UK’s Deadlock, Clegg’s Dilemma

May 10, 2010

by Martin Odoni

The UK has a Hung Parliament then, for the first time in three and a half decades. In spite of all the nightmarish horrors the Conservatives and The Daily Mail were predicting for us, two days on from the result the Earth’s crust has not yet opened up, fire and lightning have not tumbled from the sky, which has remained firmly placed above our heads and not fallen around our ears, and dinosaurs have not been released from their would-be place of suspended animation to once more dominate the world.

Nonetheless, there is a serious deadlock at Westminster now, and with there being something of a vacuum at the top of Government, there is a danger of fresh economic turmoil if it carries on for long, as businesses wait to learn what market conditions will be like in the weeks ahead. As I type, it’s late on Sunday evening, and the Conservative Party are presently in the middle of pained negotiations with the Liberal Democrats over forming a coalition Government.

The Tories clearly won the Election in its widest sense. They got plenty more votes than anyone else, as well as most seats in the House Of Commons. But sadly for them, thanks to the geographic distribution of the votes around the country, they didn’t get enough seats to form a majority; without taking more than half the seats in the Commons (three hundred and twenty-six or more), the largest Party can still form a Government, but not a very strong or stable one, and without any guarantee of getting any of its legislation through.

(Government isn’t all about legislation of course; much of it is done in offices in Whitehall without debate or scrutiny by MP’s at all, but it becomes a very limited and punchless Government on major issues, especially those that involve changes to the Law.)

So a reliable working Government will require a multi-Party coalition large enough to get past the three hundred and twenty-six seat mark. With the Tories already on three hundred and six (probably three hundred and seven when the one outstanding constituency is sorted out – a safe Tory seat), a successful deal of some description with the Liberal Democrats, who have fifty-seven seats, would form a comfortable majority, more than enough to get legislation through Parliament with something to spare.

But there is a problem with that solution, one that may well be insurmountable. Quite simply, the Tories and the Lib-Dems are not natural allies. In fact, ideaologically they are almost completely at loggerheads on many of the issues that they feel most strongly about.

Most particularly, the Tories are determined to slash public spending by around six billion pounds, starting within the next couple of months. The Lib-Dems are quite firmly opposed to beginning cuts until 2011. Marginally less urgently, but no less importantly, the Lib-Dems are absolutely staunch in their desire for sweeping reform to the electoral system, to the organisation of Parliament, and to the ways expenses are claimed by MP’s and parties are funded. Although the Tories can’t really argue much against the funding and expenses reforms in the current climate of scandal, they are unlikely to give any ground on electoral reform. The dismally-obsolete First-Past-The-Post system (structurally still much the same as it has been since The Great Reform Act of 1832) has allowed the Conservative Party to form a number of strong Governments over the last century, often getting well over sixty per cent of the seats in the Commons with less than forty per cent of the popular vote. (Compare that with the Lib-Dems frequently getting over twenty per cent of the vote, but never more than ten per cent of the seats.) Under a more proportional system, the Tories would probably never be able to gain a majority in the House Of Commons again, at least not without a radical alteration in their general outlook and conduct.

(Conservatives often argue against proportional electoral systems because they have a history of producing weaker Governments, often even coalitions. This may well be true, but it’s nothing that cannot be sorted by a simple change of attitude. And while weak Government may not be a good thing, neither is Government with a narrow perspective. In any case, do not be fooled; their real reason for objecting to reform is almost entirely self-interest.)

There does appear to be a cautious respect between the two party leaders. Nick Clegg and David Cameron do have things in common, including a number of mutual friends. And Cameron appears to be a good deal more open-minded about the idea of electoral reform than many of his colleagues, in the past stating that he wants an end to the ‘Punch-And-Judy’ tribal politics that First-Past-The-Post encourages.

But the key word in that is ‘many’. Far too many of his colleagues are not open to the idea of reform at all. They’re terrified of it, both for the Party reasons highlighted above, and for individual reasons. One of the sad consequences of the geographical divisions in the First-Past-The-Post system is the phenomenon of the ‘safe seat’ i.e. a constituency where the incumbent MP has such an enormous share of the votes cast that any vote against him or her is a futile gesture, practically a vote wasted (hence the growing use of the phrase, “My vote is worthless”). It has more than a faint echo of the ‘Rotten Borough’ phenomenon of pre-1832 Elections. For a lot of MP’s, especially in the two big Parties, they essentially have a job for life by being in a safe seat. However, proportional systems would not limit the impact of a vote to the constituency it is cast in, unlike the present system, and so in a sense, the safe seat would become a thing of the past, and a number of once-complacent MP’s could suddenly find they’re out of a job. (This is why a fair number of Labour MP’s are none-too-keen on the idea either.)

