Should we give the Lib Dems a break?

My colleague Postcode Politics argued recently that the Lib Dems should leave the coalition government. You have caused immeasurable harm to your party and your country, wrote PP. I agreed with almost every word. The Lib Dems are propping up an unelected government. They do not have enough sway around the Cabinet table to justify this situation. However, I am left feeling a bit uneasy about the whole thing. Part of me does want to say that the stick that Clegg and co are getting is a little undeserved. Read more of this post

If UK politics were Tottenham Hotspur, then coalition government would be David Beckham

If UK politics were Tottenham Hotspur, then coalition government would be David Beckham: it may have worked well under different conditions in the past, but everybody knows deep down that it’s already past its peak. It turns up, looks pretty, basks in the hype for a while, but never really delivers – then succumbs to its inevitable shortcomings before limping off back to the Never-Never Land of world football.

LeftCentral reported a few weeks ago on the gradual desertion of Lib Dem luminaries from the government camp. Since then, Vince Cable has been humiliated around the Cabinet table after being left armourless in his war on Murdoch, and Simon Hughes has been getting increasingly anxious about the direction of health and welfare reforms. We may well be witnessing the beginning of the end of the new politics.

And if yesterday’s panicked announcement on the bank levy was George Osborne’s way of getting tough on the institutions that brought the UK economy to the brink of collapse, before demanding the kind of hand-outs that are now being stripped from their victims, then surely one or two more Liberal Democrats will be getting twitchy. They won’t be pleased to hear that the Conservatives receive more than half of their donations in the City of London – the Tories and the City are the real coalition governing this country.

Major League Soccer in the US might be the Never-Never Land of world football, but it can also be compared to the prospects of minority government in UK politics. No matter how hard you try, no matter how big your society is, or how fat your cheque book, it just isn’t going to work. So Becks may well be back in a few months, wearing a different strip perhaps.

Lib Dem luminaries should stay put

This week has seen a raft of luminaries, and even a genuine A-Lister in Colin Firth, announced their desertion from the Liberal Democrats. I think we do need to applaud anyone who makes a principled political stand – it does take a certain amount of courage. But it does leave me feeling a little sorry for the Lib Dems. And a little perplexed as to what these people were doing in the party in the first place.

Alongside Firth, the Lib Dems have seen Jeannette Winterson, fellow novelist Phillip Pullman, philosopher and sociologist Richard Sennett, and academic David Marquand retract their support for the party.

On the one hand, one does wonder what these people thought was going to happen at the general election, and whether they know anything about the UK’s (admittedly unwritten) constitution. A Tory victory without a majority was always likely, and in that context all MPs have a duty to the constitution to seek to form a stable government. There may be issues around the Lib Dems conduct in office but you do have to keep in mind they are a junior member of this coalition.

On the other hand, one also wonders whether they had actually given much consideration to who messrs Clegg, Cable, Huhne and Laws really are. Had they never read the Orange Book? David Laws indeed described his party’s short time in government with the Tories as an ‘oranging process going on at a rapid rate’. People think the Tories are cleansing their brand by getting into bed with the Lib Dems… equally, the Lib Dems are shedding their own image as a bunch of cuddly lefties, a la Charles Kennedy. This lot have always been in favour of small states and free markets; this is the return of classical liberalism to British politics.

I’m not criticising Clegg et al for believing what they believe (well, not today anyway) but rather the do-gooder tendency within the party’s base which never seemed to get what the new leadership intended to do.

That said, that doesn’t mean that these people should be deserting now. Political parties are by necessity broad churches – if they believe in what the party stands for, they should stay and fight to put things right, at least until they start invading places. By running for cover now just because their hands are getting dirty, they are only reinforcing the view that the Lib Dems aren’t really ready for the demands of high office – and as such, helping Clegg to justify why he got into bed with Cameron and Osborne.

