08 May 2010

Memo to LibDems: RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!

This started life as a comment on Caron's post about her attitude to a Con-LD Coalition, and her preference for no deal and a minority Government. I have to say that if I were a LibDem, I would agree with her.

Firstly, it's political suicide. It's my observation that the party probably views Labour as its preferred partner, if it has one. That's certainly been the case when it's had to choose between the SNP and Labour, and I'd be very surprised if it were not the case in the UK context where the choice is between the Tories and Labour. To see their party ally itself with the Conservatives would be a sore one for many supporters, I suspect.

Moreover, my feeling is that many of the converts to the LibDems over the last decade went there because they saw the party as one (or both) of two things: a viable, progressive alternative to Labour (so left-leaning voters), and a change that wasn't the Conservative party (people who might not like Labour anymore, but can't stomach the Tories). Neither of these groups would be overly chuffed if the LibDems joined a David Cameron Government. By my reckoning, that could call anything up to one fifth of the LibDem vote into question.

But they might put up with it, right? Don't bank on it. Because for the LibDems, there is now a ticking time-bomb on the green benches, and her name is Caroline Lucas. The SNP know all too well that one Green MSP in 1999 led to seven in 2003 (and indeed, that one SSP MSP in 1999 led to six in 2003). And indeed, what marked the start of the SNP's advance to the mainstream of Scottish politics? Winnie Ewing's win in Hamilton in 1967, augmented by Donald Stewart, the first SNP MP elected in a General Election in 1970. That was the sign that the SNP had 'made it' and provided the foothold for Margo MacDonald's win in Glasgow Govan in 1973, then the election of seven MPs going up to eleven in 1974. As the SNP gained its foothold four decades ago, so the Greens have their foothold now. If the LibDems start looking right, the left-leaning voters, and the ones who want a real change and wish to 'break the mould' as the saying went, might, in their eyes, have a new, credible destination should they feel that the LibDems, in dealing with the Tories, no longer offer what they expected. In short, it's a big political risk.

And I advise LibDems rationalising that a Coalition with the Tories is less bad than the alternative - to whit, a Tory minority Government with DUP support - that this has only 313 seats (doubtless 314 after the Thirsk & Malton By-Election). That's still short of a majority (with the Speaker not usually voting, but backing the Government in a tie, and with Sinn Fein boycotting the chamber, the required number is 322). The SNP have, sensing that anyone who touches the Tories will be severely punished at the ballot box in next year's Holyrood election, ruled out any deal with the Conservatives and have proposed a progressive alliance which basically encapsulates everyone else. Plaid, on the other hand, have not ruled out a Tory deal, but their three seats take the Tories only up to 316-7. Sylvia Hermon ruled out working with the Tories, and Carolne Lucas won't fancy the idea either. Even if they did, that would still be 318-9. The Tories need the LibDems for a majority. End of.

But more importantly, what about the principle? And this was the basis of the comment I would have left for Caron. By accepting the 'national interest' line of these talks, the LibDems are in real danger of accepting the Cameron-Osborne premise that 'strong government' is the answer. I see three flaws with this.

A Coalition is not necessarily a 'strong' government. Obviously, there's always the possibility of backbench rebellions in two parties, but more than that, in the rush to chew over the state of the Commons, we are all overlooking the current state of the Lords: out of 707 members of the Upper House, 186 are Tories and 72 are LibDems. That makes a total of 258, putting a Coalition some 96 seats short of a majority unless David Cameron and Nick Clegg agree to create a lot of peerages. That means we still have a minority Government in one House and I'm not sure how the Salisbury Convention would stand up to a Coalition agreement. Budgets won't be a problem but every other piece of legislation would be at risk. It would get on the statute books eventually, but would require the use of the Parliament Act so delaying the passage of any controversial legislation by a year. As a consensus-based, issue-by-issue approach is going to be needed in the Lords whatever happens, so it may as well be the default option for the Commons.

