Nick Clegg: well hung?

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I meant to report back from the “Tribes or Causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” session at the Fabian conference last week but, as you may have noticed, I’m not exactly blog-heavy at the moment and time has moved on.

It left me in two minds. On the one hand, a clear consensus for political reform emerged on the platform. All four speakers (which in addition to Evan Harris included David Babbs from 38 Degrees, Will Straw from Left Foot Forward and Jessica Asato from Progress) seemed to agree on the need for a more proportional voting system (note: not AV), the Wright Commission proposals and the importance of internal party democracy. On the other hand, it is fairly safe to say that this is not only not a consensus position within Labour itself, but in all three cases is a position that is being actively opposed by the Labour Party at the most senior level at the moment (in the case of the Wright Commission proposals, if I hear Harriet Harman coming up with yet another weasily formulation for why she can’t simply say if she supports them or not, I may have to start causing somebody grevious bodily harm).

And this, in a nutshell, is why Labour supporters can’t and won’t get the Lib Dems to come out and announce their intention to support Labour in the event of a hung parliament*. The fact that Nick Clegg won’t say this causes a lot of Labourites much consternation. James Macintyre, who asked Evan a particularly sappy question about equidistance at the Fabian conference, has written about this in the New Statesman this week, suggesting there is something of a split amongst senior Lib Dem figures on the topic. Over at Tribune, Ian Hernon prefers to simply heap ordure on Clegg.

The simplistic analysis, as advanced by Darrell Goodliffe (who has recently defected from the Lib Dems to Labour), is that Clegg secretly wants to sidle the Lib Dems up to David Cameron and negotiate a deal to form a Lib-Con coalition government. Exhibit A in this case is Clegg’s repeated statement that, in the case of a hung parliament, he would acknowledge that whichever party had the biggest mandate would have “the first right to seek to govern”.

Yet, while this is bandied about as a veritable smoking gun on a proverbial grassy knoll, and while I am not exactly known to be Clegg’s most uncritical of friends, I just don’t see it. James MacIntyre is simply talking balls to suggest that the by adopting this stance, Clegg is pretending the Lib Dems do not have more in common with Labour than the Tories. Clegg himself could not have been clearer in his Demos pamphlet last year when he stated that Labour were rivals whilst the Tories were the traditional foe. The Lib Dems haven’t had a policy of “equidistance” since the mid-nineties. And note that Clegg has very carefully stated that the party with the biggest mandate only has dibs on the right to seek to govern. That is a very qualified statement. It doesn’t commit the Lib Dems to doing anything other than to try to advance its agenda as much as possible. Far from being unprincipled, as Ian Hernon suggests, this is about advancing the Lib Dems principles as much as possible. While I would be the first to acknowledge that Nick Clegg has nursed some curious delusions over the last couple of years, there is simple no way it has escaped his attention that majority of his parliamentary party would simply not accept a coalition with the Tories unless they made some pretty phenomenal concessions. And finally, there is the simple observation that Clegg’s dislike for Cameron is visceral and personal. Partly that is because so many lazy commentators have drawn lazy comparisions between the two, which he has understandably sought to rebut. But a lot of his criticisms of Cameron hold water: it is the case that while Thatcher was at her height, Clegg was working for people like Christopher Hitchens while Cameron was sliding into a government job. Clegg has defined himself as an internationalist in terms of both his career path, his background and even his family life; Cameron is a little Englander to the core.

So, bearing all that in mind, why doesn’t Clegg just do the decent thing and admit that the only likely partner in the case of a hung parliament is Labour? I would have thought that to Labour supporters, steeped as they are in trade unionism (ha ha), that would be obvious: you don’t begin negotiations by giving up your bargaining position. If the Lib Dems were to start openly ruling out a deal with the Tories, all pressure on Brown to begin conceding ground to the more liberal wing of his party would be lost and the Tory accusation that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour would have far greater force. In essence, the Lib Dems would become pawns in a bipartisan bunfight and all hope of carving out a distinctive agenda would be lost.

But it would ignore certain other political realities. Speaking personally, it will surprise no-one to know that I would really like to see a Lib-Lab coalition and see this as a positive way of moving forward after years of drift and in the face of a Tory party which is nothing like as reconstituted as it claims to be. But I fear that my own price would be too high for the Labour Party to be prepared to pay. It would involve them shifting so much ground in terms of civil liberties and democratic reform that I can’t see it happening for the foreseeable future. And even then, I can’t see how the Lib Dems could practically enter a government lead by Gordon Brown, the most incompetent leader this country has had in my lifetime by a comfortable margin. If I feel that way, you can bet it is a problem for Nick Clegg even more.

