So, Phil left a comment here which he’s since expanded into a full post. I suppose I should respond before the expansion rate of his responses really picks up and it turns into a book, but be warned that this may ramble.

Phil is quite scathing of my suggestion that Labour and the Liberal Democrats could work together in the future, saying it “would evince heroic levels of chutzpah (and not in a good way)” on the part of the Lib Dems. In that, he’s probably right, but I’m an optimist about this sort of thing right now, and to join a party that’s not one of the big two in a FPTP system is taking a position where you know you’re going to need huge reserves of chutzpah if you’re going to accomplish anything. However, I’m not suggesting that the two new leaders should be getting together this year and agreeing a joint strategy for the next few years, just that given the situation both parties find themselves in, working alone isn’t going to help anyone.

And yes, for every “making five years of Tory government possible and laying the groundwork for another five” we could respond with questions about just how much responsibility Labour has for the ongoing chaos in the Middle East and enabling the re-election of George Bush in 2004. We all know the past is an important part of politics – one force that keeps political parties together is a shared understanding of their past, I’d argue – but I think there comes a point where you have to put that behind you. It may be that mutual distrust means nothing can be agreed, even informally, before 2020 – one of the things that made 90s co-operation easier was David Owen finally disappearing from the stage – but it feels to me that the actual facts of voter behaviour make it the best opportunity for both parties.

One thing I’ve been looking at in my dissertation research is the question of equidistance and the idea of a centre party in a two-and-a-half party system being able to switch between supporting either of the other two parties. The example normally given is Germany’s FDP, and that’s because it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t occur much in party systems, with the only other example I’ve found at the moment being Belgium from the end of WW2 to the break up of the parties along language lines. However, while in both of those the liberal party was a part of governments of both left and right, there was an additional factor present there – grand coalition governments where left and right worked together and excluded the liberals were possible. The political system of both countries in that period wasn’t a straight line of left-centre-right but a triangle with socialism, Christian democracy and liberalism at the three points and links between all three being possible.

Even for all the talk of Labservatives, that’s not the system we have here – and it’s not the situation they have in those two countries either. Belgium’s party system is now quite chaotic with multiple new types of parties split across linguistic divides, and Germany’s become much more multi-party with more distinct left and right blocs. Given the electoral kicking the Liberal Democrats have just received while running on an almost explicitly equidistance campaign, it might be safe to say that it’s not a workable strategy anywhere any more, if it ever was.

The point here is that if the Liberal Democrats have a future (and Dan Falchikov makes some good points on that) within the current electoral system, we have to pick a side. We may have to wear hairshirts for a few years to show our atonement for previous errors, but what’s more important is having an actual message and identity of our own, not a split-the-difference middle of the road one.

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liblablieIt will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been at a Liberal Democrat Glee Club or said the words ‘Liberal Democrats’ to anyone in the Labour Party over the past few years that the general reaction to Jamie Reed’s proposal that Labour and the Liberal Democrats merge has been a resounding ‘no’ from both sides. It’s the sort of idea that people should dismiss as a non-starter, but because it was apparently seriously considered by both Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair in the 90s, it’s acquired a veneer of respectability and possibility that it doesn’t really deserve. It’s a bad idea that only looks vaguely plausible because of the distorting lens of the British electoral system – because two parties separately don’t get the representation in Parliament that’s commensurate with their separate shares of the vote, the assumption becomes that they must become one, and somehow combine their vote shares into something greater. That people vote for those parties based on their separate identities, and would not necessarily vote for a combined mush of the two, is assumed away.

There’s a reason that splits of political parties are much, much more common than mergers of them: it’s a lot more common and easier for people – especially politicians – to believe that they’re right and need their own organisation to prove it than it is for people from different groups to decide that they’d both be better off if they come together permanently. The merger that created the Liberal Democrats was the last major one in British politics, and that not only nearly killed the new party but also created two disgruntled splinter parties. That was with the benefit of two parties that had worked under an electoral part for two elections and where Roy Jenkins had initially considered joining the Liberal Party rather than establishing the SDP. Other mergers involving major parties (the Tories swallowing the Liberal Unionists and then the National Liberals) only happened after many years of the two parties involved having worked closely together.

