In Wales, it would appear, it is all over bar the shouting. The Welsh Lib Dem Executive voted down the deal hammered out between their negotiating team, Plaid and the Tories and even though the special conference called to approve any coalition deal is happening anyway, it is hard to see how the parties can row back from this, at least in the short term. Having said all that, I wouldn’t have predicted the last 24 hours turning out how they have, so attempting to predict the next 48 may be an exercise in futility.
There are a huge number of issues here and in many respects the main ones that I’ve seen highlighted in the media and on the blogs are the least relevant. For starters, it would be nice if there was a little bit of balance. Both the media and the other parties have had fun presenting the Welsh Lib Dems as everyone’s bitch. The orthodox view has been that it is the role of the Lib Dems to climb into bed with someone and that for them to not do so is horrendous. But this is four party politics and there is more cross-party consensus in Wales than anywhere else in the country.
Put simply, all four parties are, to use the lazy definition, centre left. The Welsh Conservatives were Cameroons before Cameron was a twinkle in Iain Duncan Smith’s eye, and the removal of their token rocker David Davies gave the mods like Jonathan Morgan a free hand. The fact that the Tories were even mildly tempted to go into coalition with Plaid (nevermind frothing at the mouth at the prospect, as they have been) shows that there is no simplistic spectrum of parties in Wales. That being the case, there are no fundamental issues of principle barring either a Plaid-Labour coalition or a Plaid-Tory one, only political ones. The fact that the Lib Dems have, it seems to me, mainly partisan reasons for walking away from any coalition does not make the party worse than the other parties, merely as bad as them.
But we should explore those partisan reasons. The reasons I have heard are, variously, that a coalition (particularly with Labour) would hurt the party electorally in next years’ local elections, that the party would have to make compromises yet would struggle to receive credit for all the policies it achieved in government (it is felt that this happened in 2000-2003) and that the party needs a ‘period of reflection’. The latter is a result of the election results which were undeniably disappointing, but the first two were predictable months ago. This being the case, what I find hard to understand is why the terms of reference were not clearer from the outset.
Compare the Welsh experience with the Scottish one. In Scotland, the Lib Dems also had a disappointing set of election results, although they at least had the excuse that they were being heavily squeezed (and squeezed out of the debate) by a resurgent SNP and Labour. Many people have criticised the Scottish Lib Dems for walking away from coalition, yet Nicol Stephen repeatedly stated in the run up to the election that independence was a deal breaker and that they would only support the party that won the plurality. The terms of engagement were crystal clear, and the party has steered through a difficult period with very little acrimony.
In Wales, and forgive me if I’ve missed something, I’m not aware that Mike German articulated any red lines whatsoever in the run up to the election. If the party had them, they certainly weren’t articulated to the public. The impression I had during the campaign and during the talks, was that German was determined to get a deal no matter what, yet this wasn’t a view universally shared by the Assembly group, let alone the wider party. Indeed, the forcing of a special conference on Saturday suggests that German is determined to do everything he can to get a deal, even at the risk of splitting the party in the most public way imaginable (I should add a caveat: in my experience conferences which are predicted to be bloodbaths usually are anything but – the party has an incredibly potential to pull together at moments of real crisis).
It seems to me that this acrimony was predictable and should have been worked through as far back as 2005. Unlike elections under first past the post, the most likely scenario of an election held by PR is a balanced assembly and thus such talks are not damaging in the way that such talks in the run up to a Commons General Election would be. Instead of giving the negotiating team vague terms of reference and subjecting any deal they broker to a special conference, they should have been given clearer terms of reference in advance (although I seem to recall the Scots had a rather elaborate system for consulting the membership in 1999, I don’t recall either their 1999 or 2003 deals being subject to conference approval – again, happy to be corrected).
Fundamentally, what stopped anything like this from happening appears to be rooted in a lack of shared vision and a lack of self-confidence. Ask a dozen Welsh Lib Dems what they would want a coalition government to achieve and you’ll get a dozen different answers, if you get any response at all. The reasons for opposing coalition I outlined above are all rooted in the perception that with power comes the risk of unpopularity and that the party is certainly not the master of its own destiny; the theory is therefore that not taking power will be popular in the long run. This may be true – the past 24 hours suggest that it isn’t – but even if it is, it is a prescription for permanent opposition.
Where the lack of self-confidence is especially pronounced is in the attitude towards Plaid. Having heard Leanne Wood speak at length last year about her personal politics, and having seen the intervention of her and the other hard left Plaid AMs during the coalition talks, it is clear that there is a significant body of opinion within that party that really is only interested in permanent opposition (she extolled at how she didn’t seek power because that always meant compromising your principles). In all honesty, I can’t see how any deal with them would last longer than a year as their own headbangers would not allow it. That being the case, it begs two questions. Firstly, why did the party pursue coalition in the first place with a partner that is so clearly unstable? Secondly, having entered those talks, why did the party run screaming from entering into such a deal despite the fact that if they had entered into an agreement there is a strong possibility that Plaid would ultimately be the wreckers? I strongly suspect that this is the calculation the Tories made, which is why they were so quick to accept the deal. That the reflex reaction within the Lib Dems appears to have been that they themselves would have been the ones to get the blame once again suggests the party has become afraid of its own shadow.
In terms of the deal itself, Betsan Powys has added a summary to her blog. My understand of this is that much of it is uncosted, and certainly much of the Plaid contributions look gimmicky (free laptops?). Grants to first time homeowners look gimmicky AND uncosted AND economically illiterate (using taxpayers’ money to artificially inflate house prices doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me). I admit, personally I would have had trouble walking away from the prospects of a referendum on giving the assembly law making powers and PR for local government and a review of the Barnett formula. But what I don’t understand about the deal is why most of the concessions appear to have been to Plaid, rather than to the Conservatives. I’m not saying that Plaid should have been offered nothing, but with so many uncosted policies, why is the language in the document so distinctly unwoolly and unambiguous? It does look as if the Tories weren’t driving a particularly hard bargain, which again adds to my theory that they were happily giving Plaid enough rope to hang itself with. But was the Lib Dem game plan? If we had the hardest task of getting the deal approved, why wasn’t German driving a harder bargain? Knowing the tough job German had, why weren’t the other coalition partners making it easier for him?
What I suppose I’m driving at in a roundabout way is this: the party has fucked up here big time, but at almost every point the problem appears to be at the top of the tree, not at the roots. The leadership went along with an open system for approving the coalition, then did nothing to ensure it could deliver one under those circumstances. The leadership failed to agree the terms of engagement with the wider party. The leadership failed to offer vision both before and during the election. The leadership failed to negotiate a robust, costed settlement. And having failed to persuade the national executive of the deal’s merits, it has embarked on a strategy of ‘double jeopardy’ by calling a conference anyway, rubbing salt into some already angry wounds in the process, despite the fact that the horse will probably have long bolted by that point. As I wrote a couple of days ago, the Lib Dem grassroots is willing and capable of being led, but it needs to be dealt with with respect and honesty. One of the tasks of leadership is to spell out some unpalatable truths long before they begin to bite: what the party got instead was a pig in a poke.
Can the Welsh Lib Dems survive this? Well, it would have to do very badly indeed to actually go backwards in the next Assembly elections, and there will be a lot of water under the bridge by then. It is time for a fresh start, and a fresh start means a new, single leader (no more double headed monsters a la German and Opik). But that leader can’t just be a fresh face with new ideas; she or he has to work on developing a new compact between the centre and the membership and work to create a ‘can do’ attitude within the party. They have a tough job ahead of them and I wish them luck.