And even if the Coalition is 'strong', is it a 'strong' government that's best, or a stable one? The reason Coalitions worked in Scotland, the reason the One Wales Government looks to be capable of reaching the end of its term next year, the reason they work so well in Germany, is that the Parliamentary term is fixed so the Government can set out a clear, detailed, four-year (or however long) work programme, and where there is an impasse, the parties get that they have a clear mandate to respect and either a mid-term change of government or early election seems improper unless (as in Germany in 2005 when the SPD-Green Coalition lost its majority in the Bundesrat) there is no viable way forward. As elections can be called (or not called) on Prime Ministerial whim in the UK system, the obvious concern is that any impasse could be broken with the nuclear option, either by Cameron going to the Palace or Clegg and his colleagues crossing the floor, tabling a No Confidence Motion and forcing an election. As snap elections called by Prime Ministers (and, as we know all too well, ones forced by opposition parties) over just one issue are not without precedent, there's no guarantee that Coalition will lead to a sustainable Parliament or enduring Government. By contrast, a minority Government can be stable as Scotland again has shown, as it forces opposition parties to be responsible and act in the national interest rather than cynical opportunism. When they don't live up to that expectation, they're the ones at risk of punishment at the ballot box. In short, a minority Government that can reach deals with other parties on individual pieces of legislation might be more stable than a Coalition existing in a system that wasn't designed for them.

Next, even if a Coalition is both strong and stable, is it a strong government that's best, or a strong Parliament? Let's face it, strong governments gave us the Poll Tax, tuition fees and worst of all, the Iraq War. A government that can simply take unilateral action and just Whip legislation through Parliament is a government destined to make wrong decisions: one that has to either persuade others of its case or makes compromises has a better chance of taking the people with it and retaining their support over tough decisions, while one that isn't capable of, or interested in, agreement from outwith its own camp surely shouldn't be allowed to press ahead with its plans.

In short, if I were a LibDem, the everything would be telling me to back out of this. The only thing is, to walk away and retain credibility, the LibDems need to do so with a positive approach. The circumstances that are leading us to where we are look remarkably similar to the circumstances surrounding the LibDems in 2007: Labour have lost votes and seats; the LibDems expected real progress only to be disappointed in the end; a Labour-LibDem majority isn't possible. There are only two different factors: this time, the leading party is the Tories and not the SNP (obviously), and the LibDems can actually form a majority with the Tories, whereas barring a Grand Coalition of the SNP and Labour, a three-party Coalition was needed in Scotland. And the negativity that came out of the LibDems the weekend after that election was staggering: Tavish Scott unilaterally dismissed a deal with Labour as out of hand on the Politics Show, and his party decided to demand a major policy U-turn from the SNP before negotiations had even begun. I always thought the point of negotiations was that you used them as tool of settling the big issues, either with a compromise or a quid pro quo arrangement, but the LibDems apparently had other ideas.

So instead of the huff that they went into in 2007, they need a different approach, as I argued then. This time, something along the lines of the following should do it:

"Although the electoral system has obviously distorted the views of the electorate, it's clear that they have expressed a view for a balanced Parliament and a new approach to politics. We have come to the conclusion that the best way to honour and respect the wishes of the people is the formation of a minority Government, held to account by a stronger House of Commons. Although we will take our place on the Opposition benches, we pledge not to oppose Government measures simply because we sit on the other side of the House. By remaining outside the Government, we will be free to support it where we agree, and challenge it where we do not. In these difficult times, the Government has a duty to build consensus and work with others across the political spectrum; a Coalition will make this less likely and will serve only to sustain the confrontational politics that has served the country so badly for so long. A minority Government will force all parties - whether in Government or Opposition - to raise their game, see beyond partisan advantage, and work together for the good of the people. We believe that is the way forward."

See? Broadly positive, stressing the advantages of minority Government. It can be done, and for the LibDems, it would be a sight better than either risking being branded "Dave's Little Helpers" or letting negotiations get so far, then flouncing off in a huff.

But let's see what happens...

1 comment:

Caron said...

I suppose the test of any government is what it can deliver. I remember how sick I felt in 1999 when we were negotiating with Labour. I was petrified we were going to cave on tuition fees and ruin all our credibility for ever.

When the eventual outcome was what looked to all the world like a fudge on tuition fees, I was pretty much apoplectic. At the time, I thought that the best thing to do was keep calm and just see what happened.

It actually went ok, though - there was a clear difference between what Labour in London did in terms of freedom of information, tuition fees and free personal care, not to mention the smoking ban.

If the outcome of these negotiations is a Con/Lib coalition, I will be pretty devastated, but I'll give it a chance.

I really think it would be better, and we would have more influence, out of any formal coalition with anybody though and I hope that's the outcome.