Media endorsements are building a narrative to keep Cameron in office, whatever the result

Those of you who read Simon Wren-Lewis will understand his concept of ‘mediamacro’ – the tale of the UK’s macroeconomic situation over the last few years as reported and explained by the media. It’s a simple morality tale where the country overspent and now has to repay its debts, because just like a family budget, you have to pay off your credit card eventually. It’s easily repeated, easily expressed and also completely wrong in depicting how a national economy actually works. However, it’s a very useful story to have as the official narrative if you want to justify a certain set of ‘austerity’ policies.

What we’ve been seeing over the past few weeks of this election campaign, amplified over the past few days is what we could term ‘mediapolitics’ if it wasn’t such an ugly word. However, like mediamacro, it’s an attempt to report and explain the possible post-election situation in simple and easily-understandable terms that are completely wrong but very useful in pushing forward a certain set of political parties as the next Government.

As with mediamacro, it’s an attempt to create a framing narrative for post-election discussions. Just as mediamacro doesn’t question the assumption that all debt is bad and all debt must be paid off as soon as possible, so the political narrative is based on the idea that any Government formed post-election must be ‘stable’ and ‘legitimate’. These are useful words because they sound like they should be objective definitions, capable of being used to discriminate between different outcomes, when in terms of the way British politics and government work, they’re entirely subjective and capable of being used however you wish. It’s effectively the media accepting the Tory ‘coalition of chaos’ slogan and assuming that there would be questions over the potential stability and legitimacy of a government relying on the SNP, but not of one that needs at least the passive acquiescence of the DUP, UKIP and the Better Off Out wing of the Tories to survive.

This narrative then sets the tone for reporting on Friday and beyond, if the result is in line with the current forecasts: David Cameron will be portrayed as bravely staying in Downing Street to out together a stable government that can run the country, while Ed Miliband will be said to be cutting back room deals and threatening the stability of the country by refusing to denounce a backbench Labour MP who suggests talking to the SNP. The Tories will be portrayed as ‘winners’ for having got a handful more seats and votes and will thus possess some sort of ineffable momentum that gives them the right to form a Government, while Labour will be the sore losers, standing in the way of the will of the people.

(If there’s one lesson British politics in this election needs to learn from American politics it’s the way these sort of media narratives were used to spin the 2000 Presidential election. The right-wing media aggressively pushed the line that Bush had won Florida, and all the attempts to show otherwise were just being sore losers. Rather than fighting fire with fire, the left meekly decided to let the courts decide it, letting the right create the accepted narrative of events.)

One of the interesting things about this narrative is its flexibility. For the early part of the campaign, the message was simply about getting the Tories a majority to ensure they could be a stable and legitimate government but as the election has progressed, it’s become clear that the public are stubbornly refusing to break the ongoing opinion poll tie and so the Tories will likely not be able to stumble over the finish line by themselves. So, all the media endorsements of who to vote for aren’t a simple ‘vote Tory’ but add in a ‘vote Lib Dem in a few places as well’. As Jennie Rigg pointed out last week, no matter how gleefully you quote sections out of context, that’s not an endorsement of the Lib Dems, it’s an endorsement of the Lib Dem role in coalition now it’s become clear that the party is needed to ensure the Tories continue in Government. The Independent’s endorsement says that almost explicitly, and when even the Sun is recommending that people vote Lib Dem in seats that threaten Labour, it’s clear that something’s up.

Those endorsements aren’t about backing Liberal Democrat principles or wanting to see the party govern on its own, they’re about binding the party permanently into the right-wing bloc within the Parliamentary arithmetic to ensure Cameron can stay in office. ‘We backed you as part of the coalition, so now you have to go ahead and be part of it again’ will be the message given out on Friday and afterwards with the expectation being that negotiations won’t be over whether there can be another coalition with the Tories but merely what shape it will take and which pledges the Tories will symbolically shed to let it happen. Unless Labour can confound this narrative by winning both in terms of votes and seats, there’ll be extraordinary pressure to ensure that ‘the winner of the election’ be allowed to form a Government. It’s highly unlikely Cameron will find the press calling him ‘the squatter in Downing Street’.

