Just over two years ago, I supported the Liberal Democrats going into the 2010 Westminster election and I looked forward to the coalition agreement. I’d broadly have been supportive of the government in our neighbouring country, a test of policy in a country with similar culture yet in many aspects of politics quite different to our own. I’d even have supported most of the ideas in George Osborne’s recent controversial budget, be it the pasty, granny or caravan taxes, as I’d have a strong instinct against tax exemptions or expenditures, so was disappointed with the u-turns.
I’d have supported the AV referendum, and would generally support the need for political reform and renewal of institutions. It’s interesting to watch the debate on the House of Lords given the current debate in Ireland on the future of our Seanad. What was particularly interesting watching the debate last Monday was the small number of MPs from both Labour and Conservative sides who argued for complete abolition of the House of Lords, something I would sympathise with, but would be a major departure in the case of Britain given its traditions of parliament.
The problem of designing an upper house both in Britain and for those in Ireland who think the Seanad should be reformed is balancing democratic legitimacy of legislators with avoiding gridlock between two houses claiming democratic legitimacy.
The proposal in the House of Lords bill was for 80% of Lords to be elected for 15-year non-renewable terms using proportional representation by the list system in regional constituencies, as Britain currently elects its MEPs. The problem with this proposal is that it grants democratic legitimacy of an election, without accountability, as this set of legislators would not face the legislature after their decisions. While the current Lords have never faced the electorate, this very fact means that at least since 1945, they have deferred to the primacy of the House of Commons. The more I listened to speeches from Labour and Conservative MPs against the proposal, the more I felt it was a bad bill that deserved to be defeated.
It’s a very unfortunate measure for the Liberal Democrats to find themselves tripping up over. As a party, they have a reputation for being particularly wonkish, more interested in issues like political reform than the other parties. It seems to me indicative of why they are losing support in the polls and finding it difficult to gain ground. While reform of the House of Lords will gain them credit with their members, and is an important constitutional issue, they should not have allowed this to the one to cause such a backbench rebellion rather than any other proposal. They have lost political capital against their Conservative colleagues, particularly at the backbench level. They put too much faith in the government whips to deliver on this bill. I found myself agreeing very much with Conservative MP Louise Mensch on Twitter last week, finding common terms for reform but identifying the flaws in this proposal, and that beyond this issue, a real priority for the Liberal Democrats should be to work for equal marriage.
The Liberal Democrats can come back from this, but last week showed that while the coalition was working relatively smoothly at the cabinet level, there are clear tensions and resentments below.
I had it in my mind from the middle of last week that my next entry would be on David Laws, but had thought to write little more than a few words on the praise he had been receiving from Tories. In Thursday’s FT, I read the comments of Edward Leigh, Conservative chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, who asked “Can I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending, Gladstonian liberalism?” and he he been described as an unreconstructed nineteenth century liberal. ConservativeHome reported on how Laws refused a potted plant in his office and cut the Treasury’s budget for potted plants. He also declined the use of the Treasury’s £100,000 limousine, which his predecessor Liam Byrne has used and which he was entitled to use, saying that with a London home, he wouldn’t need it.
Consider that much in assessing his character. He was not someone who went into politics for the money or the perks. He found himself tripped up by a form of words, not fully confident in himself that he could describe his relationship as that between cohabiting partners. They had been in a committed relationship since 2001, but did not outwardly live as a couple. When he first started to claim his rental allowance, it would seem fair that he would not have to detail his budding romance. At what point in the intervening nine years would they then have become partners as defined by the rules? My instinct would be some time before they moved house together, but considering how private they were, that even their family and many friends did not know, let alone his stated justification of separate bank accounts, I can understand how he felt they didn’t fit the description.
Yes, as a millionaire he did not need the money, but all MPs from outside London are as entitled to a housing allowance as their salary. And it should be said that had he acknowledged their relationship, he could have claimed even more from the exchequer through an allowance for mortgage repayments. He is not someone who set out to defraud the state.
That he was in the closet helps understand a lot of small things about his political career. He was offered a front bench position in the Conservatives by George Osborne, and could well have found himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but Laws likes to tell of how he told Osborne that “I am not a Tory”. A profile of Laws last week, before the controversy, gave Conservative support of Section 28 as his reason for not joining, a provision banning promotion of homosexuality and the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in schools, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and supported by the Tories including David Cameron until its repeal in 2003. Of course, there are prominent openly gay Conservative MPs, such as Alan Duncan and Nick Herbert, both now junior ministers, but I’d imagine it was far more comfortable for him to be a closeted gay man in a liberal party than it would have been in a conservative party.
