Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Who would be Nick Clegg?

And breath!

Well... interesting doesn't begin to cover events since the end of the election.  Tories and Lib Dems speaking to each other from Friday on - Nick Clegg saying he'd speak to the largest party first.  Clegg (apparently) speaking to Labour behind Cameron's back.  Negotiations ongoing (and still ongoing) between the Tories and the Lib Dems.  And then, the Brown bombshell - Clegg speaking to Labour and Brown announcing he'd stand down as PM, start a Labour leadership contest and offering potentially more to the Liberal Democrats than they perhaps would like - in turn, forcing David Cameron to offer the Lib Dems more than he would like to.

What is hilarious tragic to watch is the unedifying spectacle of senior (and not so senior) Conservative and Labour figures wetting their pants about any potential deal.  Tories on most fronts are pissed that they didn't get a majority, and even more pissed than Clegg is considering what they call a "coalition of the losers".  But what they are even more annoyed about is the fact that Nick Clegg has a) been talking to Labour as well and b) has forced the Tories to offer much more - a full coalition deal AND a vote on PR - than they wanted to.  Similarly, some Labour MPs and former Labour MPs are fuming that Labour are considering trying to stay in power over the wishes of the electorate - feeling a) that the party were trounced in the election and b) that any Labour-led government would have to pander to the whims of "minor" parties.

As for the Lib Dems - well, they are in rock and hard place territory.  Decide to work with the Tories, and they are pilloried - and will be whacked by the electorate at the next election for supporting a party that did not win a majority.  Work with Labour (in what would still be a minority coalition) and be pilloried for forming a "coalition of losers", propping up a government that was rejected by 70% of the electorate - and they will be whacked by the electorate next time out.  A third option - to ignore the courting of both Tories and Labour and to sit out government, backing the Tories in votes of confidence as they run a minority government - is equally unappealing, given one of the primary reasons to vote Lib Dem was to put them in a position to influence government, a point that voters would not let them forget if they were to ignore that opportunity.

For me, I think, the Lib Dems are screwed electorally, unless they can get PR not only on the table but through the statute books.  Think about it.  In Scotland the electorate would punish them for joining the Tories in government.  They'd suffer in the likes of Devon & Cornwall (where they are the main competition for the Tories) if they supported Labour.  And if they sat back then no one would listen to them when they said "well, here's what we would do if we got an opportunity in government".  PR gives them an opportunity to get at least a proportional number of seats to their vote, something which would further slide under FPTP if they went into coalition.

I'll be honest - for me this is fascinating territory.  It's the stuff I study, and the idea of the Liberal Democrats facing a decision that would take them into power for the first time is worthy of much further discussion.  If any of you are interested, Kris Deschouwer's book "New Parties in Government - In Power for the First Time" is well worth a look, detailing as it does the decision-making process here.  Obviously, some caveats - it is focused on Europe, where this sort of thing is fairly common, and primarily on Green parties, who tend to be the new parties taking power.  But the decisions are the same.  Equally, Muller & Strom's "Policy, Office or Votes" covers the same ground, but provides a decision triangle of trade-offs:  is the party's interest in taking office, delivering policies or securing votes, and how will the delivery of one or more of the aspects affect the others.  

This is the prism through which I'm looking at the Lib Dem decision.  Personally, I don't have a preference for what they do - I don't buy the "democratic deficit" crap that frightened Tories (and indeed, former Labour ministers Blunkett, Reid & Harris) are spouting in the event of a Lib-Lab pact with an "unelected" PM.  The only way we get an unelected PM is if Lords Mandelson, Adonis or Sugar take over the Labour party, and though I believe they can be stupid, they are not that stupid.  So enough about this unelected PM business.  I also don't buy that because Labour lost the election they don't have a right to form a government.  Talks between the Tories & Lib Dems pretty much stalled.  Memo to Dave:  if you can't get an agreement, they will walk away.  Progressive alliance or coalition of the losers?  It's really up to the electorate.  If it provides a "stable coalition" (and I'm not sold that it will) they will deliver their verdict in four years time.  If not, we may get our say again sooner.

One thing for me is clear - we gave up our right to decide who the government should be when we provided no party with a comprehensive mandate to run the country.  Now we wait until they sort it out - it happens right across Europe.  In the immortal words of Mr Gary Barlow, just have a little patience...


James Mackenzie 11 May 2010 at 11:25  

The thing I was trying to remember in the pub last night was Mao's similar triad - space, time and will.

The Long March was the most famous example, whereby the exercise of extraordinary will allowed them to cede space and buy time, time enough to win in the end.

There's something in there, but I'm not sure what!

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