I think it is highly doubtful that, in the event of a hung parliament, any coalition government will be forthcoming. Neither Labour nor the Tories have shown any real interest in hinting what they would be prepared to compromise on; understandably so. Labour’s dithering and navel gazing over whether or not to support the Alternative Voting system shows them up to be appalling potential partners. Currently, it looks as if it will amount to little more than a manifesto commitment to a referendum, and we know how much Labour manifesto commitments for referendums are worth (not much). Even if they did legislate for it, it doesn’t particularly get us anywhere. While it is possible that the Lib Dems will settle for AV (indeed, several Lib Dem parliamentarians would prefer it if we did), it is more likely it will be up for negotiation. In that sense, the Labour MPs who fear that AV is the thin end of the PR-wedge are correct.

The current political system in Westminster is not designed for coalition government; indeed many elements are specifically designed to prevent them. I suspect that the most likely scenario is that, after much negotiating, either Labour or the Tories formed a minority government and a fresh election was called within two years. What is more interesting is what would happen then. If a single winner emerges then clearly it will be business as usual. But if the public votes for another hung parliament then the stakes would be considerably higher and the chances of a formal coalition will significantly increase.

There is of course the argument that a long period of political instability would panic the markets (as if they need any help). But in such a scenario, it becomes no more incumbant on the Lib Dems to be part of a coalition as it would be for Labour and the Tories to come together, as Martin Kettle has pointed out. Both Tory and Labour supporters scoff at this idea, yet no one seems capable of explaining why the Lib Dems should be more prepared to sacrifice principle in the name of pragmatism than any other party. Either a hung parliament is the sort of apocalyptic scenario foretold by people such as Ken Clarke, or it isn’t.

In short, if we do end up in a hung parliament situation, all bets are off. It is ludicrious to try framing the debate in terms of whether the Lib Dems would do a deal with Labour and/or the Tories; any number of alternative scenarios might arise. Expecting the Lib Dems to painstakingly spell out their terms in advance of an election is therefore mere cant, especially when it comes (as it usually does) from people who aren’t prepared to do so themselves and do not criticise Brown and Cameron equally for not doing likewise. But it looks set to continue with the launch of Charter 2010, a new website which is dedicated to making the prospect of a hung parliament the number one election issue. Can you think of anything worse? Endless chin scratching speculation about something that has a good chance of not happening, lead by David Owen – the man who wrote the book (both figuratively and literally) on political egomania – it would redefine voter apathy.

I would politely suggest that speculation on this topic should be suspended until after the election and to instead focus on what the various parties do and don’t stand for. I know it is futile of me to do so, but I can try. But if you do insist on playing this game, then please start by telling me what you think your side should be bringing to the table instead of demanding that my party does all the heavy lifting for you. Cheers.

* I appreciate that “hung parliament” is a pejorative term and that “parliament with no single party with a workable majority” is more neutral, but it is useful shorthand.

16 thoughts on “Nick Clegg: well hung?

  1. James, were you born after February 1974? If so, I can’t argue with you, but Heath was a pretty awful Prime Minister, and would be at least close enough to Brown as to remove the “comfortable margin”.

  2. James, were you born after February 1974?

    25 October 1974, so I came after the second 1974 election as well.

    That said, I can’t honestly claim to remember the Callaghan administration. If someone wants to make the case that he was worse than Brown – despite managing to lead a government for five years without a workable majority – I’m all ears.

  3. Callaghan took over from Wilson in 76 so it wasn’t quite 5 years. Hmmm, Callaghan, Major, Brown… is there something about ex-chancellors who become PM mid-term?

    But I wholly agree with this post.

    And the worst a bit of parliamentary gridlock will bring is less activist government, which I would have thought the markets ought to prefer.

  4. “ex-chancellors who become PM mid-term”.

    Lloyd George and Winston Churchill are on that list. I think Gladstone might be too.

    Back to the point, Brown is several leagues below Callaghan or Major. Brown manages to get into all sorts of trouble with a majority of 60. Callaghan and Major survived years with no majoirty.

  5. A hung parliament might happen by itself, but is more likely if   Lib Dem supporters in Lab/Con marginals vote Tory in the micro-marginals (10% majority).  This in turn dovetails with attacking the opponent must likely locally to be relegated to 3rd place, which ultimately will provide the Lib Dems with 2nd place and the chance to win the seat.

