10 May 2010

The Magic Roundabout

This seems to sum up the state of politics at the moment. The Prime Minister - for that is what he is, remember - has announced that he is continuing merely in a caretaker capacity regardless of the outcome of coalition talks. He has announced his resignation of the Leadership of the Labour Party. However long it takes to find a new Leader, it's clear that whatever happens, the UK will have a new Prime Minister in time for the Conference season.

It's clear that, just as Con-LibDem talks have inevitably reached impasse at discussions of electoral reform, Lab-LibDem talks weren't going to seriously get off the ground if the successful outcome of such negotiations kept Gordon Brown in Downing Street. Brown has come to the same conclusion as others in his party did months, even years ago: that he is the primary barrier to continued office for the Labour Party. There will, I suspect, be more than a handful of defeated former MPs who wish that this epiphany had visited their Leader a year ago.

But still, we are where we are, and the outgoing Prime Minister (as he now is) produced a statement that was measured and dignified. I've noticed that it's often the closing moments of a Leader's tenure that brings out their best. Perhaps it's the feeling of freedom that comes with knowing that no matter what they do, the outcome is pre-determined. No one wants to breathe down your neck when you're heading for the exit. Perhaps it's the reverse, the sense that this is their last chance to make an impact. Go out with a bang. Leave them wanting more.

In any case, there appear to be four permutations of Government.

The first is the combination for which we've been bracing ourselves for the past couple of days, until the events of the past few hours blew it out of the water - the Tory-LibDem Coalition. This would (in England, at least) come with the perceived legitimacy of involving the first-placed party. But then, it smacks of a traditional first-past-the-post approach to politics: why would the LibDems support the Tories just because they're first? It would, however, be the only pairing (save a highly improbable Grand Coalition) with a majority in the Commons: 362 seats. The problem, however, is that although the maths favour this arrangement, the relations between the parties do not. It's clear that on electoral reform alone, it's been a massive stretch just to get the Tories to propose a referendum on Alternative Vote - which is still not far enough for LibDem tastes. Besides, this isn't like the Lab-LibDem Coalition in Scotland from 1999 to 2007. In that case, Labour's primary challengers in most of its constituency contests were the SNP. For the LibDems, they faced off against the Tories in their main battles. There were few Labour/LibDem contests. This time, there were a wave of battles where the Tories and LibDems were locked in combat. These contests were dotted all around Britain, but they were concentrated in the West Country and along the South Coast. Did, for example, LibDem voters in Wells just eject a sitting Tory MP to see their successful candidate support a Tory Government? I doubt it. And of course, many Tories will be horrified that the LibDems were flirting with Labour while dating the Tories. Whatever trust, whatever rapport, has been built up over the past week has surely been eroded. While expedient, this combination would not be stable and would not contain natural bedfellows.

Then there's the alternative, the First Past the Post approach: a Tory minority Government. It would be ideologically pure, and neither the Tories nor the LibDems would need to debase themselves too much in negotiations. At least, not this week. But the Tories only have 305 seats and they need 326. And while LibDems would have influence, it's questionable how well they'd be able to implement their policies from the Opposition benches - membership of a Coalition would surely get the chance to make some progress... wouldn't it? This is the dilemma the LibDems face.

But there's perhaps another way: a Labour-LibDem Coalition. The two parties are undoubtedly closer: they have clashed on matters such as civil liberties, foreign affairs and defence but the crazy thing is that most Labour supporters probably favour the LibDem approach in the first place! And on the main point of contention - electoral reform - Labour's starting point is the Tories' final offer: the referendum on AV. The party could go further (though Coalition Whips could do to lock Tom Harris in a cupboard somewhere). The scope is there. But Clegg has effectively determined who is (or at lest, who is not) Leader of the Labour Party. That ain't right: members of political parties announce who they want to lead rival parties as a joke (e.g. Labour MSPs supporting Dorothy-Grace Elder as SNP Leader, SNP Members wanting George Foulkes to lead Labour, and so on). But it's not great for the LibDems either: the person in charge when they negotiate isn't the person who'll be in charge four months down the line. And they don't know who that person is. Who will they be working with? They don't know. That ain't good. Besides, Labour and the LibDems only have 315 seats - also short of a majority. Even if you factor in the SDLP and Alliance, that comes to only 319. It's not ideal and it won't get the majority needed.

To get that, you need the so-called 'Progressive Alliance', as floated by Alex Salmond. Assume that 319 seats are in the bag: add the SNP and Plaid and you get 328. And it's certainly in the interest of the two parties to back a Lab-LibDem Coalition. At least, it's in the interest of the SNP to do so: if after 13 years in Government the Labour vote share in Scotland can increase by more than the Tory vote, then when forced to choose which side they're on, the SNP have only one way to go and this is it. Caroline Lucas would almost certainly prefer this to the alternative. So would Sylvia Hermon. Even the DUP would see this as preferable to a Tory Government given the likelihood that Northern Ireland could be on the wrong end of particularly hefty budget cuts, but on the other hand, there have been talks between the Tories, UUP and DUP before now and with both Peter Robinson and Sir Reg Empey having a bad night on Thursday, the path is clear for new leaders who might make the first tentative steps towards Unionist unity. Given UCUNF's poor showing, however, what links such a movement would have with the Conservatives is unclear. Whatever happens, the votes for such an alliance are there, but the amount of negotiation involved would make it unwieldy. It surely wouldn't last very long: it wouldn't take much for one part of the grouping to get pissed off and trigger its downfall. Then there's the principle: if you argue that the Tories don't have a mandate to govern Scotland and Wales on the grounds that they didn't come first there (there's that FPTP politics again), you have to accept that Labour don't have a mandate to govern in England. Then there's the sight of a wave of parties who have spent the last 13 years opposing the Labour Government jumping on board to support it, particularly when the Labour Party is sufficiently weak that its Leader announces his intention to resign four days after polling day. It seems... off, somehow.

So we have four options, all of which have strengths and weaknesses. It's going to be a while before this gets sorted out, and we know who's in charge - at least for the Spring. But by Parliamentary standards, it's not going to be long at all before we do this all over again.

And that's another calculation: 18 months in opposition for Labour could see them back in Government if the Tories struggle on. An 18 month Progressive Alliance could end up ushering in another 18 years of Tory Government at the end. Whatever the parties decide now, they should surely understand that what plans they make for this Parliament will impact on the course of the next one.

But then, under the circumstances, perhaps we should be grateful that one leader at least is looking as far ahead as this year's Party Conferences.

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