About losing, and where to go now

For one brief shining moment it looked as if Camelot might be possible after all:  the LibDems and Labour share much common ground; very many — probably most — LibDems see themselves as left of centre and in many cases are deeply anti-Conservative. The Labour Party is gradually moving to support for some kind of change to the electoral system, starting with AV, and it looked for a time as if the movement of progressive opinion in favour of full-blooded proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons, in my view almost entirely misconceived, would become unstoppable, giving Labour a head start in the competition for LibDem favours.  For us libertarian socialists there were also great attractions about the prospect of an alliance with the LibDems helping to turn back the tide of illiberal legislation and repressive policies visited on us by New Labour in the name of the “war” on terrorism and crime.  But it was not to be.

Three factors, I think, pulled down the shutters on any hope of a government of the progressive majority:

1.  The LibDems couldn’t in the end risk incurring the odium of having rescued a heavily defeated Labour Party, even a Labour Party soon to shed Gordon Brown, and prolonging its hold on power, thereby seeming, plausibly, to be spitting in the face of the electorate.

2.  A progressive alliance government would have depended too heavily on the support of the centre-left nationalist parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for its survival.  Even though the smaller parties would not have needed to be included in a formal Lab-LibDem coalition or other formal alliance, reliance on their support in votes of confidence and budget resolutions would have made the government vulnerable to nationalist party blackmail, as indeed the SNP and Plaid Cymru leaders were already brazenly threatening.  The arithmetic was simply too precarious for any hope of stability and strong government.

3.  In my view Nick Clegg’s gut preference was always to work with Cameron rather than Brown — and the impossibility of knowing who would succeed Brown in just a few months’ time must have strengthened that preference.  Clegg played his cards skilfully, using his talks with Labour to gouge further concessions out of the Tories, and the Neanderthals in David Cameron’s party must be outraged by the thought that he probably made more policy concessions, and more generous promises of key posts in a coalition government, than were strictly necessary to hook and land his fish.

Now that the die is cast and the LibDems are tightly tucked up in bed with the Tories, a typically British blame game is in full swing, the Labour Party team insisting that they were negotiating with the LibDems in good faith and that their talks seemed genuinely promising until for no good reason the LibDems broke them off and defected to the common enemy, while the LibDems say that Labour never made a remotely convincing offer and seemed generally uninterested in a coalition or any other alliance.  Perhaps I’m unduly suspicious, but it seems to me that the LibDems need to try to pin the blame for the failure of the talks on the Labour Party, in order to placate the many grass-roots LibDem supporters and members who are sickened to find themselves not just seduced but actually impregnated by the Tories.  The anti-LibDem alliance fulminations of such Labour has-beens as Mr Blunkett and Dr Reid did of course seem to lend credibility to LibDem assertions that Labour’s heart wasn’t really in it.

*   *   *   *   *

As was (almost) said of Charles I, nothing became Gordon Brown in office like the leaving of it.  His offer to resign by the autumn if this would help to persuade the LibDems to join an alliance with the Labour Party, justified by his frank acknowledgement of personal responsibility for  Labour’s election defeat, was an act of great personal courage on the part of this proudest of men, always deeply reluctant to admit to failure or error. Similarly, his resignation statement outside No. 10 Downing Street, and his remarks after his resignation to party workers and colleagues at Labour headquarters in Victoria Street, did him great credit.  Few who heard these farewell statements can have failed to be moved to sympathy and admiration for a man of enormous talent who has achieved many great things in these past 13 years but whose limitations of personality and character have denied him the ultimate success, the respect and the affection, to which in many ways he was entitled.  He will probably be missed more than most people would now expect.  Despite the terrible temper, the secretiveness, the uncollegiate manner of working, the reluctance to take quick decisions, and the flawed judgement of the people with whom he chose to surround himself, he was nevertheless a towering political figure for more than a decade.  Many of us genuinely wish him and his family well.