  6. Not sure that makes sense (even if I was tempted, which I’m not). The way things are going, I suspect that would simply bolster a Tory majority.

    There was a campaign in 2005 called Strategic Voter which campaigned for a hung parliament. It’s a mug’s game. People are far better off voting for the party of their choice, or at least voting tactically against the party they least want. Trying to anticipate which way 20 million people are liable to vote simply won’t work.

    What’s your agenda, anyway?

  7. James, I’m a rank and file Lib Dem who wants PR but never expects it to materialise unless it becomes expedient for one of the big parties to suddenly discover their long-standing enthusiasm for it, ie in a hung parliament.
    If the SV site ever awakes, I will probably follow their recommendations.  I dare say these will prove imperfect but I think it’s very likely that the vast bulk of the seats Cameron needs for a Commons majority can be identified now, ie nos. 100+ on his target list.  Voting patterns in general elections are very ‘sticky’ (at least until now), and the likely regional swings, ie greater further South, probably will ease this identification overall.
    I am in a similar seat myself and will be voting Labour and not because I prefer them to the Tories.  Voting Labour locally reduces the chance of a Tory MP, which given the seat’s place at the deep-end of Labour’s at-risk list makes a Tory Commons majority less likely.

  8. Hugh, you need to make your mind up. Earlier you were saying that by voting Tory in a Lab-Con marginal people would help ensure a hung parliament. Now you are suggesting that voting Labour in a Lab-Con marginal will achieve the same thing. This is madness.

    The idea that you can coordinate the tactical votes of millions of people voting differently in order to achieve a single strategic goal is pure fantasy.

  9. Hi James. Labour need to lose at least 22 seats to ensure that they don’t have another majority, so in the micro-marginals they need to be beaten. However, after they have lost about 50 seats a Tory majority is the greater threat so the remaining marginals need to act as a firewall against the Tories. I am in one of these so I will be voting Labour. If I was in the micro-marginal down the road I would be voting Tory.

    You are right about the ‘millions of people’ point in the sense that they might vote overwhelmingly one way or the other. However, most people vote how they voted last time- they are loyal but they are predictable. This also means that the points gap between the two old parties wil be less tha the Lib Dem vote- Lib Dem voters will again hold the balance of power as they have since 1959. They have, however, a record of not using it but instead letting the other 80% foist an outcome on them, when they could be ensuring that any government would require Lib Dem support.

  10. I doubt that Nick has implied that a Dutch mother and a Spanish wife entitle him to claim the moral high ground over someone who ticks English in both boxes. I hope not anyway.

  11. And even then, I can’t see how the Lib Dems could practically enter a government lead by Gordon Brown, the most incompetent leader this country has had in my lifetime by a comfortable margin.

    I can very easily see:

    1) Brown is no more incompetent than any of his predecessors back to, well, I’d say Harold Wilson. He only looks incompetent because he’s at the top when the incompetency of the previous ones is being shown up. I.e. what is happening in this country now is due to long-term bad government, not Brown. Much of this bad government consisted of doing stupid things that played well at the time but had appalling long-term consequences.

    2) The main incompetency of Brown is that he has adopted policies which the Conservative Party would also want, only they wanted them in a more extreme form.

    3) David Cameron is quite obviously monumentally incompetent. Everything he says reveals his staggering stupidity. His problem is that he has lived all his life in a little bubble of extremely wealthy and privileged people and really cannot see beyond that bubble. Even when he means well and tries hard, he gets it so wrong because of that. If he was clever he could get over his background, if he had a background that gave him more insight into real life, he could get over his lack of real cleverness. But the combination of the two is, well …

    4) I suspect Brown would be more desperate than Cameron, and would therefore offer a better coalition deal. Vince, Chancellor, obviously. Nick, Foreign Secretary. That’s for starters. The deal would be “If we’re going to go down the pan for supporting you, we’d better be VERY handsomely rewarded for it”.

    OK, now to

    Clegg secretly wants to sidle the Lib Dems up to David Cameron and negotiate a deal to form a Lib-Con coalition government. Exhibit A in this case is Clegg’s repeated statement that, in the case of a hung parliament, he would acknowledge that whichever party had the biggest mandate would have “the first right to seek to govern”.

