What You Can Get Away With » coalitions

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?

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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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Some disorganised thoughts from me, that may or may not add up to a coherent whole. For those looking for a more thought-through opinion on all this, I suggest visiting the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator and working through the entries there. Or take a look at this Dutch perspective on the situation.

I can remember approaching the 2008 elections here in Colchester and we were looking at the prospects of what might happen afterwards. Out of all the possible results, it seemed that the one with the four groups at 27-23-7-3 would be the hardest to find a solution from. So obviously, that was the result we got. This seems like a similar position – the Conservatives where they can’t comfortably form a minority Government, and the combined Liberal Democrat-Labour position doesn’t result in a majority. While we did find a solution in Colchester, this does seem like a much more difficult position to resolve.

Mathematically, a Labour-Liberal Democrat combination, while it doesn’t lead to a majority, isn’t as weak as it might seem. Given that they could rely on the SDLP and Alliance MPs, they’d have 319 to the 307 Tories (assuming they hold Thirsk and Malton in three weeks) and it’s likely that they could get the support of enough from the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green and independent Unionist MPs to counter the likely Tory-DUP alliance. However, while that might seem possible from a blank slate, given the history and politics involved, it’d be an incredibly difficult solution to sell to the people, especially if it involved Gordon Brown remaining in office, even before you get to the whole issue of Labour’s authoritarian tendencies on civil liberties.

Some have suggested Gordon Brown, or perhaps some other figure, as effectively a caretaker PM for twelve months while this rainbow coalition pushes through a wide-ranging political reform package before a new election. However, to get this through, the wafer-thin majority in the Commons would require Brown to deliver the entire Labour Party through the Aye lobby, and there’s enough of a draconian tendency there to scupper any part of the reform package in favour of keeping their safe seats. There’s also the question of whether a Government made up of so many parties and with a small majority could push through any tough economic decisions that were required.

The problem with a Liberal-Conservative coalition is… well, you can finish that sentence in a number of ways, from a number of different perspectives and almost all of them would be correct. While it seems that Cameron and Clegg might get on personally, the rest of their parties don’t and trying to get through those decades of distrust, contempt and outright hatred at times is not going to be easy, if it’s even possible at all. However, to even get to that point, there has to be a resolution on the issue of electoral reform first.

Whatever happens, I think the media will get their ‘angry Lib Dems quit party’ story – not just people disgruntled at teaming up with one party or another, but even if he finds a way to not choose either, someone will doubtless get themselves their fifteen minutes of fame by claiming we should have done a deal and walk off in a huff because we didn’t.

I know I couldn’t support any coalition deal with any party that doesn’t have a clear and timetabled commitment to a referendum on electoral reform. Not just a Blair-esque ‘we’ll have a referendum at some point in the future’ promise but a definite date by which said referendum will happen. Without that sort of commitment, I can’t see how Clegg and his negotiators could get the backing of the Parliamentary Party or the Federal Executive for a coalition, let alone survive a party conference. Electoral reform is a fundamental part of the Liberal Democrats’ raison d’etre and it’s not something we’d give up on for a few ministerial cars.

However, I do think there is a way for Cameron to get round it, if he can sell it to his party. Remember that our demand is not for the Government to force through electoral reform itself, just a referendum on it. If the Conservatives feel so strongly about it, and think they’re right, then why should they shy away from putting that argument to the people and asking them to decide? Sure, have a committee of inquiry to decide what should be put to the public, but that committee has to have a deadline by which it must report it’s recommendations to Parliament, which will then agree a referendum. I’ve already heard a comparison made to the 1975 referendum on the Common Market where members of the same party campaigned on different sides of the issue yet were able to come together again afterwards.

Of course, even if that can be agreed, then we’ll turn to the rest of the agreement and what sort of policy commitments it requires, but that won’t happen until after the electoral reform question is settled.

Finally, the other option that’s not been brought up much is the possibility of some form of grand coalition or government of national unity. If talks between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives do break down then that might become the only workable option remaining on the table, but that’s something I’ll write more about if we get to that position.

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