However, it’s perfectly possible for parties to work together and co-ordinate electorally without merging. Indeed, it’s the sort of thing that happens regularly in other countries. It’s a lot easier to do that in a proportional voting system, of course, where parties within a grouping are free to compete with each other, knowing that moving votes from one party to another within that bloc won’t affect the overall electoral prospects of that bloc. For instance, assume a country with four parties (A,B,C, and D) that exist broadly as two blocs – A and B would usually work together in government, as would C and D, but a combination other than those two would be very unlikely. Now, imagine that A gets 30% of the vote, B 25%, C 40% and D 5%. In a proportional system, A and B can compete freely with each other and most likely would over the 5% of voters that would determine which of them is the largest party. However, their combined 55% of seats would put them into power. In the same way, C and D’s prime focus would be on trying to shift voters from the AB bloc to theirs. In a system like ours, though, we instead have a situation where A and B competing only benefits C, unless large chunks of B voters can be persuaded to switch to A (or vice versa).

In the latter situation, it might seem that the logical solution is to get A and B to merge, as they’ll get 55% of the vote – but only if all their existing voters will back the newly merged party. However, unless the two parties wer already nearly identical in their policy positions, that’s very unlikely to happen, as the newly merged party will have to try and find common ground between the two parties’ positions that will likely alienate former voters.

Before I detour completely into dissertation-land and regale you with more Downs and Mair theory on party positioning, I’ll try and get to a point – and for once on this issue, I find myself in general agreement with Paddy Ashdown.From the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, there was electoral co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and it proved to be one of the most electorally successful periods ever for both parties. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the majority of Liberal Democrat seats have been won from the Tories, or had the Tories in second place, and a lot of those were won thanks to co-operation with Labour – sure, it wasn’t official co-operation but there’s no doubt that there were plenty of seats in 1997 where one of the two parties put in very little effort which made it easier for the other to persuade voters to switch and back them as the best anti-Tory choice. (Incidentally, the bulk of the seats with Lib Dems in second place are now Tory-held)

I’m not saying that any agreement could be accomplished easily or quickly, but ruling it out entirely only plays into the Tories hands – the evidence suggests that they’re the ones who benefit the most when Labour and Liberals are too busy turning their noses up at each other to understand we share a common enemy. Yes, we’ll all have to sit through shouts of ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (whilst we shout ‘illegal war’ and ‘ID cards’ back, of course) but shouldn’t we at least see if something’s possible without ruling it out without even discussing it?

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British politics has a lot of odd traditions and one of the more recent of them was begun by Michael Foot. He was the first major party leader to resign immediately after an election defeat, something that hadn’t happened before but is now de rigeur for defeated party leaders.

However, while there are some good reasons for a defeated leader to move on to other things ASAP, this creates a whole new set of problems for the party, especially given how our political system is now. This is shown most clearly by what’s happening with Labour right now where the party is attempting to find a new leader while also trying to work out what went wrong in 2015. The problem this brings is that the candidate who might have the best assessment of the situation now is by no means guaranteed to be the best choice to be leading the party into the next election but the way things are set up, that’s what they’ll get. (Ian Dunt makes a similar argument today)

The problem with the British system is that party leaders – particularly in opposition – are expected to combine multiple roles. On one hand, they’re the person responsible for directing and co-ordinating the work of the party in between elections, while on the other (particularly as a general election draws near) they’re the party’s lead candidate and potential Prime Minister. The assumption we make is that somehow, one person will be the best fit for both of those roles, despite the evidence showing that it’s much more likely to find someone who’d excel in one position and not the other. For instance, William Hague did some very important work in sorting out the organisation of the Conservative Party while he was leader but was absolutely terrible as a lead campaigner, while Charles Kennedy was a brilliant campaigner for the Liberal Democrats but none of the tributes to him from the last week have been about his organisational abilities.

