Tag Archives: coalition

STOP PRESS: Nick Clegg ends Lib Dem equidistance

With his Demos pamphlet published today, it has to be said that Nick Clegg has ruled out any chance of doing a deal with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament following the next election. That isn’t quite the same thing as saying he has ruled in a deal with Labour but it does look as if our latest flirtation with equidistance has come to an end.

In The Liberal Moment, Nick Clegg makes it clear that while he sees progressive liberals (the tradition of which he squarely places the Liberal Democrats within) as enemies of conservativism, he places Labour within the wider progressive movement – and thus our rivals. Far from sidling up to Labour however, the pamphlet is a denunciation of the modern Labour Party and a declaration that Labour’s time has now past. Just as Labour eclipsed the Liberals in the early 20th century it is now the task of Liberal Democrats to in turn eclipse them in the 21st. Indeed, much of this pamphlet might have been written by Mark Anthony: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” pretty much sums it up.

Broadly, I agree with him – at least in sentiment. As I wrote last month, I do wonder if “progressive” is a term that means anything to the non-politico. To the extent that I would consider myself to be a progressive – and for want of a better term, I do – I’m not sure I go along with Clegg’s definition:

At the core of progressive thought is the idea that we are on a journey forward to a better, and especially more socially just, society; it’s a political ideology that stems from a restless, optimistic ambition for change and transformation.

I agree with the second clause but not the first. Like Richard Dawkins, whose God Delusion I have thus far failed to write my review of (tsk! tsk!) Clegg seems to have signed up to the quaint enlightenment notion that progress is somehow inevitable. I disagree and consider that idea to be fraught with problems; if we assume that we are trundling along the road to progress then there is a danger that we tend to assume that each staging post is a step along the way. If we are on a journey, then it needs to be emphasised that we very much need to be in the driving seat and alert to every bump in the road (I think that metaphor has been safely tortured to death now, don’t you?). Indeed it is that lack of critical faculties that Labour can be blamed for; blindly following the “greater good” regardless of the cost.

If we are serious about replacing Labour then we need to resolve three things: funding, strategy and thought. When it comes to funding, it doesn’t matter how dead the Labour parrot is the unions will have the muscle to prop it up for years to come. How do the Lib Dems compete? The last time the Liberals were in the ascendency, party funding was a form of cheerful corruption, as the hereditary peers created by Lloyd George can testify. These days that simply isn’t an option.

Secondly, strategy. We aren’t going to ever replace Labour via an election strategy focused on target seats. It will take us decades, during which time Labour will surely regroup. Yet what is Lib Dem strategy except targeting? This isn’t a question we especially need to answer now, but we do need to have a significantly different game plan in place by the next-but-one general election if we are really serious about this.

Thirdly, thinking. There is an odd paradox when it comes to the Lib Dems and policy. On the one hand we undeniably have tended to be ahead of the curve when it comes to a range of issues, be they Iraq, the environment, democratic reform and now the economy. On the other hand, frankly, that policy comes across all too often as slapdash and poorly joined together. The party’s policy making process is more democratic than our rivals’, yet the party as a whole discusses policy least of all. Quoting Lord Wallace, Chris White wrote on Next Left last week that

He said, in effect, that when he joined the Liberals in the 1950s/60s (?), the party was great at talking about its philosophy but hopeless at campaigning. But now the situation was the reverse.

I for one find this incuriosity about policy within the Lib Dems extremely frustrating. It matters because I don’t believe things like “narratives” and core values can be handed down from on high; they have to be absorbed. Somehow we repeatedly fail to have the debates we need to have; each year we get excited about a specific policy here and there but in terms of broad priorities we thrash very little out.

Partly I feel our policy development process is at fault; it isn’t the democracy that’s the problem but rather its inflexibility. It’s extremely resolution heavy and deliberation light. But the other major weakness we have compared to Labour and the Tories are a lack of think tanks out there producing helpful research and original thinking. Both the other parties have a host of different organisations beavering away at this; the Lib Dems have the Centre Forum.

Ultimately, I don’t think the Lib Dems can hope to replace Labour until we start thinking of ourselves more widely than just a political party and build around ourselves a liberal movement. Labour and the Tories both have these; by contrast we have a liberal diaspora squatting inside the other parties. The decline of Labour and (inevitable?) failure of Cameron to fulfil his promise of liberal conservativism may help us change this, but at the centre the party needs to be ready for it.