And yes, Liberal Democrat members will have a say in deciding if the party goes into coalition again or not, but the same pressure of the narrative will apply here. How dare you presume to go against the winner of the election? The people have spoken! We must be in Government to ensure it’s stable and legitimate, etc etc The membership will get a vote, but they’ll only get to cast that vote once the media have decided the frame it will be cast within – do you support a stable government for the country, or do you want to bring the illegitimate losers to power and send the entire country into chaos? Besides, we’ll likely here how the Federal Executive and Conference are just arcane committees stuffed full of sandal-wearing bearded weirdos who shouldn’t be allowed to hold the country to ransom. And what’s all this about a two-thirds majority being required? That’s just some bizarre procedural foible that’s standing in the way of us having the stable government we need.

The narrative is being built and the rest of the media will fall in line with it, just as they have with mediamacro, because it makes it so much easier if you can portray elections as having clear winners and losers. Complexity – especially the idea that elections might not be about simple winners and losers – takes time to explain, the narrative wins out. We need both to challenge it and build a counter to it, or everything will be settled by the time our brains are working properly again on Saturday.

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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.


It’s been yet another day of potential coalition deal and red line statements, which is a refereshing change from the restating of the same policies in several different ways. Now we just get the same information about coalition deals being expressed in many different ways, of which the most pertinent information is that Ed Miliband doesn’t want to work with the SNP, David Cameron still won’t rule out any deal with UKIP and Nick Clegg will be happy to work with either of them, but he’d prefer an exclusive relationship. All of this does make me wonder if there’s a huge tempting of fate going on, and what we’re going to get is the polling situation unravelling over the next week so someone gets the barest of majorities. At that point, we all get to spend a few years discovering just how much any large political party is a coalition. Just imagine the fun of watching David Cameron held to ransom by the Better Off Out wing, or any attempt at radicalism from Miliband being stymied by the Blairite rump.

Anyway, Alex Harrowell has a good post on why the number of undecided voters polling is finding in Scotland explains Miliband’s current antipathy to the SNP.

We’re seeing more and more newspaper and other endorsements as polling day gets closer, but I think we’re going to look in vain for anyone endorsing the Liberal Democrats. That hasn’t spotted some people squinting and claiming that a ‘if our preferred party can’t win, maybe consider backing them’ is a proper endorsement because slim pickings are better than nothing, right? Jennie Rigg explains here why those sort of endorsements really aren’t good news, and at the time of writing still hasn’t had one of the pod person disciples of bland centrism come along to tell her how wonderful life is in the middle.

Away from the middle, let’s go to the North East instead for today’s minor party looking to make a breakthrough, and it’s another one of England’s regional parties, the aptly named North East Party. They’re standing four candidates (all in the North East, obviously) on a programme of bringing in a proper North East Government on a par with the other devolved governments of the UK. They do appear to have a positive manifesto – talking up what they want for their own region, instead of complaining about what others have – and also proposing to fund the regeneration of the North East through introducing a land value tax, which automatically pricks up my old Liberal ears.

Parties like the North East Party and Yorkshire First (who I looked at a couple of weeks ago) are an interesting development in the development of English politics after the Scottish referendum, and indicate the problems that could come in trying to find a one size fits all devolutionsolution that covers all of England without any regionalism. Of course, this could all falter at the ballot box, but their candidates are mostly in seats where people can cast a vote for them without too much worry as the results a foregone conclusion.

Finally, here’s a little bit of oddness found on Election Leaflets: a leaflet clearly targeted at Labour voters in Wallasey (Angela Eagle’s constituency) and seeming to encourage them to vote for UKIP, but actually from the Conservatives. It’s a deeply weird leaflet, criticising Labour from the traditional left – Danczuk’s ‘metropolitan elite’ claims and Ed Miliband is pro-auterity, for instance – and an odd comparison of the parties at the end of it. Apart from the imprint and a small ‘Conservatives’ on the front, you’d have no idea who it came from with the aim seeming to be pure negative campaign, suppressing the Labour vote in an effort to benefit from the wrecking tactic. It’s the sort of thing that would previously have been a local curio, but now we all get to see it – and point Tories to it when they complain about other people being negative.

145 hours and thirty minutes till the polls close and the real fun begins…

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What would it take to have a Tory-Labour coalition government?

It seems that the prospect of some kind of grand coalition is the bad idea that will not die of the moment, probably given an extra burst of unlife by the election campaign having started yesterday despite no one wanting it to. There’s more of a link than just that coincidence, too, as both are pretty much just obsessions of the Westminster bubble right now, with no real relevance to anyone outside it.

