Tag Archive: liberal democrats

Jan 03 2011

No Merger!


Once again, rattling around the wires is the idea that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties should merge. The origins of these mutterings are largely Conservative, for example, Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph, or René Kinzett on ThinkPolitics. I’d like to put a Liberal Democrat view as to why this is utterly implausible.

A key motivating factor for this talk is the low performance of the LibDems in opinion polls at the moment. However, there are two issues here:

Firstly, members of both Labour and Conservative parties see polls in a different light to LibDems. In part because the other parties are programmed to believe in a steady pendulum swing which sees power passing to and fro between them with a period of years. Therefore for them regaining power is largely a matter of waiting for the pendulum to swing. The LibDems do not lie on the pendulum swing, they do not have this expectation. Aside from the national coalition during the Second World War, the Liberal forbearers to the current party have not been in office since 1918. You can see this in action in my immediate post-election blog post, which is characterised by gloomy resignation at another disappointing general election. Broadly the reaction of a long term LibDem to a general election is crashing disappointment. So facing so-called “electoral annihilation” at a future general election the LibDem response is “no change there then”.

Secondly, as my previous post alludes: the opinion polls are not a great predictor of electoral success for the LibDems. Just to give an example: in the 1983 election the SDP-Liberal Alliance got 25.4% of the vote and 23 seats, in the 2010 election the LibDems got 23% of the vote and got 57 seats. This is only a very small rise in the % of the vote since the 2005 election (just 1%) and a drop in the number of parliamentary seats (5 seats). If you want to see some more numbers, go have a look at the wikipedia list of UK elections.

At the heart of this believe that there should be a merger seems to be a problem with counting, one alluded to in the title of this blog; it seems to be in the UK that there is a serious problem with counting parties beyond two. It’s seems to go “Labour, Conservative,……… nope can’t cope!”. This is in no doubt partly driven by the first-past-the-past electoral system which encourages the merger of parties into two blocks (know as Duverger’s Law).

It’s also a mistake to see a major schism forming between a party leadership in government and the rank-and-file membership. A naive view is that the leadership have “gone Tory” at the head of what is essentially a left-leaning organisation. However, I understand this more in terms of the way I see the large company I work in operating. At some level within the company there are discussions about the way forward for the company should be, and at points in time a decision is made as to what the way forward actually will be. At this point everybody gets on and does it, at higher levels the company appears unified – the message from senior management is consistent, at my level I have the opportunity to gripe about stuff but ultimately I have to get on and help execute the plan. What we see in government is, I argue the same, LibDem ministers have argued for their beliefs in coming to a plan: where they have prevailed they support the agreed plan but where they don’t agree they still work to enact the agreed plan – sulking, griping and refusing to support where you did not prevail is not an option.

The other thing to consider is how the LibDem party works: even in the event of a proposed merger by the leadership of the party the likely response of the membership would be a resounding “no” and in the LibDems that means something. And just to be clear on my own position: if there was a successful proposal to merge with either the Labour or Tory parties I’d be off to form the Continuity Liberal Democrats – and I wouldn’t be alone! As Simon Cooke (Tory) accurately points out, any LibDem is free to leave the party and join either the Conservatives or Labour, or the Greens (or no party at all). In the deeply untribal view of this Liberal Democrat they should feel free to do so (and positively encouraged if that’s what they want). But don’t expect to see this happen in any great numbers, at the very least Nick Clegg and David Laws have had serious offers from the Tories to join them in the pre-2010 election past but chose to stay in the electoral unsuccessful LibDems. I’ve no doubt that similar applies to offers from Labour during the 1997-2010 governments.

Finally there is a question of political positioning, ideology if you like. It seems to me that the LibDems are precisely where they should be: on the centre ground and they shouldn’t be thinking of moving from there. Labour and Conservatives have come to power when they have decided to be more like us. You can still find our manifesto on the Liberal Democrat website, largely these are the things I still believe in and these are the things I will fight for, of the Labour manifesto I find no sign on their website.

Viva the Continuity Liberal Democrats!

Dec 05 2010

27 days to power in May

This is a joint review of the books “22 days in May” by David Laws and “5 days to power” by Rob Wilson on the negotiations to form the Coalition government following the May 2010 General Election. The Laws book is his personal account of those negotiations, and his subsequent brief period in office. The Wilson book is drawn more widely, although he is a Conservative MP. The title of this blog post is a search engine unfriendly mashup of the two titles.

