The LibDems are noisily declaring that if Labour wins fewer votes nationally than the Tories (and perhaps also than the LibDems) but emerges as the biggest single party in the House of Commons, Labour — or Gordon Brown (the LibDems are confused about which it is) — will have no right to continue in government. This is absurd, and misunderstands the constitution which determines how the system works until and unless Parliament changes it. As a contributor to LabourList has commented:
“This is not a popular vote contest. Many votes are tactical, and would deployed differently if the metric was ‘national share’. Suddenly invoking national pluralities in a party constituency vote is like changing 100 metre race into a 100 yard dash a few feet away from the finishing line.”
That is absolutely right. If our elections are suddenly going to be decided by the national vote totals while we still have First Past the Post in a single-member constituency system, we are in a desperate muddle. It would put paid to tactical voting — but how many Labour supporters who plan to vote LibDem where the LibDem is the main challenger to the Tory are going to wake up to this in time and vote Labour after all, probably letting the Tory win the seat as a result? Anyway decisions in parliament are going to continue to be made in accordance with seats held by the parties, not how many votes the parties won at the election. If Labour wins more seats than any other party, are Labour MPs going to be prevented from voting on legislation and the great issues of the day just because Labour got fewer votes than the Tories? It’s a nonsense. Clegg wants us to behave as if we already have PR — because his party benefits from moving the goal-posts at the last moment in his direction.
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One of the most revealing differences between Conservative and Labour policies for dealing with the national debtand the budget deficit is that the Tories‘ plan for rebalancing the national finances relies almost entirely on swingeing cuts in government spending on public services, which — even if you pretend, implausibly, that these can be made simply by “cutting waste” — means massive job losses and higher unemployment, a reduction in the services on which the poorest and most vulnerable most heavily depend, and the risk of killing the recovery from recession in its tracks. There is no indication that the Tories will temper these blows by raising taxes on the rich, a partial alternative to spending cuts: indeed, they actually promise cuts in some taxes on the rich and on businesses, which will inevitably mean even more savage cuts in public services. Labour promises a mixture of higher taxes on those well able to afford them and cuts in government spending targeted at lower priority public services, applied so as to protect the services on which the most vulnerable depend. Where do the LibDems stand on this key issue? They talk about ‘savage cuts’ in public spending (but don’t specify where they will fall), accompanied not by raising taxes but actually reducing them, promising a huge tax bribe — no income tax liability below a cut-off of £10,000 a year — which will put money in (almost) everybody’s pockets, except those who don’t pay income tax now,i.e. the poorest. This will have to be paid for by yet more cuts in public services: a strange position for an allegedly centre-left party to adopt. No wonder Mr Clegg seems to be moving stealthily and steadily towards a deal with the Tories that would put Cameron into No. 10, even though on present form there may well be fewer Conservative MPs in the next parliament than Labour ones.
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Professor Robert Hazell, head of the University College London Constitution Unit and adviser to the Cabinet Secretary on his new rule-book for hung parliaments, has pointed out in a letter to the Guardian that, contrary to the assumption in a recent Guardian editorial, if there’s a hung parliament there won’t be any question of the Queen having to decide, once the results are in, whom to invite to form a new government: the existing government, headed by Gordon Brown, remains in office until there’s a cast-iron, documented cross-party consensus that someone else has a better claim to enjoy the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons, or until Gordon Brown’s government is defeated in a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. (This usefully confirmed the point I had made the day before in my own letter in the Guardian.) Although the Cabinet Secretary, in writing the new rule-book, is supposed to be doing no more than writing down hitherto unwritten conventions and principles of the existing constitution, some of his product is surely new, including the proposition that an incumbent prime minister has not just the right but also the duty to stay in No 10 until he can present a programme to the House of Commons for approval or rejection, even if on most criteria he has just lost an election: and also that it’s for the politicians, not the Queen and her advisers, to negotiate with each other until they reach agreement on who’s going to win the confidence of the House of Commons and thus be invited to form the new government. It seems a rum sort of way to amend our constitution, but I suppose as long as all the party leaders agree with it….
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Another misconception that keeps popping up concerns the possible demand by the LibDems that as a condition for them ‘supporting’ a minority Labour government, Gordon Brown will have to step down as prime minister and be replaced by, for example, David Miliband. This prompts indignant protests in some Labour quarters: who do these LibDems think they are, telling us who our party leader should be? Others point to the inordinate amount of time that it takes the Labour Party to get rid of one leader and elect a new one, with special party conferences and who knows what else: how long could the country be expected to wait, they enquire, while all this is going on? All this overlooks the potentially useful fact that in order to become prime minister, D Miliband (or Alan Johnson or, heaven help us, Ed Balls, or whoever) doesn’t need to become the leader of the Labour Party as well. Gordon Brown can constitutionally continue as Labour Party leader while handing over No. 10 Downing Street to Miliband/Johnson/Balls. (Churchill was not leader of the Conservative Party when he became prime minister in 1940, and there are other precedents too for splitting the jobs.) So much for David Cameron’s super wheeze of a rule that when a new prime minister takes over without having won an election as his party’s leader (could he be thinking of Gordon Brown? or John Major?), there must be an election within six months. An election six months after Churchill became prime minister in 1940 would have been a trifle inconvenient. According to the Tories, the country is in almost as deep a crisis now as it was in 1940, although to those few of us still around (just) who were alive in 1940 it doesn’t feel quite as alarming. At least we don’t have to dive into air raid shelters night after night to avoid the bombs being rained down on us by the bond markets or the IMF.
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By what criteria will Nick Clegg decide which of Labour or the Conservatives he can live with in government? “It’s not for me to second-guess the electorate.” And if the election result is a hung parliament? “Whichever party has a mandate to govern.” In terms of votes cast, or seats won? “Both.” What if one party has more votes, and the other more seats? “Um: seats. No, votes. I mean it would be intolerable for a party which came third in terms of votes to form the government.” So if Labour comes third in votes but first in seats, you won’t work with them? “I couldn’t work with Labour in that situation, no.” But if Labour is offering a referendum on electoral reform, and the Tories remain strongly opposed? “We will work with whichever party has policies that coincide most closely with ours, especially our four top priorities: one, electoral reform–” Yes, yes. So if Labour offers electoral reform and the Conservatives don’t, you’ll work with Labour? “Not if they come third in votes.” Then who will you work with? “Not with Labour if Labour is led by Gordon Brown. I couldn’t work with him.” But you could work with Labour if the prime minister was not Gordon Brown? “I’ll work with anyone, the man on the moon, anyone who has got the right policies.” So your decision will be by reference to policies, not votes or seats won? “It would be obscene to work with Gordon Brown if he has come third in votes.” But you just said — “It’s not for me to double-guess the electorate. The people will decide.” Thank you very much for being with us. That was Nick Clegg.