It’s a worthy ambition, Nick. Now make it happen.

UPDATE: other responses from Anthony Barnett, Graeme Cooke, Costigan Quist.

A secret Lib-Lab plot?

So claims Peter Oborne, something which appears to have got the Tories into a right tizzy. Stephen Tall at Lib Dem Voice has debunked most of it so I will try to avoid repeating what he has said. It should also be pointed out that Clegg in particular has been linked to rumours (also by rightwing commentators) of planning a coalition with Cameron at various stages over the past couple of years. The idea that Vince Cable has suddenly become Gordon Brown’s “poodle” because, um, Gordon Brown has finally started agreeing with Vince is ridiculous – is he really supposed to start disagreeing with his own policies once Labour adopts them? Lead by Cable and Clegg, the Lib Dems have recently worked with the Tories to force a vote on the VAT cut – a fact conveniently not mentioned by Oborne.

The Lib Dems’ opponents like to think the party is just itching to jump into bed with whichever party pulls back its duvet. The reality is somewhat more complicated. The party embarked into a near civil war at the end of the nineties when two distinct schools of thought emerged: one that the party should strengthen its ties with Labour and eventually merge (the Ashdown option) and one that the party needed to regain its independence and walk out of the Joint Cabinet Committee it sat on to oversee the constitutional reform agenda (a joint agenda post-1997 following the Cook-Maclennan Agreement). The latter school won. Yet at almost the same time we were in government with Labour in Scotland and about to enter a partnership government in Wales. Fast forward to 2007, and the Lib Dems walked away from coalition in both Scotland and Wales, the latter subtly (and sometimes not-so subtly) framing the recent leadership election between Kirsty Williams and Jenny Randerson.

For a third party, coalition is an opportunity to get your hands on real power, but it is also liable to blow up in your face. Look at what’s happened to the FDP in Germany (more controversially perhaps, I would argue it has happened to the Scottish Lib Dems, going by the opinion polls, the fact that they are on their third leader in three years and personal anecdote – it remains to be seen if Tavish Scott will get them back on track). And in recent history, every time we’ve had to seriously consider coalition, we have been well aware of this fact. That’s part of the reason why it is the one issue liable to split the party down the middle; as a party which tends to resolve its policy disputes by debate and voting, we can pretty much weather anything else.

So when Oborne starts doing his 2+2=5 calculations, you have to factor that in. You have to consider it in relation to the late nineties – a far more fertile period of Lib-Lab cooperation – which failed to result in coalition. Nonetheless, with the Tories the strongest they have been in fifteen years and the clear realisation that their current economic policies (such as they are) would be ruinous to the country, you can see why there is at least a temptation to think about formalising the two parties’ relationship once again.

The clearest stumbling block to a coalition however is Labour’s continual attack on civil liberties. The Lib Dems would lose their reputation as civil libertarians for all time if they entered a coalition with the party of identity cards and the database state. Unless Labour were to recant all these policies (which a number of its own backbenchers would have a thing or two to say about it – they aren’t all called Bob Marshall-Andrews you know), Clegg would have to be suicidal to contemplate it: a new, authentically liberal party – with at least a dozen MPs – would have formed before the ink on the agreement had even dried. As readers may have noticed, I have a tendency to be a bit down on Clegg so you might think I’d want a reassurance that this won’t happen – but it is so far in the realm of fantasy that I think I’d make myself look silly even demanding it.

The bottom line is, we no longer live in a political age where a few people in a Commons tea room can decide to enter a coalition. It is an area that any party leader treads very carefully in. Even if we found ourselves in a no-overall control situation after the general election, I don’t see the Lib Dems agreeing to anything more than providing confidence-and-supply to the party which won the plurality (this was bizarrely dismissed by Clegg in 2008 back when it was cooperation with Cameron that was the rightwing press’ “dead cert”, but then he does a lot of bizarre things – it was Kennedy’s stated policy in 2005).

One thing I will confidently predict is that in 2009 we will have at least one major “revelation” that, in fact, Clegg is in secret talks about a coalition with Cameron. Until Clegg makes his equivalent of the Chard Speech, I won’t be putting much faith into either spin.

Deny everything, Baldrick (UPDATE)

For me, the most interesting thing about the Guardian’s exclusive today about Lib-Lab talks is that it is credited to an anonymous “staff writer.” Clearly whoever wrote it (Wintour? White? Mulholland?) considered it so explosive that they didn’t want to alienate their sources by being outed as the author.