The Liberal Democrats started planning for negotiations in the event of a hung parliament towards the end 2009, this was done secretly by Danny Alexander, David Laws, Chris Huhne and Andrew Stunell on the direction of Nick Clegg. Their consensus, pre-election, was that depending on electoral arithmetic a coalition with Labour or a “confidence and supply” with Tories were the best outcomes for the hung parliament regime where no party had an overall majority. However, Chris Huhne argued that coalition with the Tories was better than “confidence and supply”. Confidence and supply means that the junior party supports the senior for votes of confidence, and for budgetary votes. Huhne argued that under these circumstances LibDems would get all of the blame for difficult government decisions which they supported, without any say over policy. The Tories set up a similar group approximately two weeks before the election comprising William Hague, Ed Llewellyn, George Osborne and Oliver Letwin. Labour apparently did no group planning, their negotiating team comprised Lord’s Mandelson and Adonis (a former LibDem), Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman. The civil service also seems to have been very well prepared to support negotiations and had a strong preference for coalition over other forms of government. There are strong hints that the civil service were deeply concerned at the prospect of a minority government, or a “confidence and supply” agreement would be bad for confidence in the economy.

The 2010 general election gave the Tories 306 seats, Labour 258, Liberal Democrats 57 and other parties 28 seats (including 8 DUP, 6 SNP, 5 Sinn Fein). This would give a Lib-Lab pact a majority over the Conservatives of 8 seats but with 28 votes with smaller parties so not technically a majority. A Tory-LibDem coalition gives 363 seats, with a majority over Labour of 105. Such a pact can take a rebellion (i.e. MPs of the coalition voting against it) of 35, in theory a Lib-Lab coalition could take no rebellion. In practice the 5 Sinn Fein MPs would likely not vote and the SNP would be unlikely to vote with Tories, except if there was something in it for Scotland.

This electoral maths suggest to me that the only real choice was what form the agreement with the Tories should take: no agreement – likely leading to a new election, “confidence and supply” or full coalition. Coalition with Labour looked really hairy in terms of numbers of seats but there was a lot of enthusiasm in the Liberal Democrats and some enthusiasm in Labour for this. The generation of LibDem MPs who had entered the parliament opposing Tory governments (Paddy Ashdown, Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Don Foster etc) were particularly keen. Gordon Brown was keen to form a coalition, and from the Labour team Mandelson and Adonis. Clearly from a negotiating point of view the fact that a coalition with Labour was feasible was a strong card to play.

Steve Richards, in The Independent, prefers to characterise the Coalition agreement between LibDem and Tory as the result of a take over by Orange Book Liberal Democrats, against the will of the party. This seems to misunderstand the internal workings of the party: both the parliamentary party (Commons and Lords) and the federal executive were consulted at the time on how negotiations should progress. They also voted on the outcome, as did the wider membership at a special conference held shortly thereafter. Many of these would be people just like me who would have been nervous of coalition with Tories, and many would have initially preferred coalition with Labour. However, ultimately all of these groups voted emphatically for coalition with the Tories. One striking thing in the whole process was the amount of time the LibDems spent on internal consultation – Labour apparently did none of this, and in the Tory party it was cursory and ad hoc.

Lord Adonis has disputed David Laws assertion that the Labour team were disengaged and unhelpful in the negotiating process, and largely supported the Richards view of an Orange Book take over. Laws has responded to that accusation. Personally I’m happy to accept David Laws view of the Labour stance in negotiations: the external signs from Labour were that there was a substantial lack of will to form coalition in the parliamentary party (Blunkett, Reid, Burnham, Darling apparently all against), and that little or no preparation had been made to try to negotiate a coalition should the opportunity arise. Why was this? Was it an oversight? Did they feel formation of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats was so trivial as not to require any preparation? The accusation that the Labour negotiation team may have been split flies because it is so self-evidently plausible. My view is that the Labour party as a whole were tired of government, could not face coalition with a non-existent majority and could not face the prospect of implementing the cuts required (and promised by them too) to address the deficit. There’s no doubt that for some of them coalition with any other party, except with the most supine partner was anathema.
David Laws book is the one to read for LibDems or those wishing to understand LibDems better, the Wilson book is better for a more rounded view of the formation of the coalition. His tone with regard to his dear leader is somewhat grating but I’m sure others would say the same of the Laws book. A full account of the negotiations from the Labour perspective would be useful.
A vignette that I’ve not seen reported elsewhere: George Osborne offered David Laws a post in the shadow cabinet in 2004 and a cabinet post, were he to defect. Laws refused.

