Comment: The red lines that could change Britain forever

The parties’ red lines when it comes to coalition negotiations are becoming increasingly clear – and they could change Britain forever.

By Ian Dunt

British politics is now akin to playing battleships. Each development prompts a fresh set of assumptions and calculations. Each has to be interpreted despite a total lack of knowledge of the internal debates the parties are having.

Last weekend, Nick Clegg’s violent attack on Gordon Brown in a weekend paper led to a concrete realisation: he wouldn’t work in a Brown-led coalition. Working on the assumption that the Lib Dems would rather enter government with Labour, that means the Lib Dems would insist on Brown’s replacement as one of their red lines. Most of them would prefer David Miliband in the role. If current rumours in Westminster are anything to go by, Peter Mandelson would then become foreign secretary, Paddy Ashdown would become defence secretary, Alistair Darling would stay at the Treasury and Vince Cable would become business secretary.

But this calculation was based on the idea that the Tories would not negotiate on electoral reform. There is good reason for this assumption. Britain votes centre-left. Under PR, Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and Plaid would be far more likely to work together than with the Tories, and the party could be permanently in opposition. This calculation explains why the party is always so dead-set against the idea far better than apparently constitutional discussions on the importance of the constituency link.

But this morning’s interviews change everything. David Cameron’s refusal to rule out negotiations on electoral reform in an interview with the Observer means the Lib Dem-Tory negotiations are not over before they begin. This, admittedly cautious start opens the door for negotiations. The Tories have other red lines, namely that spending cuts begin this financial year, and it is still uncertain whether the Lib Dems would tolerate such a thing. But certainly their cooperation is now far more likely.

Voters’ intentions remain clear. Despite Tory warnings about the ramification of a hung parliament, the public seem undeterred. It may help that economic research shows there is little to fear here, and that the markets are reacting calmly to the Lib Dem surge. If Tory predictions of economic disaster were true, we would have seen far more panic from the financial markets over the last couple of weeks.

Pundits say that it is impossible for the public to strategically vote for a hung parliament en masse. This is untrue and potentially irrelevant.

For a start the British are already adept at strategic voting. To secure a hung parliament, each voter would have follow a fairly basic three-step pattern. One, wherever any party that is not Labour or the Conservatives threaten a Labour or Conservative seat, they should vote for that party. Second, in the top 30 Tory target seats against Labour they should vote Tory so Labour loses its majority. Third, in Tory target seats against Labour below the top 30, they should vote Labour, to deny the Tories a majority.

This level of calculation is not beyond the capabilities of the British public. But even if it were, a hung parliament looks set to emerge simply as a side effect of the public’s hatred of Labour and distrust of the Conservatives.

But this may all be irrelevant, because for the first time ever in a British general election, the popular vote may be about to mean something. Usually, runners up win nothing, so the fact the Lib Dem or Conservative level of popular support is far higher than their actual number of seats is a subject considered only by political pundits and a handful of reform activists. But the discrepancy between the democratic will and the result is now front-page news. It is being discussed endlessly by analysts, newscasters, politicians and the public. So while the popular vote still technically means nothing, it has a new-found political meaning which could hugely impact on what happens next.

Britain’s constitutional arrangements govern how things play out in the event of a hung parliament, but the truth is that events will take place at the behest of political momentum at the time. Clegg knows this, which is why his strategy is so emphatically reliant on the results of the election. He originally said he would support the party with the most votes and seats. Now that it appears Labour could receive the least votes and the most seats, he is explicitly saying he would not tolerate Labour remaining in Downing Street under that scenario.

This concentration on the way the popular vote translates into seats means a strong level of popular support for the Lib Dems plays into Clegg’s negotiating hand regardless of how many seats it translates into. It would highlight even further the deficiency of the present system. More importantly, in the murky world of a hung parliament, where media pressure, political momentum and public sentiment play far larger roles than they ever have before, it would give the Lib Dems a far stronger negotiating position.

Everyday we get closer to a vote which could change Britain forever. Suddenly great matters of constitutional importance are on the table, and the result is as unpredictable as it has been in a generation. This is turning into one of the most exciting and important general election campaigns in modern British history.

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