This was the week that…

 
Andy Coulson must have realised, surely, his time at Downing Street is going to be limited.  I don’t know enough about libel law to start speculating on how much Coulson might have known about illegal phone-tapping activity at the News of the World, but it doesn’t really matter anyway.  Either he sanctioned the practice, or he was indifferent to the methods his own staff used to get the stories he printed.  I don’t think Cameron will sack him – when he does it will be the official end of his honeymoon period – but would be shocked if Coulson hasn’t found himself alternative employment within a year.

…the media decided to create a global controversy that damaged relations between Muslims and the West.  Yes, Pastor Terry Jones has his share of the blame too, but why do we even know about this idiot?  Insane people do insane stuff all the time.  This isn’t news.  Of course journalists will try to pretend that Barack Obama made this a global news story by commenting on it – the BBC’s Mark Mardell is particularly guilty of this.  Not true, Mark.  He had to comment because people like you made it a global news story, for no good reason.

…Vince Cable decided to pursue a senseless privatisation of Royal Mail.  The service has its problems, most prominently a pensions deficit and competition both from new providers and new providers of information.  Which of these challenges is privatisation supposed to address?  There’s no real analysis of what a postal service needs to be today.  The government wants someone to come in do the dirty work of raising prices and cutting pay that it’s not brave enough to do directly.  When I say ‘the government’, of course I mean the Conservative Party.  The Lib Dems opposed full privatisation in their manifesto (that’s a document which might come in handy from time to time in the next 5 years, I suspect). 

Robert Chote got himself appointed chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility.  Well, George Osborne couldn’t have given it to anyone else, could he?  After Osborne tried to mask an obvious political appointment (Sir Alan Budd) in the name of making economic forecasting independent, and his appointee decided to resign after bring seen to act in a political way, he had no choice.  Now he’s stuck with a man whose think-tank has spent recent months pointing out just how regressive the government’s plans are.  Serves him right.

…Green Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas argued MPs could job share, as a way of opening up politics to women.  Maybe it’s just her way of trying to double the number of Green MPs from one to two.  It’s an idea that comes from good intentions, but it’s very silly.  Think about it for five seconds and it is obviously unworkable.  Maybe someone could figure out the necessary contortions to make it feasible, but is this really the Greens’ priority?  The shame for Lucas is that this is one of the few times (maybe even the first) she has managed to make national headlines since her election.

There must be an alternative

Am I missing something? The Alternative Vote system is a crock of shit. First of all, it is a majoritarian system not a proportional system. AV is zero percent more proportional than first-past-the-post. It is simply more true to the principle of majoritarianism that FPTP, because it insists on candidates winning 50%.

Yet it is how this 50% is created that is the problem. If no candidate gets 50%, the candidate with the least number of votes is ‘eliminated’. And here’s the rub: it is only his or her ‘second preferences’ that get counted. They count as a full vote, so if those second preferences are enough to push any other candidate above 50% when added to their existing total, they win. If 50% has not been reached, the next lowest is eliminated. And so on.

This is ridiculous. The notion of elimination has absolutely nothing to do with democracy. In other words, why do people who vote for the least popular candidates get to vote twice? There is no principled reason for this. I am not saying that anyone who votes for the Jury Team (who!?) or the Scottish Conservatives or the local TV has-been is an idiot who does not deserve to vote twice. Rather, the point is that no one person deserves to get a second vote any more than anyone else – no matter who their first vote was for.

It is very easy to get bogged down in the details of different electoral systems. But the simple fact is that AV is palpably absurd. If popularity matters, then first-past-the-post works. If proportionality matters, that a fully proportional system is the only option. Have a mixture of these two in a top-up system, if you like. But if second preferences are to be used, you count them all. To do anything else is an insult to the electorate.

One and a half MPs back Lembit Opik for Mayor

Lembit Opik says he’s standing for Mayor of London because “one or two fairly senior Lib Dem MPs in London” have encouraged him to do so.  Really?