The other interesting aspect is the non-denial denials. From Lord Kirkwood:

“We are getting this sort of speculation all the time from people who want to write stories about cooperation [between the parties] at levels which are in their imagination.

“But they [Mr Brown and Sir Menzies] talk all the time, they talk about Fife and other things. If you start getting into particular meetings it’s impossible. This suggestion is not known to me and not admitted. Some of these players do have to trust each other in relationships one-to-one.”

From Ming’s office:

“We are not commenting on this tittle-tattle or any other story based on rumour and speculation, now or in the future. We are an independent party which firmly disagrees with Labour and Gordon Brown on the issue of Iraq, civil liberties, including ID cards and 90-day detention, nuclear power and council tax to name but a few.”

What the latter source appears to not appreciate is that this tittle-tattle was nipped in the bud between 1999 and 2006; basically the inter-regnum period between Ashdown and Campbell. Kennedy had many faults, but he at least appreciated the danger of a third party getting distracted by this sort of endless speculation. By contrast, and in spite of his rhetoric, Campbell is developing a talent for getting dragged into this non-issue.

And of course Ashdown used to make a habit of dismissing this “tittle-tattle”. He used to enjoy denouncing anyone who claimed he had been having secret talks with Blair as fantasists and liars. I should know; back when I was the (elected) LDYS sabbatical, his office leant on the LDYS Chair to get me sacked. Then, months after stepping down as leader, he flogged his diaries to Rupert Murdoch for a six-figure sum in which he proudly boasted about the wool he had been pulling over our eyes.

As such, Liberal Democrats ought to be highly sceptical about statements that, once again, we should believe that there is smoke without fire, especially given how integral Campbell was last time around.

As for the substance of what is being suggested, it seems hard to understand what the Lib Dems’ role is here. Apparently “Mr Brown is thinking of launching an all-party initiative on the future of the British constitution, and it may be that he would like a senior Liberal Democrat involved on a specific basis. He may also make a move on Iraq that could require the help of other parties.” So why aren’t these talks happening with Cameron as well? Is this a return of the Joint Cabinet Committee on constitutional reform? Back then it turned out to be a complete waste of time; bipartisanship on constitutional reform in any case leaves almost as much a sour taste in the mouth as unipartisanship. Both models are concerned primarily about self-interest as opposed to the nation’s. The debate in democratic reform circles is currently coalescing around new models such as Citizens’ Assemblies: these ideas don’t require bipartisanship and have the advantage of being under the control of members of the public. The thought of Campbell and Brown stitching up the electoral system and other reforms together isn’t just undemocratic (and I can guarantee that we would never get PR for the Commons out of such a negotiation), but frankly a little old-fashioned.

The lesson that the Welsh Lib Dems have taught me over the past month is that we should never say never to the idea of coalition. We should have red lines. But Campbell’s infamous Harrogate speech earlier this year illustrated all too clearly that Labour is currently in breach of pretty much every red line we might care to come up with. So what is there to discuss? There is no halfway compromise between the Lib Dems’ position on civil liberties and Labour’s. It’s all or nothing. Sorry if I come over all tribalist here, but I don’t consider human rights negotiable in exchange for local fucking income tax (or even, dare I say it, LVT).

Instead of this distraction, Ming ought to be redoubling his efforts to give his own party better definition. Last week’s housing policy launch demonstrated that we still have much work to do on our presentation. Any negotiation now is from a position of weakness, not strength. I still believe the party can turn itself around in time for the next General Election, but not if Campbell keeps allowing this sort of speculation to break out.

UPDATE: The official Party line –

There is no prospect of any Liberal Democrat joining the Brown Government.

On so many issues, the Tories and Labour are part of a cosy consensus and Liberal Democrats are the real opposition.

Tories and Labour now agree on:

  • tax breaks for the richest
  • the Iraq War
  • council tax
  • nuclear power
  • student tuition fees

The need for a strong independent Liberal Democrat party, to challenge the cosy consensus of Labour and Conservatives has never been stronger. We are committed to remain that strong and principled voice of opposition.

Sounds good to me. I would wryly observe that some of us have been pushing this ‘cosy consensus’ line for some time and have been rebuffed. Indeed, I recall Ming dismissing it during the leadership election Question Time last year when Chris Huhne mentioned it. C’est la vie.

Twisting in the Welsh wind

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.