As I said in my post at the weekend, I don’t think a Tory-Labour government is likely after the next election, or indeed any election unless there’s some crisis driving it. (This, of course, is assuming we have the same electoral and party system as we do now – when that’s changed, as it has in Scotland, it’s much more likely to happen)

The sort of crisis it would take wouldn’t be just a single election that doesn’t deliver a clear majority or an obvious coalition of one big party and one small party. In that circumstance, I believe we would end up with a minority government that would attempt to survive by numerous deals with other parties. It probably wouldn’t last too long (though never underestimate the power of party discipline) but would be much more preferable to Labour or the Tories than a coalition with their ancient enemy.

What there’d also be in the run-up to the following election (be it six months or a year away) would be massive pressure from the media to the public on the lines of ‘you’ve had your fun, now make a proper decision this time’. The hope would be to end any incipient crisis (or at least kick it a few years down the road) by getting a majority government (or at least a workable coalition) from a second election. However, if that didn’t happen, we’d be into a political crisis, and I could imagine that you would then get a grand coalition of some sort. It might not last a full term, but I suspect it would come in to try and deliver some changes to the system to deliver stable government in future. (In other words, electoral reform that benefits large parties, not small ones)

The other option would be if there was some international crisis (economic and/or geopolitical) that prompted the need for some form of national unity government. That’s what prompted national governments in the UK in the past, but there don’t seem to be any of sufficient scale on the horizon to justify a national government. There’s my hostage to fortune, so come May when we’re facing Putin’s invasion or the complete collapse of the European economy triggered by a Syriza-led government in Greece, feel free to mock me for it.

There have been occasions since WW2 when circumstances could have led to Britain having another national government but luck and electoral timing appear to have spared us from it. For instance, if the second election of 1974 hadn’t delivered a majority and certain allegations about Jeremy Thorpe had come out, a national government might have been the only solution. (And there have always been dark rumours about things happening behind the scenes to make this happen)

Another more recent potential might have been if Gordon Brown had gone for an election in late 2007, and then found himself facing the full blast of the global financial crisis with little or no Parliamentary majority. Pressure to at least find some way to bring the Opposition closer to Government could have been immense, and who knows where we might have ended up?

The British system has been very good for years at dodging full-on crises, and it most likely will again, but it takes a major crisis to provoke a response that’s wildly beyond the norm and I don’t think one inconclusive election will be enough to make it happen.

Having realised that the long weekend after New Year is a very boring time for much of its target audience, the Guardian has decided to liven things up. All news websites now use clickbait headlines and articles to drag in readers looking to be offended by something wilfully controversial, and the Guardian is no different. Sure, it likes to pretend to be above that, and it doesn’t employ any of the Jan Moirs, Richard Littlejohns or Jeremy Clarksons who are masters of the clickbait article, but this piece by Ian Birrell is clearly intended as pure clickbait. (And from the number of people I’ve seen linking to it, very successful clickbait it is too)

Like all clickbait it begins with a catchy headline that will already be getting many of its readers angry at the implications – proposing a Tory-Labour grand coalition is a sure way of angering members of both parties – and then spends a few hundred words trying to justify the headline, hopefully stoking the flames of outrage. People then discuss their outrage on social media – complete with links to the article to help others get outraged – and the website editors sit back and smile as they watch the clicks roll in.

And like so much clickbait, the ideas it’s putting forward don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Unity governments of the sort Birrell proposes aren’t just rare in British politics, they’re rare in almost all countries. Yes, Germany has had two recently, but Germany’s a special case where not only the electoral mathematics and party positions forced it, but there’s also a strong aversion to minority governments (from what I can tell, they’re incredibly uncommon even at the state level) and Angela Merkel remains strikingly popular.

In Britain, by contrast, there isn’t a prescription against minority government – one of the arguments for the coalition within the Liberal Democrats was the alternative was a Conservative minority government – and national governments have only arisen in response to crises, not election results. There’s no Merkel-esque figure in British politics for a national government to form around, and the costs to the parties of agreeing it would be immense.

The mathematics might make a Tory-Labour coalition possible (as they did in 2010) but that’s about the only thing that does. For it to come about, it would have to be the least worst of all the options available to both parties after the election and short of some unforeseen international crisis erupting before then, I don’t see the circumstances in which that could happen. If various combinations of nationalist parties hold enough seats to make a coalition with the Liberal Democrats unworkable for either party, I’m still sure that whichever is the larger would find running a minority government much more appealing than a grand coalition. Why collaborate with the enemy when you have a realistic prospect of working without them?

