Friday, May 7th, 2010 01:08 pm
Disclaimer: this is a complex subject, in which the outcome depends on a huge number of factors. I know a little about some of those factors, but that's about it, and people's stated positions on this are changing almost hourly. Therefore, what I write here shouldn't be taken with any confidence at all, nor thought of as a prediction. At best, it's a vague mapping out of a few of the potholes on the road ahead. At worst, most of it will turn out to be wrong or irrelevant, and will be contradicted by events, quite possibly before I've even had a chance to hit 'Post'.

Observation one: fifty-something MPs is a very small number from which to demand far-reaching concessions with long-term consequences. So no coalition with the Lib Dems is going to deliver full-blown electoral reform. The very best we can hope for is the promise of a referendum, but with much of the press and both the major parties backing FPTP, while that would be fun, it would also be expensive and pointless. I can see (and would approve of) us doing much sabre-rattling about Proportional Representation while quietly obtaining concessions on civil liberties, banking reform, the £10,000 tax threshold and education. These are all shorter term things that our coalition partners can overturn as soon as they get a majority. Note that 'as soon as they get a majority' pretty much relies on not bringing in a proportional voting system which is why, I say again, I don't think PR will happen. Tory and Labour MPs alike will not support a system that means they're never likely to have a majority again.

Observation two: we may not be talking about a coalition, but a minority government. A minority government has worked well in Scotland for the past three years. Note, though, that there the party in power is the SNP, which has no particular aversion to the idea of a hung or balanced parliament. Whichever of Labour or the Tories forms a minority government in the UK, it will be a party used to having a majority government, and with a vested interest in making a hung parliament look very, very bad indeed.

Expect a couple of years of every last painful decision to be blamed on a hung parliament (the Tories have already laid the groundwork for this in their infamous Hung Parliament Party broadcast). Expect announcements of the form: 'and we'll to shut a third of all hospitals; we were hoping not to have to do this, but the UK's economic recovery has been worse than forecast because of the hung parliament', and 'yes, soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan for a mission that no-one's properly defined yet, it's because of the paralysis caused by the hung parliament'.

After a couple of years of this, expect that party nominally in charge to hold an election and ask the voters to deliver a real mandate to govern by giving them a majority. If they time it really well, they'll be able to get a majority just as the economy is starting to recover as a natural part of the cycle, and be able to point to hung parliaments as a sign of economic disaster for a generation to come. (Actually, that holds just as well for a coalition as for a hung parliament).

Observation three: as that party with both the largest number of votes and the largest number of seats, the momentum is with the Tory party. When Nick Clegg said: "If a party with no majority has the strongest mandate, we accept the principle that that party has the right to govern either on its own or to reach out to others," he didn't spell out what he meant by a mandate. However, I can't see any reading that doesn't currently have the Tories as the single party with the strongest mandate. So by his own reasoning, Nick Clegg should accept the Tories' right to be the first party to try to form a government. That doesn't mean a Tory/Lib coalition is at all inevitable, though, nor does it rule out a Lib/Lab one if the Tories don't turn out to be able or willing to govern on their own. And bear in mind that I still think a minority government rather than a formal coalition is likely.

Observation four: it's a bloody good thing that their historical antipathy makes it almost impossible that the Tories and Labour should form a coalition. In many of their actual policies, they're a lot closer to each other than they are to the Lib Dems, even if the political zeitgeist hasn't quite caught up to this yet and still thinks of the Lib Dems as mid-way between them on everything. Fortunately, I think such a coalition would be literally unthinkable to most people in both parties.
Friday, May 7th, 2010 01:06 pm (UTC)
such a coalition would be literally unthinkable to most people in both parties

And beyond. I've heard loads of perfectly smart commentators saying that given the narrowness of the results (it is quite spectacularly balanced), "the only possible stable coalition is Conservative/LibDem". But political reality is reality here so I think they are actually right.