It also might have played a part in his ruling himself out of the 2007 leadership election, following the resignation of Sir Ming Campbell. After the leadership election of the previous year, in which the supposedly happily married Mark Oaten had withdrawn after controversy with a rent boy, and a second candidate Simon Hughes admitted that while he was not gay, he had had relationships with both men and women, Laws would have spurned such public scrutiny. I remember wondering during that contest in early 2006, whether I might find myself in some such situation later in life. Thankfully, I think I have now set aside that possibility.
Before the election, Liberal Democrat Voice, a blog site of LibDem supporters, compiled a ranking all members of the last Parliament by how libertarian they were based on their votes on a variety of votes relating to freedom of speech, trial without jury, ID cards, a national DNA database, and other similar civil liberties issues. The most authoritarian on these issues were ranked 100, those most libertarian ranked 0. It is by no means a precise rank, because of the difficulty in scoring votes missed by MPs, but with IDS ranked most authoritarian of the new cabinet, Huhne ranked most libertarian, it seems to be a reasonable guide. Particularly welcome are the low scores from Home Secretary Theresa May and from Attorney-General Dominic Grieve, in the most relevant positions to civil liberties.
|Prime Minister||David Cameron||12|
|Deputy Prime Minister and Lord President of the Council||Nick Clegg||9|
|Chancellor of the Exchequer||George Osborne||9|
|Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs||William Hague||6|
|Secretary of State for the Home Department||Theresa May||3|
|Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice||Kenneth Clarke||3|
|Secretary of State for Defence||Dr Liam Fox||12|
|Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills||Dr Vince Cable||3|
|Secretary of State for Work and Pensions||Iain Duncan Smith||15|
|Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change||Chris Huhne||0|
|Secretary of State for Health||Andrew Lansley||3|
|Secretary of State for Education||Michael Gove||9|
|Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government||Eric Pickles||9|
|Secretary of State for Transport||Phillip Hammond||6|
|Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs||Caroline Spelman||3|
|Secretary of State for International Development||Andrew Mitchell||3|
|Secretary of State for Northern Ireland||Owen Paterson||9|
|Secretary of State for Scotland||Danny Alexander||6|
|Secretary of State for Wales||Cheryl Gillan||3|
|Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport||Jeremy Hunt||6|
|Chief Secretary to the Treasury||David Laws||3|
|Paymaster General||Francis Maude||9|
|Minister of State in the Cabinet Office||Oliver Letwin||6|
|Minister of State for Universities and Science||David Willetts||9|
|Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons||Sir George Young, Bt||6|
|Chief Whip||Patrick McLoughlin||6|
This was a disappointing election for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. As David Schneider tweeted, “Was the whole LibDem thing something I dreamed in the shower?”. With 63 MPs at the dissolution of the Commons on 6 May, they returned with only 57. These included a few high-profile losses, such as Lembit Öpik in Montgomeryshire, one of the safest seats for Whigs and Liberals since the 17th century, and Dr Evan Harris in Oxford West and Abingdon, who was possibly my favourite MP, a strong voice for a clear scientific understanding of policy, a defender of free speech, and a clear advocate for of gay rights, beaten by Nicola Blackwood, a Tory who apparently has creationist beliefs.
But they also have a great opportunity, as no government can be formed without their support. They have a choice now between supporting a government led by David Cameron, or one led by a probably David Miliband, also supported by the SDLP, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and Sylvia Hermon. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that as someone who has in political allegiances has gone between the Progressive Democrats and Fine Gael that I would favour the former option. I see this as their best chance of affecting change in both policy and in the dynamics of party politics, as long as they ensure a place in cabinet rather than simply supporting the Conservatives in a confidence and supply arrangement.
The Conservatives are reluctant to move much at all on the question of electoral reform. This would be the best reason the Lib Dems would have to collapse negotiations, if they cannot secure a firm commitment on this. However, they should consider two things. The first is that a referendum proposed by a rag-tag slump coalition of Labour, the Lib Dems and a selection of regionalist parties would not be guaranteed to win. The second is that a successful and stable coalition agreement would seriously impair the Tories’ argument against proportional representation, whereas they could point to a Lab/LD/SNP/SDLP/Hermon coalition as exactly the kind of thing that would occur frequently under PR.