*   *   *   *   *

Assuming that prime minister’s questions (PMQ) in the House of Commons continue in some form or other, there’ll be a widespread yearning for a more sober, more informative, less tribal atmosphere when the two principal party leaders face each other across the despatch boxes. Scorn and contempt for the yah-boo shouting matches, the cheers and jeers of the excited back benches, the petty and often flagrantly dishonest point-scoring, of PMQs in the last several decades have contributed almost as much to the low esteem into which parliament and politicians have fallen as the MPs’ expenses scandal.  New prime ministers generally promise to  eschew point-scoring in PMQs and to treat the occasion as an opportunity for MPs of all parties to seek and receive information about government actions and policies; such promises rarely survive more than a handful of gladiatorial sessions.  Much will depend on Harriet Harman, now leader of the opposition ad interim, pending Labour’s election of its new leader.  Public opinion would respect a Labour opposition which promised to support the government whenever possible as it grapples with the nation’s worst economic and financial crisis since the 1920s, rather than seizing every opportunity to make its life more difficult and its decisions more unpopular.  I wonder if Ms Harman is up to it?  Mr Cameron can’t realistically expect a sober and constructive opposition if he constantly accuses Labour of responsibility for the financial mess we’re in, and misrepresents Labour’s 13 years in office as an uninterrupted chronicle of mismanagement and failure — as the irredeemably, jejunely tribal William Hague, our new foreign secretary, was doing without a shadow of embarrassment on the radio this morning.  There was another jarring echo of it in today’s CamClegg press conference in the No. 10 garden.  The omens are bad.

*   *   *   *   *

Our new rulers already promise, or threaten, to change the constitution in various ways, including the introduction of fixed-term parliaments.  There are obvious potential merits in this idea:  it would prevent an opportunistic prime minister seizing a moment of popularity to go to the country for a premature and perhaps unnecessary election, sometimes for fear of electoral punishment if he or she hangs on to the bitter end of the 5-year term.  It could allay doubts in the markets and elsewhere about the short-term survivability of the government when the confidence of the almighty markets is the Holy Grail of our national life.  But it raises some awkward questions about what happens if the votes of rebels or by-election changes in the composition of parliament deprive a government of the majority it needs to pass its basic legislation, or if there’s no longer a parliamentary majority available to vote supply.  In such circumstances, if there’s no party leader able to secure a majority for an alternative government, it’s hard to see how a fresh election can be avoided even if the fixed term is nowhere near up.  In which case declaring that parliaments will in future be for fixed terms has a rather limited meaning.

*   *   *   *   *

As Labour licks its wounds — not for too long, one hopes — elects a new leader, and then starts to think about the direction it will take in opposition, the values it will define and the programme it will offer to the country at the next election (whenever that might turn out to be), the search will be on for a new big idea that might catch the imagination of that elusive progressive majority on whose support Labour’s hopes will depend.  There is one big idea available which ticks so many boxes that it’s a wonder none of the mainline parties has hitherto picked it up and adopted it:  the eventual completion of devolution, one of Labour’s most courageous successes, by the adoption of a fully fledged federal system for the United Kingdom.  Labour would need to acknowledge that this could be achieved only with the whole-hearted, cross-party consent of a sizeable majority of the British people; that it would take at least two decades to complete the project; that at every stage extensive consultation would be required by Royal Commissions, Speaker’s Conferences, parliamentary Select Committees and parliamentary votes, constitutional conventions and several referendums.  Along the way to federation a new separate parliament and government for England would have to be established, in itself a huge and controversial undertaking;  and all remaining internal powers not so far devolved would need to be transferred to each of the four UK nations, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  This would mean a massive localisation of real power over people’s lives, draining power from the federal government and parliament at Westminster to the four federated nations.  All parties claim to favour decentralising power and giving local people a greater say in how their lives are organised.  Here’s the big idea which would energise that otherwise vague aspiration and provide an objective and a context for the changes that are already long overdue.  Come on, Labour:  how about some vision for a change — and I really mean “for a change”!


13 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    On your point about fixed-term parliaments, according to the BBC News website this is to be accompanied by a provision that a vote of no confidence will only bring the government down if it gets 55% or more of the votes – i.e. 358, or rather more than the total number of non-Conservative MPs. Roll on 7 May 2015!