It also forgets the level of animosity that exists between Labour and the Conservatives. As far as I’m aware, there’s only been one case recently of the two forming a coalition in local government (in Stockton-on-Tees a few years ago) and that was in some rather odd circumstances. Birrell might believe that replacing Miliband with Chuka Umunna would solve all those problems, but I’m not aware that Umunna was educated at Hogwarts to have the magical powers needed to make the majority of the Labour Party think it’s OK. Similarly, the idea that the Tory Party are so desperate to remain in power that this wouldn’t be Nigel Farage’s greatest ever recruitment tool requires forgetting decades of political history.

I’m expecting the next election to create a very interesting result, and for there to be some interesting times after it, but in the absence of a major crisis, a Tory-Labour coalition will not be part of those interesting times.

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Life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.

Philip K Dick, ‘Now Wait For Last Year’

It’s been a rather eventful day, but I think the situation for the Liberal Democrats still hasn’t changed. Clegg is playing a difficult hand extremely well, but for me the situation still looks as though all he can hope for is to get out with what proves to be the least worst option for him and the party. However, as you might expect in this situation, which option that will turn out to be won’t be obvious for six months or so when the commentators get to write the ‘why didn’t Clegg do X instead?’ articles.

There’s been a lot of commotion this evening over the supposed ‘progressive alliance’ that might now be a possibility. Leaving aside my habitual concerns over the use of the word ‘progressive’, even with Brown out of the way, I’m still not sure this would make for a workable and stable government. Even if one assumes that the entire Parliamentary Labour Party could be brought into line to support the promises that are being made now, any Commons vote would be entirely dependent on keeping some combination of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the DUP in agreement, which is nothing more than a recipe for Alex Salmond or Peter Robinson to hold the Government to ransom every time they watch their opinion poll ratings start to fall.

But then, neither of the Tory options – either a full-fledged coalition, or a looser confidence and supply arrangement for a minority government – would have been high on the Liberal Democrat pre-election wishlist. The first offers the chance of a chunk of the party’s support and membership walking out on the grounds that they can’t suffer a deal with the Tories, while the latter leaves the Damoclean threat of David Cameron calling an election the moment he thinks he can get an outright majority and crush us into the dust while Labour’s new leader gathers up the rest of our disaffected support. If we’re lucky we go back to the position we were in during the 70s.

In that ideal world we’re not living in, I’d love us to be able to hold up our hands, take a step back, say ‘you know what, you can sort it out between yourselves’ and let them form some grand Labservative coalition. The other day I was thinking that was possible, remembering back to what happened in Germany in 2005, then realised they have fixed term Parliaments which would encourage a solution like that when a minority Chancellor can’t just cut and run when they want to. Besides, us saying we don’t want to deal with someone is hardly an advert for the new politics we like to advocate. While perhaps not what we were envisaging this time last week, this is the sort of situation we’ve wanted to be in, and if we don’t take this opportunity now it’s here, why should anyone take us seriously in the future?


Why rush?

Following that Dutch article I linked to yesterday, I’ve been looking into how coalitions get formed in other countries and found some interesting information about the aftermath of the German elections of 2005.

The election took place on September 18 and returned an inconclusive result, with the CDU and SPD almost equal on seats and neither able to achieve a majority with their preferred coalition party (the FDP for the CDU, the Greens for the SPD). First each of the big parties tried to arrange a coalition with both the small parties and when those failed, they ended up negotiating for a grand coalition of the CDU and SDP. Agreement in principle on that was finally reached on October 10 – 22 days after the election – with detailed negotiations carrying on into November with Angela Merkel not being elected as Chancellor until 22 November – 2 months after the election. Even in 2009, with an election that resulted in a much clearer result, it took a month for the CDU and FDP to agree all the details of their coalition.

Now, do you remember the German economy or society collapsing at either time? Even last year, when there was a global financial crisis, no one panicked that adults were taking the time to talk things through and get them right, rather than forcing Merkel and Gudio Westerwelle to come to an agreement in the shortest possible time. This mad insistence that we must have an agreement and we must have a government and we must have it now is nothing more than that good old fashioned British principle of “something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done”.

I still don’t know whether I’ll agree or not with whatever the various negotiations come up with, but I’m mature enough to wait for them to go through calm and reasonable discussions, instead of expecting them to engage in some form of political speed dating with the news media holding guns to their heads while screaming at them to do something.

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