The change to the Tories
This leads onto the change they could affect in the party system. As referred to by Declan Harmon, Fianna Fáil eventually abandoned their core principle of opposition to coalitions. In 1989 the Progressive Democrats had had a poor election, falling from 14 to 6 seats. Its members were mostly composed of those who had a deep antipathy to the politics of Charles Haughey, who they were now supporting as Taoiseach. By doing so, they altered the presumptions everyone had about election outcomes and the formation of governments. The Tories know the importance of a stable government as a signal for the markets, and would likely not seek to collapse the arrangement over any frivolous matter. After a year of coalition, they would henceforth slowly begin to think less adamantly in favour of single-party government only.
I was talking to a friend this morning about the coalition who reminded me that they’re Tories, not conservatives. Of course there’s a difference, and there are many issues that I couldn’t trust Tory instincts on, be it Northern Ireland, their approach to families, or their commitment to gay rights (whatever about the optimism of Nick Herbert for his party and his likelihood of being a cabinet minister, there have been too many Lewises, Lardners and Strouds over the course of the election for my liking). But these tendencies would be less of a concern in coalition, and without them, the Tories would be in danger of regressing towards their
In government with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats could ensure that they follow through with their claimed commitments to civil liberties. They could force them to confront more quickly questions like biometric ID cards, the national database, and the level of CCTV coverage in Britain. On immigration, they would propose the amnesty for long-standing residents proposed by the Lib Dems, but neither they pass the stringent caps proposed by the Tories. The Tories would continue for opt-outs on social provisions of the European Union, while not being as obstinate in practice as they might otherwise be. The social conservative wing of the Tories are pushing for a cabinet position for Iain Duncan Smith in return for agreeing to any deal with the Lib Dems. Fine, so long as in the next year or so he is whipped to go through the lobbies voting in favour of some measure on gay rights.
So yes, the Liberal Democrats will suffer some initial drop in support in they enter coalition with the Tories, just as the Green Party did here after 2007, both because of their government partner and the inevitable cuts to government spending. But in the long-term, because of the change they would make to British political culture, both by normalizing c0alition politics and making electoral reform easier to pass, and putting pressure on the civil-liberties-focused wing of the Tories, I think it would be the right thing for them to do.
The Times/Ladbrokes seat predictor currently put the Conservatives six seats short of a majority. Suppose this prediction is accurate. It ignores a few details about Northern Ireland. They predict a seat for Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, standing in alliance with the Conservative Party, which really puts the those elected as Conservatives at 321. South Antrim should really have been coloured as blue as any Conservative predictions in Britain. They also predict a seat for Rodney Connor in Fermanagh–South Tyrone, who has pledged to take the Tory whip under a loose arrangement. Add to that then the four predicted Sinn Féin seats. By their abstention, they bring the figure required for a majority to 324, rather than the standard figure given of 326.
The Conservatives would then be only two seats short of a majority, and could very reasonably expect to form a government. But to be secure, to sure of not losing any confidence motion, especially if the predictions are a little high for the party, they could turn then to the eight predicted seats of the Democratic Unionist Party. They would most likely guarantee some measure of relief from the expected public sector cuts to Northern Ireland. It would be a major turn around in Peter Robinson’s fortunes, whose position was in doubt only a few months ago. It would also consolidate the Conservative government’s Unionist stance on issues of disagreement in Northern Ireland, which could potentially have repercussions for any further negotiations.
Nick Clegg rightly said this morning that it would be preposterous if Labour were to lead the next government if it were the third party in share of votes. What hasn’t been given due focus is that mightn’t even have that theoretical option if the numbers from these polls hold out. To command a majority, a prime minister needs the support of 326 of the 650 MPs in the Commons. Electoral Calculus currently put the Conservatives at 297, Labour at 227 and the Liberal Democrats at 94, whereas Times/Ladbrokes give the Conservatives 315, Labour 224 and the Liberal Democrats 78. They differ significantly in how they predict seats to be shared between the Tories and Lib Dems, but both show that even with Lib Dem support, Labour would not pass 326. Unless they also added the various nationalists, but that really would be pushing it, and the Liberal Democrats would not be so foolish.
The only real question left is whether the Tories will manage to govern alone or whether they will be compelled to rely on Lib Dem support. Labour are as good as irrelevant on those figures.