Dec 03 2010

This makes me angry

This makes me angry:

Instead nice, gentle Nick Clegg has secured the position of Britain’s most hated man. He has been burnt in effigy by student rioters. Police have told him that he must no longer cycle to work for fear of physical attack. Excrement has been shoved through the letter box of his Sheffield constituency home, from which his family may now have to move for safety reasons.

I can hear the Labour apologists winding themselves up for response already: “Was his family in residence when the shit was pushed through the letter box? Have you got a crime number for that? It’s terrible, but you know he betrayed the people who trusted in him. Moving out of the home is just theatrical.” The president of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, Labour party member, decries the “betrayal”, the breaking of a pledge. Anyone like odds on how likely it was that he voted for the Liberal Democrats? Let’s face it: he didn’t, he didn’t vote for the party that he’s excoriating for not implementing the policy he didn’t vote for, the only party to oppose tuition fees. All those Labour folk, talking of the “betrayal”, they didn’t vote against tuition fees either. “Satirical” they say of David Mitchell advocating pissing through Nick Clegg’s letterbox , it isn’t satirical if someone’s actually done it.

As the riots progress an army of armchair revolutionaries bemoan the violence of the police, as buildings are smashed up. “The police should simply keep the protesters moving on, so they don’t cause any trouble”. “The police are stupid”, they say, “I could manage a large crowd of protesters, some intent on violence, much better than them. That’s why I’m sitting here tweeting about it.” “The police van was bait, because every right-thinking person when they see an unattended police van thinks: “Fuck me, I better smash the crap out of that”.”

I used to think it was the Tories who felt power was their divine right but now I know it’s Labour. Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, a Labour affiliated union calls for demos to topple the government, speaking approvingly of the poll tax riots. John McDonnell, Labour MP, says:

I know the Daily Mail will report me again as inciting riots yet again. Well, maybe that is what we are doing.

Beaten in an election, they use weasel words to get people out on the street smashing stuff up. “These cuts aren’t what people voted for, they voted, but they didn’t vote for this. They really meant to vote for Labour, the party who repeatedly reneged on promises to introduce fairer voting. The party who said they were going to reduce the deficit by making cuts, but now only have a blank piece of paper; who can magically make the deficit painlessly go away.”

For the first time in 60 years Liberal Democrats are in government, they are in government at a time when the country faces the largest budget deficit it has had in many decades, it is a crap time to be in government. They are taking hard decisions that Labour would not have the guts to take. For some this is a “betrayal”, they’ll happily contribute to an atmosphere that means a family gets shit pushed through the letterbox of their home, and a columnist in a respected paper can applaud it.

But more than ever before I am proud to say “I agree with Nick”.

Dec 01 2010

Tuition Fees

Since I am repeatedly in the position of discussing tuition fees on twitter, I thought it helpful to put down my thoughts in one place without the 140 character constraint.

I’m in favour of supporting universities, and students, via general taxation because the benefits of university education are public: they benefit all of us. I, along with many others, benefited directly from a free university education 20 years ago. I, along with other people and companies, currently benefit from university trained lawyers, nurses, doctors, engineers and so forth, regardless of my own education. I believe that the higher education system should be reformed to separate teaching and research, and also that we should consider all post-18 training in the context of any reforms to university education i.e. we should not distinguish between plumbers and physicists – they are equally valuable. As I watched water freely flowing from a burst pipe last winter, I strongly believed the former more valuable than the later.

The Liberal Democrats have been very tied up over tuition fees because they signed a pledge to vote against tuition fees, largely it has been asserted that the pledge on fees indicates that it takes priority over all other manifesto pledges. In retrospect it would have been wise not to make such a pledge which could so easily invite such a distinction. In their defence I think it illustrates that LibDem MPs did not anticipate fully finding themselves in Coalition government, unsurprising given the last 60 years of elections. Nick Clegg did attempt to persuade the party to scrap this pledge towards the end of 2009, which would have been a politically wise move. It’s worth noting that the LibDems could fulfil their pledge to the letter if they were in opposition, or in a looser electoral pact, in neither of these cases would they be able to influence the policy of the government so their opposition would be entirely decorative. No doubt many believe that LibDems should have given up Coalition government on this issue, that would have been stupid and pointless.

Politically I believe the appropriate response to not being able to fulfil the pledge is to say that the LibDems are sorry they did not receive a sufficient electoral mandate to enable them to fulfil this pledge and other manifesto pledges in coalition government. I note that more experienced government parties, such as Labour, have found it easy to brazenly ignore their pre-election pledges on tuition fees, twice, without little protest from the Labour dominated National Union of Students.