  2. I think that what you say about the negotiations is true. The arithmetic just didn’t add up for stability. The grunting from Labour’s Neanderthals (I don’t see why the Tories should be allowed a monopoly) most certainly didn’t help but even so, and with the Alliance and SDLP reliably backing LibDems and Labour respectively, it would have been on a knife-edge and eternally vulnerable to by-election losses as well as Nationalist blackmail.
    I would argue that a fixed-term parliament is a concept that is logically incompatible with a parliamentary system. It is an import from  the USA, where they do things differently. When a government relies on parliamentary support for its constitutional legitimacy, the question inevitably arises: What happens if it loses that support but no alternative government can be found? There are ways of making it difficult to call an early election. In Germany, where the constitution was deliberately written to ensure the maximum stability, there is what is known as the constructive motion of no confidence, which means that a no-confidence motion must propose a specific alternative. Once, when a chancellor wanted to call an early election and the opposition wouldn’t play ball, he had to propose a confidence vote in himself and deliberately lose it. Moreover, a coalition must by definition be vulnerable to one party abandoning it or the strength of its creative tension disappears and one party is simply subordinated to the other. Political considerations can never be fully predicted, which means that their political consequences must also be unpredictable. I do not know precisely what has been said on this matter by Clegg and Cameron, but in practice it can amount to no more than a statement of intent.
    What would you say to the theory that Brown timed his speech in the knowledge that the game was up on his side but that by saying what he did he could allow the LibDems to screw a few more concessions out of the Tories? (I don’t mean to imply that he wouldn’t have gone fairly soon anyway.)

  3. I had not seen Phil’s comment when I posted mine. So, the first reform is to introduce the concept of a qualified majority into British constitutional practice. Good.

  4. David Ratford says:

    Norway and Sweden both have fixed-term Parliaments. “Logically incompatible with a parliamentary system” or not, it works perfectly well in those two countries and indeed makes for greater parliamentary stability than they enjoy in Denmark, which doesn’t have fixed terms. But their 4 year terms are arguably too short – 5 years will be better, giving more time to tackle longer-term problems. Our own parliamentarians naturally have much to learn about the art of coalition politics, but Cameron and Clegg are already proving themselves admirably apt pupils and there is no reason why they shouldn’t take fixed terms in their stride. And what a boon for the rest of us, to know that they’ve just got to make a go of things and leave us in comparative peace meanwhile.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, David. It’s certainly an option to deny a prime minister the right to ask for a dissolution and fresh elections at a moment of his choosing, without having been defeated on a vote of confidence or having failed to pass his budget legislation. But even then, as another contributor has pointed out, a determined prime minister may engineer a vote of confidence and arrange to lose it, in order to get an election before the fixed term is up. Whatever percentage of the votes is laid down as the minimum for a ‘constructive vote of confidence’, if a government can’t get its legislation through and a majority of only one declares no confidence in it, unless another government can be formed that does command the confidence of 50% + 1, an election must be unavoidable. Fixed term parliaments seem therefore to be a fairly limited concept.

  5. Julian Nundy says:

    Brian, from across the Channel, your second factor – all those Plaid Cymru, SNP and other tails wagging the dog – was what worried me most about a LibDem deal with Labour. And can you imagine the media howls as defeated Labour was brought back only to change its own leader in a few weeks, putting an as yet unknown (and again unelected) new tenant into No10? I agree that Brown’s performance at the very end was dignified and touching. The original sin, perhaps, was his takeover in 2007. Brown was surely just as worn out by power as Blair, perhaps more so, given his seething resentment of his boss. All that said, if only Brown could have been persuaded to step down a few months ago and let someone new lead the Labour campaign …

    Brian writes: Thanks, Julian. I agree entirely. The trouble in 2007 was that there was really no credible challenger to Brown and if there had been anyone willing to run (stand) against him, he or she would have been hammered into the ground like a tent-peg, or knocked out by that famous clunking great fist. The field for the succession now doesn’t look to me all that impressive, either. If Ed Balls gets it, I shall have to consider emigrating, or joining the Greens (or should that now be Green in the singular?), or something equally drastic. Even if one of the Milibands gets the crown, either of whom would be tolerable, the prospect of government by the likes of the CamClegg, William Hague jnr., Theresa May, George Osborne and Liam Fox smugly pontificating all over our television screens for years to come really is infinitely depressing.