The conflation of the two roles is a problem for all parties, but particularly pronounced for major parties whose leaders are expected to be Prime Ministerial candidates. This is a situation that doesn’t happen in other countries: German parties choose their ‘Chancellor candidate’ a few months before the election is scheduled and even in the ridiculously lengthy US election process, there’s a two-year gap before candidates for the next Presidential election declare themselves. Labour, by contrast, are hoping that the questions ‘who can best rebuild the party?’ and ‘who’ll be the best Labour candidate for Prime Minister in 2020?’ have the same answer, even though we have very little idea of what the political situation will be like in 2020. We don’t even know who’ll be leading the Tories then, and Labour will be handing them the advantage of being able to choose the best leader to combat their choice, rather than the other way round.

I’ve written before about interim leaders and how Labour need a John Smith right now rather than thinking they can magically summon a new Blair, but I think there’s a more fundamental question of ‘what is a party leader for?’ that’s not being addressed in the Labour contest. Liz Kendall’s suggestion of a 2018 ‘break clause’ for a new leader is perhaps the most sensible idea put forward in a contest that’s been particularly short of them and would give Labour the chance to properly divide up the roles of leader: choose someone now to get things on track, then decide in 2018 if they or someone else are the best person to put forward as Prime Minister.

Officials count ballot papers in WitneyHaving a small masochistic streak in me, I watched some of Andrew Marr’s show this morning, so got to see Yvette Cooper saying that maybe adopting the Tory manifesto for their next set of policies wasn’t the best approach for the Labour Party. It’s the sort of thing that should be obvious, but in the rather bizarre world of the mainstream political commentariat it’s almost heresy. After all, Labour was comprehensively defeated in the election while the Tories stormed to a resounding victory, which proves that the country has swung decisively to the right in its attitudes and everyone should just agree with them.

It’s an interesting argument, except for the fact that it rests on a foundation of utter bollocks. Labour’s share of the vote went up by more than the Tories did, David Cameron got fewer votes than Neil Kinnock did in 1992 and all the evidence suggests that the public mood is actually moving leftwards and will continue to do so during the Parliament. Five years ago, Labour let the consensus mediamacro opinion that they were somehow solely responsible for the global financial crisis form while they were busy with their leadership contest, but this time they actually appear to be using their contest to support the formation of a new consensus that the 2015 election was some epochal rejection of the Labour Party, not just a defeat.

As Andrew Rawnsley points out in the Observer today, the only reason we have this narrative is because of our thoroughly broken electoral system that allows a party with 37% of the vote to pretend it has a huge mandate, while one with 31% has been thumpingly rejected. Instead of talking about how one party is mildly more popular than the other, we instead have to act out a bizarre farce where the ‘winners’ of the election are treated as though they have the majority of the population enthusiastically backing them, not just the largest plurality.

The problem for Labour is that their commitment to the current electoral system – in the hope that it will deliver them a similar majority from a plurality if the pendulum swings back to them – means they have to act like the Tories are an actual majority, not just the representatives of 37% of the voters. That’s why they end up pushed into a narrative of having to show their agreement with the Tory manifesto because it’s assumed that they have to take votes from them to win next time, ignoring the large chunk of voters that didn’t vote for either of them, and the even larger chunk of the electorate that didn’t vote at all. Cooper’s right to point out that the way forward for Labour isn’t swallowing the Tory manifesto, but to make that argument stick she’ll have to point out that one big reason the Tories are in a majority is because of the effect of the electoral system. While she’s stuck in pretending that a Parliamentary majority means something more than just a quirk of electoral mathematics, she can’t respond by pointing out that there are other paths Labour can take.

(Incidentally, it’s why I think Mark Thompson’s belief that Liz Kendall could call for electoral reform is wrong. Her pitch for the leadership is bound up tightly in pretending that the Tories are a real majority, so Labour must be more like them, and the arguments she’d need to make for electoral reform would severely weaken her pitch.)

