern the country as a minority government or enter into an agreement to share government with them. In many ways not being associated with the Conservatives would have been an easier option, and one more natural given our very different political traditions. But Britain is suffering its greatest economic crisis since the second World War; nobody thinks that a government which might last only for a matter of months would provide secure and stable government; nobody thinks it would be good to risk having a second general election this year; and the result of allowing the Conservatives to form a minority government would be quite simply that we would have unqualified and unaltered Conservative Party policies for the whole of the government’s term.
One last factor influenced my decision and persuaded me and my colleagues that leaving the Conservatives to form a minority government was a bad idea. The electorate decided last week that it did not have confidence in any single party as the government of this country. People would expect all MPs to be responsible in these circumstances. The logic of wanting a fair voting system would be that there might quite often be parliaments without a single party with a majority. Basically, the public expect grown up parties to work together in the national interest when necessary, whatever our natural preferences or instincts.
The final proposals negotiated with the Conservatives went much further than any of us could ever have expected. Each of our four major priority areas were agreed – with only one exception. The exception was that the Conservatives would not support an immediate move to a referendum on a fully fair voting system. They would however support a referendum on the Alternative Vote (where people express their preference for candidates rather than just putting one single cross) – which is definitely a step in the right direction. They also, very importantly, added a commitment that the bill to introduce this referendum would have a three line whipped vote as a categorical Conservative Party commitment, and that there would be funding restrictions on the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns in the referendum so that there could be the fairest possible process of decision. Conservative MPs, like everybody else, will of course be able to campaign for or against a move to AV if they wish to do so.
There were many other policy areas where Conservatives moved towards us – on green issues, on a fairer tax system, on restoring civil liberties and on re-establishing very urgently the link between pensions and earnings. For the full document setting out the agreement please look at my website or the party’s website. This document has also been published in many newspapers and online.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, and after two and ¾ hours of internal questioning, clarification and debate, Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament and our executive voted on whether to enter into a coalition for a fixed term of five years. The Members of Parliament were unanimously in favour, the Federal Executive had only one person voting against. As you know, the coalition government was then announced on Wednesday morning.
All my adult life I have been on the progressive left or centre left of British politics. I have been a Liberal and Liberal Democrat party member since the age of 19 and never been a member of any other party. I have had shared a passion and commitment for a more equal society and social justice at home and abroad with many people on the left and centre left of British politics. I have always been concerned that Conservatives first look after their own, and have presided over widening inequalities and not a more just society. It came, therefore, as a great surprise to discover this week that when, for the first time since 1974, there was a need for parties to work together to produce a majority government for this country, the Conservatives were more willing to move to our agenda than Labour were, and that Labour were less willing or able to make a full commitment now to a more modern and representative political system, to taking poor people outof tax, or to restoring civil liberties than the Conservatives. I had therefore to make a decision as to which alternative government would most deliver the things I have spent my adult political life campaigning and fighting for. Against all my expectations, the hard facts of yesterday made an agreement with the Conservatives the best way forward for the people I represent here in Southwark, for the people who are our party members and supporters, and in our national interest. Of course, the proof will lie not in who is in government but in what they do. But for me and for this community the decision we have made means that I have five years with my colleagues to be able to determine the direction of Britain and deliver many of the things I know my constituents and many others have wanted passionately for many years.
I completely appreciate that until the details of the arrangement were published most people would quite rightly imagine that there could be no reasonable or progressive agreement between us and the Conservative party. I completely understand that many people would have wished that we could have reached agreement with Labour. I wished that too, but through no fault of my party and as a result of the numbers of MPs elected for each party by you and the rest of the British public, a centre left coalition became impossible. I am encouraged that now that the coalition agreement has been published many people understand better and are more persuaded that we took the best course in all the circumstances. Obviously not everything in the agreement is perfect or what I would ideally have wished for. But politics is the art of the possible. If a Liberal Democrat majority had been elected we could have implemented our whole programme. But at least in the present arrangement we have the chance of being in government to implement much of our programme over the next 5 years. My job is to make sure that we deliver on our promises.
I can assure you that the Liberal Democrats are and will always remain an entirely independent proud and distinct party and political force. We will continue as the most democratic party of the three main parties to make our own policy and to feed that into government at all levels in Britain. We will take on the Conservatives and Labour and offer a progressive alternative to both of them just as we have always done, in elections and by elections at every level starting this very month in national and local by elections in London, Yorkshire and elsewhere. This agreement is for one parliament only. The next election, all being well, will be held on the alternative vote system, and Liberal Democrats will go to the country with a programme for completing the change to fully fair votes in the following parliament. Our greatest party ambition is to be in government on our own, and we will therefore fight the next general election to win as many seats from all the other parties as possible.
I hope that you will understand both the events of the last few days and the reasons for my decision, and that you will be generous enough to reflect on them and on what you read and hear elsewhere. Please judge me and us not on your initial reaction and without seeing the full details of the agreement. More importantly please judge me and us on what happens in the weeks and months ahead.
My website and my party’s website will be the best places for up to date information. There will also be public occasions to discuss all these issues – of which decent notice will of course be given. Detailed questions will I hope be answered either by the coalition agreement already published or by the additional documents which will be published over the days ahead. I apologise for the length of my reply, but I wanted to do you the courtesy of a full reply, written by me personally, which I hope you have found helpful.
My priorities are a fairer Britain, a fairer London and a fairer Southwark. I will work flat out to achieve this in every week of the years ahead.