  6. I stand by what I said theoretically, but in Spain it is accepted that a government will last until its full term unless there are very unusual circumstances. As far as I now there is nothing to stop a prime minister calling an election on a whim but it would be badly seen. The Catalan coalition has completely run out of steam and needs replacing. We have elections due in November. They may, perhaps, be called before the summer but if so that will be to strengthen Catalonia’s position against Madrid in a political row. It will not be because of party-political calculations by the president.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Peter. I agree that fixed term parliaments in a Westminster-type parliamentary system are a chimera. It’s essential to keep the mechanism for toppling a government that can no longer secure supply or command the confidence of the majority of the House, and if no alternative government with a secure majority can be formed, to be able to resolve the deadlock by holding a fresh election. Whether a vote of 51% of those voting on a confidence motion (including the budget) is enough to bring down a government, or 55%, or 60%, or whatever random number might be selected, is really immaterial. If a government can’t get the votes to pass its legislation or get the money it needs to run the country because more MPs vote against it than for it, an election may be the only way out, whatever fancy rules may be devised. So fixed terms parliaments are a very limited concept and Cameron’s constant boasting that the coalition is here for five years whether we like it or not is just empty blether.

  7. ObiterJ says:

    Any proposed Labour/Lib Dem coalition was going to be extremely problematic becasue they would have had to deal with the minor parties.  The demands of those parties would have been high and would have caused extreme anger in England which would have rebounded on English MPs especially English Labour MPs.
    I entirely concur in wishing Gordon Brown and his family well in the future.  Those of us on the outside looking in are never truly in a position to judge anyone properly.  As far as I can see Gordon Brown conducted himself with absolute honesty and conviction.  Those are qualities which I admire in anyone irrespective of whether I agree with them.  He has my admiration for doing a massively difficult job and for doing it to the absolute best of his considerable ability.
    I think Mrs Harman might actually surprise us in her role as Deputy Leader.  She took Questions before when Gordon Brown was absent and did a pretty good job.  I think that she (and Labour generally) will be careful to avoid making statements which might make matters worse (e.g. with the money markets).   Cameron and Clegg must likewise be very careful.  There is a tendency in some places to blame the economic crisis on Gordon Brown but the objective truth is far more complex and would take considerable time and space to analyse.  Just one simple point however.  The economic crisis was NOT just a British crisis; it was/is international in scale.  That alone makes it obvious that Gordon Brown cannot be responsible for it though in some areas his policies (e.g. the tripartite banking regulation) might have contributed to the British aspects.  It would be wisest to avoid ill-considered attacks and comments.
    Constitutional change is being pursued by the new government in that they are seeking a fixed term parliament etc.  Let’s be fair and remember that Labour also pursued constitutional change.  Given the fact that the constitution can be changed by passing an ordinary Act of Parliament it is little wonder that governments try to make changes.  There have been many under Labour: most notably, Scotland Act 1998; Government of Wales Act 1998; Human Rights Act 1998; Constitutional Reform Act 2005 etc.
    I am not too worried about removal of the Prime Minister’s nuclear option over the timing of an election provided that there is a mechanism to remove a government.  The mechanism currently is a Vote of Confidence and this must be retained.
    A federal UK.  I think we are heading that way are we not?  The SNP are pushing “Scottish Independence” all the time.  The present financial arrangements (“Barnett Formula”) are extremely unpopular in England.   “Free Universities” etc. in Scotland are also unpopular south of the border where students (or their families) have to find large sums of money.  We should not continue to have this state of tension between two important members of the United Kingdom.  One thing in the Coalition Agreement is to have a committee to look at trying to resolve the “Lothian Question”.  It should be resolved quickly.  The sight of the “Tartan Army” of Scots (all Labour) MPs voting for tuition fees for the English probably cost Labour many votes.

    Brian writes: Thank you for these interesting points. I entirely agree that it’s far too simple to hold Brown or UK Labour responsible for a global economic and financial crisis caused by a host of factors, of which few have their homes in Britain: gross over-consumption and indebtedness in the US financed largely by borrowing from China, whose economy (like Germany’s) is based on severe domestic under-consumption and over-reliance on exports, with the resulting trade and payments imbalance unable to correct itself by adjustments in exchange rates because of Chinese insistence on pegging its currency to the US dollar (likewise Germany’s trade and payments imbalance with the south of the Eurozone can’t be corrected by exchange rate adjustments because they are all using the same currency). Both China and Germany need to encourage far more domestic spending while the US and the southern Eurozone countries ought to rein in domestic consumption and jack up their export earnings. The trouble is that for the Mediterraneans, as for the UK, reining in domestic consumption will hinder or even reverse recovery from the recession. As Martin Wolf, the influential FT columnist, has pointed out:

    …markets long paid no attention to emerging fiscal frailty, rating all eurozone bonds similarly. As Paul De Grauwe of Leuven university states, in a mordant note for the Centre for European Policy Studies: “The source of the government debt crisis is the past profligacy of large segments of the private sector, and in particular the financial sector.” The financial markets financed the orgy and now, in a panic, are refusing to finance the resulting clean-up. At every stage, they have acted pro-cyclically.