First of all, is it one or two?  Surely he knows the difference between being told to stand by one person and being told to stand by two.  (Or maybe one of them was Sarah Teather, who’s so short she only counts as a half.)

However many there were, who fits into this category of ‘fairly senior’?  There are only seven Lib Dem MPs in London, so it shouldn’t be hard to narrow down.

Paul Burstow in Minister of State at Health. That has to give him a high level of seniority, although rumours are he only got the job because Andrew Lansley doesn’t like Norman Lamb.  An early contender.

Tom Brake has hopped around the Lib Dem front bench for the past 13 years (who hasn’t?), without getting anything big.  Described the Home Affairs committee as “prestigious” after being appointed to it.  Should be too junior to meet Opik’s criteria.

Vince Cable walked on water for the Lib Dems, before selling out by agreeing to run a department he thought should be abolished, and changing his mind overnight about cutting the deficit.  But still, as senior as they come – the big surprise would be if he actually knows who Opik is.  Definitely not.

Ed Davey has been a Lib Dem big hitter for the past decade, including posts as shadown foreign and education secretaries and Menzies Campbell’s Chief of Staff.  His ministerial post might seem a bit lowly given his policy guru status over recent years (he was once considered the Lib Dem’s Letwin, until the coalition agreement when Lib Dem policy began to be devised by, well, Letwin).  He is a mere under secretary of state under Cable at Business, Innovation and Skills – but remains a player.  Another possible.

Lynne Featherstone has made a name for herself over and above the portfolios she’s held – the highest of which being shadow international development for a brief period – but not always for the most flattering of reasons.  Did it again when appointed Equalities Minister at the Home Office, a job Theresa May already had.  Well-known enough to fit the bill, especially given Opik’s obvious respect for the size of a person’s media profile.

Simon Hughes has just become Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems.  That may not earn him a place in the history books but I’ll bet he’d be annoyed if he was the one described as just ‘fairly’ senior.  Very unlikely.

Sarah Teather is Minister of State at Education.  Has had a very high profile ever since being elected as the youngest MP in 2003, and is a leading light for the Lib Dems.  Despite her size definitely deserves the decription ‘senior’.  May be a bit too shrewd to get herself associated with Opik, but could meet the criteria.
 
So who is it?  Only Cable and Hughes can be ruled out.  Tom Brake shouldn’t be called fairly senior, but Lembit Opik is an ex-MP – they’re all senior now compared to him.  Plus, Brake is the only one without a job and therefore has the time to chatting to Opik about his career prospects.  Just think about Opik’s phrasing – what is ‘fairly’ senior?  It means you want to say senior, but you know it’s not true.  So I reckon Brake’s the “one” in the “one or two”.

But who’s the “two”?  If there is a two, it’s clearly not someone who’s called Opik one night to congratulate him on his latest comedy gig and to tell him to stand (“If you want to make people laugh, Lembit…”).  There’s too much vagueness in that “one or two” for it to have been as straightforward and open as that. 

More likely it’s an offhand comment overheard somewhere.  Teather and Davey seem too guarded to do that – and who knows, if the coalition goes pear-shaped either of them could fancy a run at the Mayoralty themselves.  So it’s a toss-up between Burstow or Featherstone – either way, Opik’s “fairly senior” London Lib Dem MPs would actually turn out to be some of the least senior London Lib Dem MPs.

And the point of all this?  I just hate the phoniness of the idea that Opik is being urged to stand by others.  Why not just admit his own ambitions and, dare say it, self-belief that he might be a better Mayor than Boris or Ken?  Instead he maintains a pretence that the decision is down to a tiny group of just seven people  – and even in this world’s smallest opinion poll he has the support of only 14-28%.

The voters should choose the government, not Nick Clegg

In 1955 Isaac Asimov published a short story, Franchise, in which the result of United States presidential election was decided by a single voter, chosen by a computer as the most appropriately representative person – demographically speaking – in the country.