Labour has been in this position before, and there were tentative moves towards adopting electoral reform before 1997, that ended up being quietly shelved once they realised that they could get the electoral system to make them look absurdly dominant. However, now they face a situation where the electoral system is looking very skewed against them, and they’ve got an uphill battle to get a plurality of Commons seats, let alone a majority. By admitting the reality of the electoral situation, Labour can give themselves a strong argument to both challenge the Tories and build co-operation between the opposition parties, all of whom except Labour are committed to some version of electoral reform. Sure, it won’t be popular with every part of the Labour Party, but I’m not detecting a huge wave of enthusiasm within the party for becoming the Tory Reserves either. If any of the leadership candidates want to push Labour away from capitulation to the Tory agenda, they have to challenge the narrative that’s presenting them as hegemonic, and challenging the electoral system is an important part of that. Do any of their candidates have the desire to make that challenge, or will they just be crossing their fingers and hoping for the best in 2020?

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I’m not going to make predictions about my own party’s leadership election, but I’m happy to guess the result of another’s four month before the result: Labour’s new team announced in September will be Liz Kendall as leader with Tom Watson as her deputy. I don’t have any solid psephological or political scientific grounds on which to make this call, but it’s a hunch that seems to fit with the facts at hand. Burnham and Cooper are increasingly portrayed as being part of the Miliband era which is now being routinely denounced as an aberration against the Party with all the fervour of a show trial, Mary Creagh likely won’t get the nominations to stand, and Kendall is being pushed as fresh, new, different and various other words used to avoid discussing any actual politics. (The Watson prediction is easier – Labour voters tend to balance across leader and deputy, and he’s the most obvious contrast to her. If I’m wrong and Andy Burnham wins, then Caroline Flint or Stella Creasy would likely be his deputy.)

The question this bring up for me is a simple one: where has she come from? The first time I can recall hearing her mentioned was back in February when one comment about private health care apparently made her a leading contender for the party leadership but I honestly can’t say I’d heard her name before then, and I’m someone who pays attention to politics. It feels as though she’s a Michael Rimmer or Harold Saxon-type character, where her leadership credentials appear to consist mostly of the media telling us about her leadership credentials which are that other people in the media think she’s a credible candidate for leader.

It’s not even as if she’s offering anything that seems strikingly new to me, with her pitch being that the electorate is supposedly moving to the right (a claim at odds with the actual evidence) so Labour must apparently pursue the Tories out to the fringes because “winning is too important and we will do whatever it takes”. I don’t see anything in her vision for the Labour Party beyond it being merely about winning for the sake of winning, not because you might want to win power to do something with it.

So, I put this out as a question to any Labour members or supporters reading this: Is there something there that I’m missing? Has she been assiduously working behind the scenes to raise her profile amongst the party members and offering them a vision of the future? For those of you supporting her, why have you chosen her as your candidate and what do you think she gives that others don’t?

These are genuine questions – I’m genuinely trying to understand just why a candidate who seems to have been come from out of nowhere, prepared and presented entirely by the current political consensus is so appealing to Labour members, because it’s baffling me.

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johnsmithWith many parties in flux right now, it’s a prime time for everyone to offer them advice, especially those outside the party with little to now knowledge of it, yet are absolutely sure they know what the party ought to be doing next. So, Labour people should feel free to completely ignore this on the grounds that I likely don’t know what I’m talking about.

The Labour Party leadership election appears to be taking place under a giant Tony Blair-shaped shadow, with much of the debate seeming to float around which of the candidates is the most Blairite, post-Blairite, worthy of the mantle of Blair etc That’s entirely natural, as Blair remains the only Labour leader to have won an election in the past forty years, but I think it misses a crucial part of the rise of Tony Blair.

The narrative of how Blair ‘made Labour electable again’ often ignores that Blair was not the leader the party turned to after its defeat in 1992. It was John Smith who the party turned to, and he was elected almost by acclaim, defeating Brian Gould by 91% to 9%. It was during Smith’s time as Shadow Chancellor that Labour had started to regain ground on the Tories on economic competence, and when he became leader he chose Gordon Brown to carry on that work as his Shadow Chancellor. Because of that work, when the Tory Government saw a complete collapse of its reputation for economic competence on Black Wednesday in 1992, Labour took a lead in the opinion polls under Smith that that they wouldn’t lose for the rest of the Parliament.