    Trying to put the whole blame for the international banking crisis, the banks bail-out, the resulting budget deficit and the borrowing needed to force the economy to grow out of recession, on Gordon Brown or the record of the Labour government since 1997 is glib, cheapskate stuff, of which we are condemned to hear a lot more from the triumphalist Tories.

    I don’t see the West Lothian question being resolved quickly, because the only viable answer to it is a fully federal system for the whole UK, which includes among many other things a parliament and government for England and the devolution of all domestic matters from the Westminster centre to the parliaments and governments of the four UK nations. I’m afraid this is far too radical and long-term a project for our present generation of risk-averse, small-minded, short-termist politicians to contemplate. Instead, they will come up with all sorts of nonsense palliatives — English votes for English laws, and so forth — which will be impossible to apply in practice and which may indeed make matters even worse. We just have to keep on explaining on every possible occasion that a full federation is not just the best solution: it’s the only solution, and logic points unmistakeably to it.

    BTW, Harriet Harman is no longer Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Until the party has completed the procedures for electing a permanent successor to Gordon brown, Ms Harman is the leader of the party. I have a lot of time for her and I believe she will do a good job, as Margaret Beckett did in comparable circumstances. I hope she will have the strength of character and the sheer courage to resist the pressures and temptation to resume the puerile yah-boo politics of the past two decades and more, especially (but not only) in PMQs, and will instead try to adopt a position of “credit where credit is due, blame where blame is due”, including using PMQs and question-time with other ministers as an opportunity to ask serious questions designed to elicit information, not merely to wrong-foot the government. Labour should take a solemn vow never, ever to ask a minister a question to which the questioner already knows the answer. It would be a very good discipline.

  8. Richard T says:

    My conclusion was that no matter how much I might have wished it, neither the politics nor the arithmetic for the Lib/Lab alliance added up. Politically you’ve hit pretty well every nail on the head although I think you did miss the Scottish dimension with elections next year; this would have made the tension between the partners difficult but the SNP would have exploited everything to their advantage and would have done their best to make the alliance fail; this segues neatly into the arithmetic which again as you say didn’t add up.  As a Lib Dem, I do not trust Labour on liberties or voting systems as their conversion was far too near the gallows to be credible; Tom Harris speaks for too many Labour MPs for my comfort in a long lasting alliance.  Stir some of the antagonisms in as well – Scottish Labour and Lib Dems; Lib Dems and the Greens – add in the certainty of vehement Tory opposition as thwarted suitors and you’ve got instability.  Finally if anyone believes the fine words of oor Eck then they’re not to be trusted out on their own.  In the end the coalition would have fallen apart because the only real binding tie would be the Tories and no-one but the Tories can afford a new election.
    Things have been written about English resentment of any bias to Scotland but don’t forget the two way nature of the flow.  The quite offensive pontificating of English commentators about the Scots is unhelpful and the treatment of Gordon Brown by the English media was a disgrace even by their abysmal standards.  I believe that at least part of the strong showing of Labour here was a reaction to treatment of someone who, to us, is a perfectly normal and recognisable Scotsman. I should add that I write this as a Scottish Lib Dem who has been playing ‘Why should I be sad on my wedding day?’ for the last 2 days.
    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Richard. I strongly agree with everything you say about Scotland, including the hostility felt by Scottish Labour towards the SNP (and vice versa, presumably) and the relevance of next year’s key Scottish elections. Alex Salmond is never to be under-estimated, in my view. I also very much agree about the vicious denigration of Gordon Brown by many of my fellow-Englishmen and -women, in part because of his Scottishness, which to me was one of his greatest assets: his rugged seriousness and visible reluctance, or inability, to play the charm game, are both recognisably Scottish and to me distinctly attractive. Whether they have been enough to outweigh his regrettable defects (as enumerated in my post above) is another matter. The photographs taken of him in his final hours at No. 10 before going to the palace to resign show an extremely human, rather vulnerable figure. But then I’m perhaps untypically Scottophile and I would go to almost any lengths to keep Scotland in the Union.