    It is no great secret that I don’t rate Clegg, either for his politics or his ability. But apart from the issue that you don’t throw away your bargaining position unnecessarily, there is every reason for him saying “whichever party has the biggest mandate would have the first right to seek to govern”.

    The biggest is that it combats the “which one will you support?” line of questioning. It makes it a question of mechanics rather than a question of Clegg making the choice personally. It’s a good answer to a difficult question. It gets Clegg off that hook so he can talk about something else.

    It’s also the answer that anyone who opposes proportional representation on the grounds that the current system leads to stable single-party government ought to support, and ought to be shown up as hypocrites if they do not. To any Labour supporter – except one who very clearly dissents from Labour support for the current electoral system and has a continuous record of that not just an opportunist adoption of it in the last year – the answer to Clegg supporting Cameron should Cameron have the most seats is “but this is what you want – you support an electoral system which distorts the vote in order to give an inflated number of seats to the two big parties, because you think it is good that third parties should not win the seats in proportion to their vote because you think it better the largest party, even if it does not have majority support, should be able to go on and form a government on its own. So now here we are – we Liberal Democrats have not won the election, you Labour and Conservatives together have with your ‘biggest party should form the government regardless of majority popular support’ notion, so we are just supporting what follows naturally from your politics. If we did not exist – which is how you would like it – Cameron would have a majority anyway, so why do you complain?”.

  12. I for one will be absolutely heartbroken if we prop up the monstrously incompetent joke that the Labour Party has become. Reckless and unprecedented incompetence on the economy that threatens to permanently devastate the nation, deliberate and relentless erosion of civil liberties, the bare minimum on the environment and only when it seemed politically expedient, appalling dishonesty and cynicism in the way they conduct themselves politically, taking spin to a new level and flooding the terrain with endless “initiatives” and other lies designed solely to pamper the popular press, rainforests worth of money wasted on PFI contracts that brought the public services to their knees and served only the ministers who profited from a cushy revolving door system, the list goes on and on and on and on (and on). Before you even mention Gordon Brown by name, or the fact that any government will run out of vision after 12 years. They can change, and maybe after some major blood-letting they will become the rivals again, but at the moment they are as much the foe as the Tories and it is dangerous to think otherwise.

  13. The worst PM in my lifetime was Margaret Thatcher.
    here is yet another reminder of the disatrous long-term legacy she left us.

    Go and tell Sid – we’ve sold his country out.

  14. I didn’t say “worst” I said “incompetent”. If Thatcher was more incompetent than Brown she probably wouldn’t have left that aforementioned legacy.

  15. Well, it depends what you mean by “incompetent”. The long-term incompetency of Thatcher is becoming more and more obvious. Most of what looked like her successes have in the long run turned out to be disasters. She made our country look good by burning off our North Sea gas and oil, and selling off the energy companies – now it looks like, thanks to that, our country is in deep shit in a few years’ time. And that’s just one issue in a catalogue of short-term successes which turn out to be lomg-term disasters. The social and economic disaster of the right-to-buy of council houses is now becoming clear. Looked wonderful for those who benefitted in the short term, a disaster for the next generation, and a real financial incompetency that the loss of council housing was replaced by the rise in housing-benefit funded private landlords, charging two or three times what council house rents are for the same property, and it’s a straight transfer from the taxes of the workers to pay the profits of the landlords. The broken society which Cameron goes on about is to a large extent Thatcher’s legacy – she smashed up industry and job security which gave people a sense of order and freedom to plan for the future. She made our country over-dependent on the finance industry so we suffered the worst of any major country in this recession, and will again as we find our country is run for the benefit of a few thousand people who have it all tied up and we can’t touch them because they’ll run and take their money if we did. She set up the growing social inequality, which is part of this finance-industry domination – a few rich people at the top, the rest of us in low-paid service work. She encouraged us to get into massive debt with stupid over-the-top mortgages, thinking we could all make money by selling our houses to each other, while neglecting investment in more productive things. She set up also the regime of SATs and rigid state control of education. whose terrible effects I see daily in my work having to deal with itst products. And did what she achieved in the Falklands war lead to Tony Blair thinking the Iraq war would be a doddle? Well, she kept the “Great Britain” mentality going, which in the long term has deluded us from the mess our country is in. She destroyed the public sector ethos, ask anyione who works in the NHS how it was then compared to now. Etc. Incompetency on a truly massive scale, the fact that it was not seen as such only makes it more so when we see how dangerous the delusions she led us into have been.

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