The story was set in 2008, so Asimov’s prediction wasn’t too far out. It became reality in Britain last week. Instead of the computer, however, we have the peculiarities of the British political system to thank for choosing the single, all-powerful elector. Who was the person given absolute power to decide the result of the election? Nick Clegg. 30 million votes were cast, but in the end it was Clegg and his closest advisers who had the power to decide between a Labour government and a Conservative government, and chose the latter.

No-one can deny that, in consistently winning a fifth of the popular vote and less than a tenth of seats in Parliament, the Lib Dems have been unfairly treated by the electoral system over the years. But if the past few days have been Fate’s way of correcting that injustice, surely the correction was never meant to go that far.

Clegg has done his best to justify his choice, in the name of providing “strong and stable government”. We can’t dismiss that entirely – the risk of meltdown in the financial markets as a result of a hung parliament was grossly exaggerated, but the country did need a government sooner rather than later. The trouble is, nobody asked Nick Clegg to play this role. Nobody asked him to take on the mantle of guardian of stable government – and certainly not majoritarian government (which is the only way we seem to be able to understand stability in this country).

Britain could have had a new government the moment Clegg said he wouldn’t go into coalition with Labour. Cameron would have been asked to form a minority government, assuming all of the executive powers Prime Minister have, which only rarely require a vote in parliament to exercise. Where laws and budgets had to be passed in the Commons, Cameron could have done what every American president since George Washington has had to do on every piece of legislation they ever wanted to implement – argue, persuade and negotiate his way to a plurality of votes in the legislature.

Many have said that Clegg – reflecting the broadly centre-left policy programme in his manifesto – should have formed a progressive alliance with Labour. My occasional Left Central colleague Elder Stateswoman has argued exactly that in these pages. That might very be true, but it does involve quite a big leap, to suggest that a combined 52% vote for Labour and the Lib Dems really does represent a progressive majority in Britain. I do hope it’s true – but to use that as the basis for forming a government involves too many assumptions about voter intentions, rather than taking the election results at face value. Labour and the Lib Dems had given no indication whatsoever before the election that they were minded to form a combined centre-left bloc in the event of a hung parliament – it would be a great thing if they had, but we have no idea if that would have changed the way people voted in the first place.

So, I don’t think Clegg was wrong in rejecting Labour. But that doesn’t make him right in embracing the Conservatives. We can only speculate as to whether he had other motivations for choosing to do this, beyond providing Britain with stable, majoritarian government. My guess is that the offer of Cabinet posts and a referendum to introduce a voting system that he expects to directly benefit his own party was a temptation he could not resist. (The rest of the deal between the coalition partners is pretty much a whitewash for Tory policy – on taxation, deficit reduction, defence, immigration, foreign policy, banking, health spending, education.) The fact that the coalition has a majority in the Commons and Cameron was prepared to commit to a fixed five-year term meant that even if Labour tried to match the deal, the Tories looked the safer bet.

And that’s really the point. This election came down to who could convince Clegg to support them. I don’t think Clegg has done too much wrong at all in promoting his own and his party’s interests. But he should never been in that position. This is especially so when you consider that the Lib Dems did no better in this election than the previous one, but it would have been true even if they’d done significantly better.

What’s the answer? Well, I’m sure many people will be prepared to accept the fuzziness of politics in a parliamentary system. After all, it’s not very often we get a confusing and inconclusive election like this one. I can’t accept that. There is much debate to be had on the issue, but for me this election shows clearly that we need to introduce a presidential system. Or rather, we need to redesign our political institutions to reflect the reality of presidential politics, and give voters real power over it. Because that’s what people really voted for in this election – to choose a government. A presidential system means that people vote directly for the executive, rather than voting to populate the legislature and letting MPs decide who the executive should be.

And for all those who argue a presidential system places too much power in the hands of one man – a flawed argument in many ways – I ask you to remember that it was effectively one man who decided the outcome of this election.

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