    Cameron of course is undeniably a Scottish name and it belongs in the present political scene to a very different kind of Scot: not at all rugged, unconvincing when doing serious, and only to happy to play the charm game. Indeed, it has yet to be demonstrated that he can play any other game. But I suppose he’s a highly anglicised kind of Scot.

  9. John Miles says:

    You’re absolutely right: it’s difficult not to feel sorry for poor old Mr Brown, so best let byegones be byegones and join you, Kelvin MacKenzie and everyone else who wishes him and his family a long  and happy life outside politics.
    Likewise Messrs Cameron and Clegg need not just our good wishes but all the help and support we can give them in their mammoth task of sorting out the poisoned chalice they’ve been lumbered with.
    But don’t let’s be too surprised if everything goes pear-shaped – again!

    Brian writes: Thanks, John. Poisoned chalice indeed. But don’t let them get away with saying, whenever they get a chance, that it’s a Labour-poisoned chalice. They are already glibly talking about “Labour’s deficit”. We’ll hear a lot of this Pavlovian gimmick in the coming five years — if they really last that long!

  10. Tim Weakley says:

    I voted for our local Labour man – who I’m glad to say got back in – more in homage to the memory of Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan, and of Michael Foot, than in the hope that the party can regain such idealism as it had in our youth.  It would be nice to think that the CamClegg coalition means what it says about cancelling the very idea of ID cards, but as I mentioned a year or two ago any incoming government will be subjected both to the whispered briefings of the intelligence people and to the bludgeoning of the Murdoch press and shy away from any line which might be represented as ‘soft-on-crime-and-terrorism’.  Nor can I see any Conservative-dominated government, the inheritors of the great-power tradition, cancelling those two gigantic carriers, deciding to do away with Trident, and easing out of the unwinnable war in Afghanistan.  I expect to endure prolonged depression for the next few years.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. I note the double entendre in your last sentence and share your sentiments. For an equally gloomy and equally well informed prognosis, see Conor Gearty’s article here.

  11. Phil says:

    I voted for a dreadful neo-Blairite candidate in a former Labour seat that went Lib Dem in 2005; I confidently expected it to go back to Labour this time, but no. So all those Lib Dem leaflets saying “Conservatives can’t win here” were only half right – and the Labour leaflets saying “the only anti-Conservative vote is a Labour vote” were, sadly, correct.
    Apparently I was wrong about the 55% provision: the point is that a dissolution (short of the full five years) can only be granted on a 55% vote, thus constraining the PM’s power to go to the country on a whim. What would happen if a confidence vote were lost by less than 55% – as, with the current arithmetic, it almost certainly would be – is a bit of a mystery; presumably the ruling party would have to do the decent thing and table a dissolution motion in the knowledge that the opposition would support it.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. As you say, there seems to have been no answer so far to the ‘mystery’ of what happens if a government is defeated by a 51% vote of no confidence, likely to be repeated in votes on individual government measures. Even the LibDem-Tory coalition with its fat majority can hardly arrange that a Bill or a budget resolution defeated by 51% of the votes can be deemed to have been passed. How long can a government unable to get its money supply Bills and other legislation through the House of Commons continue to occupy the Treasury benches? What seemed at first sight like a potentially useful measure is looking increasingly like a brazen attempt to use the executive’s current control of parliament to keep itself in office even if it loses the confidence and support of a (small) majority of members of the House of Commons. Unfortunately for the first time since Labour’s reform of the House of Lords the new government has a comfortable majority in that House too, so it’s not obvious that this apparently pernicious measure will be thrown out by the Lords, which would have been its fate if a Labour government had proposed it.

