16 September 2007

What did Brighton do to deserve all this?

First the TUC, now the LibDems... I'm beginning to think that the vengeful god of the Old Testament might actually exist and that he has it in for Brighton. I suppose once the seaside town disappears into the English Channel, he'll be after me fairly soon after, so before I get stuck inside a whale or something, I thought I'd take a look at the state of the latest plague to descend upon the place.

Anyway, the Liberal Democrats are in a poor position. They may cite the second places in Sedgefield and Ealing Southall as evidence of their strength, but it's not that long ago that they were taking equally unlikely first places in Brent East and Leicester South, so while they may claim an advance, in comparison to their position at the equivalent stage in the last electoral cycle, they are clearly weaker. Sir Menzies Campbell is continually the victim of various attacks by his own party's members made public, though the most recent one was one of the few where the critic's identity is also public (Lord Rodgers, in case you're wondering). Regardless of whether or not the critics have a point, the fact is that they are stuck with him until the Election. They deposed Charles Kennedy (though, in fairness, he should have quit sooner, of his own accord, to seek the help that he needed) only last year and an Election could be called at anytime (though I think the probability of an Autumn 2007 vote is receding, and it was never high to begin with). Yet common sense does not prevail and the critics do not let up, risking turning their dire predictions into a self-fulfilling prophecy: whatever Ming's faults, it is the criticism coming from his own side that will do the Liberal Democrats the most damage.

In many ways, the LibDems' prospects mirror those of the Scottish Greens' in the run-up to May: a LibDem group of 20 or fewer could wield more influence in a Hung Parliament than a LibDem group of 80 or more in one where either Labour or the Tories have a majority. This means that when support is needed, they will be turned to (which is a good thing for them as they could wield massive influence on the next Parliament, and punch above their weight). But it also means that their strength is not totally in their hands (which is a bad thing). Labour's victory and the Tories' victory both depend on one factor: their ability to secure the right number of seats. For the LibDems to wield influence to get something to happen, they need to make sure that neither party makes it, but that the total number of seats won by the LibDems (and only the LibDems, not the SNP/Plaid or any of the Northern Irish parties) and one of the two main parties yields a parliamentary majority. It is a very specific set of circumstances.

And even if they come about, would they take advantage of them? Recent evidence suggests that they wouldn't: in Scotland, LibDem MSPs took the huff completely, refusing to negotiate with anyone. The result is a minority government, which has (and, this week aside, has managed) to seek support from any of the other parties to get things through, while Nicol Stephen finds himself having to get his agenda published from the third slot at FMQs. This is not easy, with Labour and the Tories getting in before him.

In Wales, the LibDems had two clear choices: support Labour, or join a 'Rainbow' Coalition with Plaid and the Tories. Neither happened, mainly because of LibDem dithering, leading to an 'on again/off again' relationship in both set of negotiations. In the end, Labour and Plaid managed to secure a deal, so the LibDems went home, empty handed, with no place in Government, a weak position in Opposition (behind the Tories) and no serious way of influencing events.

However, in Westminster it's different: Gordon Brown has managed to poach LibDem peers as policy advisers, behind Campbell's back. Campbell himself set down tests that Brown would have to meet to get LibDem support (no such dialogue with the Tories). This is a dangerous strategy. By dismissing David Cameron out of hand, and setting tests for Gordon Brown, he risks alienating a lot of support. First, it looks like a clear position that the LibDems' preferred negotiating partner is Labour, thus burning their bridges if a Tory/LibDem Coalition were the only viable two-party alignment, and in a situation where LibDem support could put either Brown or David Cameron into Downing Street, Labour would have the LibDems over a barrel, as successful negotiations with the Tories would be nigh-on impossible. Second, before that, the Election would get in the way of things: only Labour supporters tactically voting LibDem would stick with them. Tory supporters voting LibDem tactically in Labour areas would return to their first choice, costing LibDems current seats and possible gains, particularly in the cities. Former Tory supporters who switched to the LibDems at some point from 1992 onwards would be tempted to switch back, not wanting to vote for a Labour government. This would hit them in the South of England. Leftist(ish) former Labour supporters who switched to the party at some point from 2003 onwards would resist propping up the party they used to (but feel they can no longer) support, and would either look for an alternative where available, or not vote at all.

In short, the LibDems are in trouble: they've burnt their bridges in Scotland and Wales; they need a Hung Parliament (an outcome they can't force) to have any prospects of influence after the Westminster election; they've inadvertantly shackled themselves to Labour in any case; they've gone from celebrating surprise wins to cheering second places; they don't seem to like their leader, but they're stuck with him.

Oh dear.


Mike Grumbles said...

Good post and the childish, foot-stomping actions of the Lib Dems in Scotland are now being picked up by their members in England as shown here:

'The way in which the Lib Dems choose whether to support referenda or not is certainly something that I find confusing. We could have had a radical coalition in Scotland with the SNP, introducing the Local Income Tax, opposing the replacement of Trident and introducing radical Green taxes.'

'All that was thrown away because the party did not want a referendum on Scottish independence, which we were told would create uncertainty that would damage the Scottish economy. Now we are told that we support a referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU. What effect on the uncertainty of the outcome would that have on the economy?'

'Quite a bit more I would have thought!'

Ted Harvey said...

Hmmm… my first effort at posting this didn’t get through, second go:

You’re dead right about humiliation for Andy Kerr. But there again this unispiring player will stay the course won’t he, because he will just wait around to fill dead men’s shoes; or rather a dead woman’s shoes.

Wendy cannot ‘replicate SNP positions’ because she has neither the accorded power or discretion to do so.

Good for Scottish politics to see Jackie Baillie back into the mainstream. She was a highly competent junior Minister who retained her ‘street cred’ but was a victim of Jack McConnell’s squalid wee exiting of the far-too-clever-wimmen in the-then Executive.

Not so good to see Margaret Curran still there – she played no admirable role in stepping over the Cabinet corpse of Jackie who was her previous boss. Margaret who seemingly delights in the title ‘Baileston Banshee’ was no worthy replacement and managed to exit herself before the collapse of Third Part Right of Appeal in the Planning Process.

Charlie Gordon, who despised Holyrood with a vengeance when he was Glasgow Council Leader - now on the way up by transport? You can only laugh.

Good riddance to Hugh Henry after his recent performance, and rant, in the Parliament.

Malcom Chisholm is a decent enough guy, but he will just resign again over something worthy and opportune.

And surely there is some justice after all in Patricia Ferguson losing out – she was the most philistine, uncaring and inappropriate Culture Minster you could drum up.Linda Fabioni looks great in comparison; and all she has done is some high profile visits to arts venues and actually engaged with some of the players in the sector.

As for Paul Martin – Wendy would do well to keep an eye on him. Some say he comes from an ancient old-Labour-new-Labour-now-what-do-you-want family dynasty and from an ancient Old Labour Glasgow rotten pocket borough. Some say these folks come from a long way back and will go a long way around to get what they want.

As for Johann Lamont keeping Communities. Why? She was clearly uncomfortable and not a performer as a junior Minister at it.

And as for… oh just forget them…