I'm pretty sure we'll end up with a minority Tory Government, with the LibDems not actively voting against the Queen's Speech (and other confidence votes) in exchange for a few crumbs on things along the lines you mention. And as well as the blame-the-hung-parliament trick, they have the blame-the-predecessor trick in their bag to pull on the economy, combined with a heavy dose of it's-worse-than-they-told-you.
Friday, May 7th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
no coalition with the Lib Dems is going to deliver full-blown electoral reform

I disagree with this, actually, if (and it's a big if) Nick plays his cards right. Consider this set of scenarios:

1. Nick says to Cameron: Give us a cast-iron guarantee of electoral reform, or we do a deal with Labour, SNP and Plaid and keep you out of power for another five years. (This is a far more potent threat to Cameron than saying we will force another GE, because the Tories are the only party who can plausibly afford the latter, and Cameron probably needs to come out of these negotiations as PM to survive as Tory leader.)

Then either

2.a) Cameron agrees; we get PR; we go down horribly at the next GE for letting the Tories in, but we have at least sorted out the electoral system for the future; and that's okay, because we're used to playing a long game.


2.b) Cameron refuses. Nick goes to Brown, and the scenario continues as follows:

3. Nick says to Brown: Give us a cast-iron guarantee of electoral reform, or we force another GE this year. (This is a really scary prospect for Labour because they may well bankrupt themselves if it happens; we don't really have the funds to fight it either, but we also don't have their debts, so we'll merely lose the election, not actually go under. Again, that's okay, because we're playing a long game. So we're in a stronger position than they are and can still credibly make the threat.)

Then either:

4.a) Brown says yes; we get PR; we go into coalition or support Labour in a minority government, with the help in either case of the SNP and Plaid, who hate the Tories as much as either Labour or LDs do and quite possibly more. We go down horribly at the next election for propping up a lame-duck PM, but that's okay, because see under 2.a), plus our activists are probably less unhappy than in 2.a).


3.b) Brown says no; there is another GE within a year (either immediately, or after a brief interlude in which Cameron forms a minority government and sooner or later gets brought down on a confidence motion). Labour may actually bankrupt itself, which is all to the good as far as our future prospects are concerned. Be that as it may, the Tories get a majority because only they can afford to fund another campaign - but we've at least gone down fighting hard on what was probably our most appealing policy amongst our new voters this time, and that gives us at least some chance of retaining them; again, we're playing a long game and that's okay. This has to be better for us in the medium-to-long term than caving on the one thing those voters wanted from us. If we do that, we'll lose horribly at the next election and have to wait a generation before anyone whose main interest in us is our electoral reform commitment will ever consider voting for us again.

On balance, based on how he's dealt with the hung-parliament questions during the campaign, I don't actually think Nick will pull this off, but I think that will be because he won't negotiate as strongly and brazenly as I think he should rather than because it can't be done. I hope the outcome will show that I've underestimated Nick here - I would love to be proved wrong on that part of it and right on the rest. I think Alex Salmond would do it in a heartbeat if the positions of the two leaders were reversed, and I really hope there are some back-channel discussions going on with the SNP right now as well as the obvious talks with Cameron, because I think a tactical alliance with the SNP and Plaid in these negotiations could be a very significant help to us, and Alex would be the one to make that happen.
Friday, May 7th, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC)
Pretty much, yes. Cameron'll need to move his party backwoods, who're mostly a bit too daft to realise what's needed.

I think Nick could carry it off, but whether he will or not I don't know.

Regardless, get STV, and it'll resecure a base across the country; and at least now we don't have to worry about losing half our decent Cornish MPs. They're gone anyway :-(
Friday, May 7th, 2010 07:01 pm (UTC)
Argh, numbering went wrong and too late to edit! Nevermind, you know what I mean.
Friday, May 7th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
Oh, and I agree strongly with your observation four, of course!
Friday, May 7th, 2010 07:28 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. I'm trying to get my head around what the possibilities are, and every bit of explanation helps.
Friday, May 7th, 2010 11:52 pm (UTC)
If we go into coalition with the Tories and DON'T get STV, the party is dead. Even if only half the members leave, we will lose much more than half our support, by my reckoning. True liberals like you and I are pretty rare beasts. For most folks we are a means to an end, and that end is electoral reform.
Monday, May 10th, 2010 09:59 pm (UTC)
Yep, much more than 'well, we got (and lost) a referendum...'
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