  12. Ian Graham says:

    For me, Brian, one of the definite pluses of the recent election is that in the course of it I discovered your blog.
    The narrative of the fixed term/55% majority thing strikes me as another example of Cameron’s tendency to make things up as he goes along. Which may in the long term prove to be a bigger story than any of its specific manifestations. When a govt makes a proposal in an area like this, it would help if it were immediately clear exactly what is proposed. In this case, the emerging picture seems to be the the traditional 50%+1 parliamentary rule stands for everything except a dissolution – but even the BBC were reporting otherwise at first.
    If that’s right, then the 55% proposal is predicated on the notion of a fixed term parliament. This is an idea that has been around a long time – wasn’t it a Chartist demand ? And it is not so outlandish. Both Scotland and Wales operate on that basis, and (speaking as one politically active in Wales) I think there is much to be said for it. (Scotland and Wales also operate a form of AV +, if I understand the terminology correctly, but you’d never know it from most of the online conversation.)
    So I’m in favour of a fixed term regime. (Although I think the really radical option would be a rolling re-election, as happens in the English counties. But not much chance of that !) So what term for a fixed term ? Scotland and Wales have 4 years, as does the US presidency. I find it difficult to say quite why, but 4 years does feel right to me. 5 years feels regressive. If you look at the 17 parliaments since the war, 6 have approached the limit, and what ? (I’m open to correction here) 4 have gone pretty much to the wire. Those four were generally derided (at least) for so doing, and in all four cases, there was a change of government when the election came. Which does not amount to much of an endorsement for going a full five years. (You can argue than enshrining it as a fixed term changes the picture. I’m not convinced.) Looking at the history another way, the simple average (for what it’s worth) life of a government is just short of 3 years 10 months.
    All of which leads me to feel that a dose of cynicism is in order in reaction to the Cameron/Clegg proposals. If e.g. Callaghan and Major were ‘desperate’ to hang on, one might say desperation is setting in rather early as far as the new government is concerned. It’s all very shabby.
    And having said all that: I was initially very hostile to the 55% proposal. And I still think it is fundamentally unsound to change a constitutional provision for the convenience or better sleep of a particular government. But in practical terms, it could work out to the advantage of the non-Tory parties, if somewhere down the line this government gets into difficulties, Labour has a new leader due a honeymoon, maybe there will have been a few by-election switches, the ‘clinging-on’ perspective would be dead – and Cameron would not be able to make a dash to the country. Hoist on his own petard.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this interesting comment. I remain somewhat baffled by the idea of fixed term parliaments. We already have a maximum term for any parliament, namely five years. Because of the malign effects of ministerial short-termism, I would not favour shortening this. I don’t see how in our Westminster parliamentary system you can avoid having some provision for a fresh election before the ‘fixed term’ is up, if a government no longer commands an ordinary majority in the House (so that it can’t get its budget approved and thus can’t get supply, and can’t survive a vote of confidence) and if no-one else is available who can form a new government that does command the confidence of a majority (50% + 1) in the House. The only issue therefore seems to me to decide who should have the power and right to decide when that point has been reached and a premature election is necessary and justified. Messrs Cameron and Clegg seem to think that at present it’s the prime minister of the day who has this right (and the 55% proposal is nominally designed to remove it from him). Actually it’s the Queen who alone has this right and she can exercise it according to her own judgement, without necessarily acting on the advice of her ministers, this being one of the very few remaining bits of the royal preogative of which this is true. I see little point in transferring it to a minimum 55% majority of MPs, because in normal circumstances that’s virtually the same thing as giving it to the prime minister — and if there isn’t a 55% majority in favour of a premature dissolution and election, but the government no longer has the confidence of the House, we’re in limbo and government can’t function, which is an impossible situation. So I would favour transferring the Queen’s power to accept or reject a request for a premature dissolution to an independent body such as a commission comprising the presiding officers of the two houses of parliament and the head of the civil service, with the monarch’s principal private secretary as a non-voting observer. (Different memberships are of course possible.)

    I am very sorry for the tardiness of this response.

  13. Ian Buist says:

    I knew the game was up as soon as I saw that procession of dinosaurs, headed by Blunkett and Reid, saying how they were against any Lib-Lab deal. It couldn’t possibly have worked unless the Labour Party could have guaranteed voter discipline on key issue, given the arithmetic. Ashdown’s idea of a minority which then “dared” the ScotNats etc. to vote it out was also far too risky.

    As it is, subject to the paper which is to be produced later this evening, it doesn’t seem to me too bad a deal. “Tebbitry” has been rendered toothless, and some good leftish ideas seem to have been included from the LibDems. The key will be Europe, but on that it seems likely that “repatriating” the “social chapter” must be quietly dropped. There remains the question of what is to happen over the Human Rights Act and that one is vital to us all.

    [Note: this comment was written on 12 May, before publication of either the short or long versions of the coalition agreement or the announcement of the full list of ministerial appointments. BLB]

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