The discussion on tuition fees is made in a context where, in Liam Byrne’s words “there is no money”, all of the major Westminster parties proposed to address a large deficit mainly by making cuts to government spending, rather than raising taxation. In light of this, and the Browne report, making a bid for even flat central funding in the higher education sector was always going to be an uphill struggle.

I estimated previously that tuition fees could be replaced by an increase of 2p on basic rate tax, or 8p on higher rate tax and the Greens have proposed 4p on corporation tax to fund higher education. Those are tax increases of 10%, 20% and 15% respectively.  Clearly combinations of these three elements would also work. However, it must be recognised that higher education will always be in competition with other claims on the public purse. If you had £7bn to spend would higher education be your first priority? Or would it be schools, benefits, hospitals or tax cuts?

The scheme proposed by the Coalition does shift paying for university education further from general taxation. However, I believe Vince Cable has done a fair job of adding LibDemery to the Browne report, commissioned by Labour. In particular covering part-time education, capping tuition fees, and attempting to make repayment progressive. The principle difference to a pure graduate tax is that a tuition fee is stated, if not paid up front. A large number of people seem keen to imply that tuition fees will be payable up front, which they are not, and simultaneously claim that poorer students will be put off applying – perhaps because they have been repeatedly told fees will be payable up front.

As for what LibDem MPs should do when presented with the relevant parliamentary bill. It’s quite clear that backbench LibDem MPs should abstain, those that vote against are free to do so but should suffer the consequences in terms of party discipline. Government ministers are in a less clear position, the Coalition agreement does allow for them to abstain, however particularly in Vince Cable’s case, where he was heavily involved in developing the proposed legislation and feels happy with the results, it seems to me he must vote in favour – anything else just looks strange. There is a logic for all Liberal Democrat government ministers voting for the tuition fee proposals, this would be the case in a simple, one-party majority government.

In a coalition government, the policy of the component parties is not the same thing as the policy of the government. I tentatively believe the LibDems should retain an ambition to fund higher education from general taxation, I struggle to see how this policy will be implemented in the next 10 years but I do not feel this should rule out LibDems holding it as a policy. I believe, in future, the LibDems should avoid, like the plague, making pledges in the form that they made on tuition fees. They should also apply a disclaimer to their manifesto that they will negotiate to implement what they can from the manifesto but only in majority government will they pledge to deliver all policies.

Nov 05 2010

A Coalition candidate for Oldham East and Saddleworth?

Following the news that Phil Woolas has lost his seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth for knowingly lying about his opponent, Graeme Archer has proposed on Conservative Home that the Coalition should put up a joint candidate selected in an open primary. Much as I respect Graeme on this I disagree, although I should point out this is a cautious rather than an emphatic rejection.

The function of a by-election is to selection an MP to represent a constituency in parliament, at a General Election this selection – repeated across the country – amounts to a decision on who should form the government. The General Election this year demonstrated that decision may not be clear.

Speaking from the point of view of a Liberal Democrat, potentially giving up the race in this seat would be damaging – it plays directly to the idea that the Liberal Democrats have been subsumed into the Tories. Should the LibDem candidate win in the Open Primary they would, almost inevitably be seen as the Coalition rather than the LibDem candidate. The great risk that the LibDems face during the Coalition is that as a minority party in a coalition they will be electorally damaged at the next General Election – this is observed in coalitions across Europe.

Successfully contesting a three-way election would illustrate how by-elections under coalition work, something that has been demonstrated already in the Thirsk and Malton by-election held over the summer. Furthermore it would help maintain the separate identity of the Liberal Democrats. I can join the Tory Party whenever I want, but I don’t want to – it is so blinding obvious to party members that the merger of the two parties is undesirable that amongst party members it is not even worth talking about. The public, and commentators need convincing of this.

From the point of view of the Coalition the situation is less clear cut, offering a combined candidate does demonstrate the joint nature of the Coalition, and the opportunity to argue the Coalition’s joint platform. However, at this point in a Government it would be difficult to see the by-election as a true referendum on their joint record, there are better ways of doing this than a by-election in a single constituency under special circumstances.

From a more practical point of view, as Tory Radio points out, it is more than likely that a faction within the losing party of the Open Primary would put up their own candidate.

Rather playfully I will point out to Graeme that the Open Primary followed by election scheme contains elements of an ad hoc election by alternative vote in the sense that there are multiple rounds of voting with candidates dropping out at different stages.

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