846_bigIt was Smith’s death in 1994 that gave Blair the chance to stand for the party leadership – likely several years before he ever expected it – and go on to become Prime Minister, but the important fact here is that Blair inherited a Labour Party that was already well ahead in the polls and widely expected to form the next Government even if the next election was still as much as three years away. To imagine that it was merely the election of Blair that somehow made Labour electable again is to ignore everything that was done before both by Smith (and Neil Kinnock before him) to put the party into a place where it could be seen as a credible choice again.

Regardless of the qualities of the candidates for the leadership this time, just imagining that electing one of them can magically replicate the Blair effect is to ignore the situation Blair inherited when he became leader. What Labour need is a new John Smith to steady the ship and do the work that needs to be done to reorganise the party’s strategy and policy before handing it over to whoever might be the ‘new Blair’ (or the first Jarvis/Creasy/Kendall/Cooper etc). I would suggest that what Labour need to do with this leadership election is consciously decide that now is not the time to decide who’s going to lead them into the 2020 election but instead a choose someone who’ll lead the party until 2018 or 2019, and do the work to rebuild the party that’s needed while encouraging the potential next leaders to develop their skills and public profiles, but not while being the sole focus of media attention as party leader.

As we’ve seen with Ed Miliband, five years is a long time to be Leader of the Opposition, and plenty of time for the media to slowly roast you while you have very little opportunity to actually do anything. Rather than putting someone else through that pressure again, wouldn’t Labour be better off asking someone like Harriet Harman or Alan Johnson to take on the job as an explicitly interim leader? That way, they can conduct the serious process of rebuilding the party ready to hand it on to their 2020 candidate, instead of thinking that five years of the sort of media pressure that’s made Chuka Umunna quit the contest after a week would be a good thing for any new leader.

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Less than 100 hours until the polling stations open, and thoughts are naturally turning more and more to just what the result of this election will be. Like everyone else, I’ve been pondering the various post-election deals that are possible and it feels to me that the key number of MPs either Labour or the Conservatives need to win to have a chance at forming a stable Government is around 290.

My thinking’s based on the current numbers for MPs from the other parties being suggested by the various forecasts: an SNP total of 40-50+, Liberal Democrats winning somewhere between 25-30 seats, Northern Irish seats remaining roughly the same, UKIP winning around 3 or 4 and Greens holding their one seat. What I assume is that neither Labour nor the Tories would make a deal with the SNP, but either would make one with the Liberal Democrats. What we can also do is assume that even in the absence of a deal, the other parties are likely to vote in a certain way, especially on issues of confidence.

The reason 290 is key is that it’s the point at which either main party in agreement with the Lib Dems would have enough support to be able to expect to win votes in Parliament regularly. For example, a Labour-Lib Dem government would expect the regular support of the SDLP and (Northern Ireland independent) Sylvia Hermon, and could probably count on Plaid Cymru and the Green’s Caroline Lucas (as well as Alliance’s Naomi Long if she’s re-elected) giving support as well in exchange for some concessions. So, 290 Labour MPs, plus 25-30 Lib Dem MPs and 10-12 others gives a Parliamentary majority without needing any deals with the SNP. Indeed, such an agreement would create a headache for the SNP (and George Galloway): vote against it and they’re voting with the Tories, abstain and they’re doing nothing in Parliament.

On the other side, the same applies but with fewer parties involved. With the support of the DUP, 290 Tories allied with the Lib Dems would have enough seats for a majority in Parliament without the need for any formal deal with UKIP (who’d face the same ‘vote with Labour or do nothing’ dilemma as the SNP in the other scenario) though getting Lib Dems to agree to a deal that formally involved the DUP might be tricky. Indeed, assuming that getting Lib Dems to agree to any deal is a simple matter of getting Clegg on board with it fails to account for the role of the wider party in agreeing it, as Jennie explains here.

They key point here, though, is that for both Labour and the Tories, 290 looks like being the key number of seats to win on Thursday (though that can go up or down depending on how many Lib Dem seats there are – the key figure is having around 315-320 for the two parties combined). If one of them (and the maths suggest it will be only one of them, unless the Scottish polls are way off) can make it there then they will very likely form the core of the next Government, but if neither of them can, then we can expect a long period of coalition negotiation and deal-making before we get a new Government and the shape of it won’t be clear for much longer.

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