The difficulty for Cameron is not just that he has a lot of backbenchers who are terrified of electoral reform. He has lost a lot of their goodwill in recent months, in no small part because he did not win the Election. Given that back around February the Tories appeared to have the Election almost in the bag, and were expecting a comfortable majority of around fifty seats, a Hung Parliament constitutes a great advantage frittered away in short order. Add to this Cameron’s almost cronyist devotion to an intellectual lightweight like the unpopular George Osborne, poised to become Chancellor of the Exchequer (second most-powerful position in Government no less) in a Cameron administration, and the derision and bafflement felt by the great bulk of the Party becomes very easy to understand. Hostility and unrest on the Conservative backbenches are substantial, and so, at exactly the time when he will most need their trust and co-operation, Cameron may instead face a full-scale revolt from within the Party – probably led by London Mayor Boris Johnson – if he makes concessions to the Lib-Dems on electoral reform.

Worse yet, this trouble works both ways. Even if Nick Clegg likes the terms of a deal offered by the Tories, he cannot just agree to it, as the Party rules of the Liberal Democrats do not allow him to do so. Any deals with outside bodies or official changes to Party policy have to get approval from the majority of its members. In other words, he has the same problem as Cameron; he has to get it past his own backbenchers, with the added obstacle that the requirement is official and not just psychological. Can Clegg get adequate support for the deal? Possibly, but it would have to be a far better offer than Cameron can probably afford to make. And the Lib-Dem backbenchers will feel very uneasy about mixing blood with the Tories, both for historical reasons and for reasons of policy, especially the proposed scale of spending cuts, anti-European attitudes, and the almost-brutal attitude to welfare.

My suspicion is that there will not be a deal. There may be a brief non-aggression pact of sorts, enough in the short term to keep the markets from panicking, maybe even to get the Opening-of-Parliament Bill through the Commons at the end of May. But a long-term deal or coalition to keep the new Government from collapsing looks unworkable. Even if one is agreed, it will almost certainly break down very quickly.

The alternative could be a deal between the Lib-Dems and the outgoing remnants of the Labour Government. Certainly the two Parties have more common ground than exists between the Lib-Dems and the Tories, not least that Labour is more receptive to the idea of political reform. Also, Labour shares the Lib-Dem belief that spending cuts should be delayed until 2011.

The main difficulty with this solution is not so much about policy, but with political inexpediency. The Lib-Dems recognise that it simply will not look good or democratic to by-pass the Party that got the most votes at the election in order to keep in power a second-placed Party that lost over ninety seats, including a man who is, fairly or not, one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers in modern history.

There are personal difficulties too. Gordon Brown, quite simply, is hated by most of the Liberal Democrats. Again, it may be difficult for Clegg, whose own relationship with the outgoing Prime Minister is nothing to write home about, to convince his backbenchers to agree a deal as long as it involves keeping Brown in office. A change of Labour leader would probably resolve that however, although that might lead to more questions about validity; putting into office a rejected Prime Minister looks bad enough. Putting into office a new leader that nobody in the Electorate had an inkling would be about to take over could arguably look even worse.

Also, there is a practical difficulty; even with a successful deal in place, the coalition would only have three hundred and fifteen seats – only about eight more than the Tories on their own – eleven short of a majority Government. Smaller Parties that have a presence in Parliament and might be able to reinforce the coalition include the Scottish National Party with six seats, The Social Democratic Labour Party with three seats, and the Green Party with just the one seat. All of these have significant common ground with Labour and/or the Lib-Dems. Further, the Republican Party from Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein, have five seats but for nationalist reasons they almost never take them up, which will reduce potential opposition by five. The remaining question then is, with perhaps as many as five different Parties trying to work together, would such a coalition of so many differing interests really be stable enough to govern for long? Well, probably not. It would certainly be strong enough to get the Lib-Dems’ desired electoral reforms through; all the smaller Parties share the Liberal wish for reform as it would strengthen their own voices as much as the Lib-Dems’ themselves, so a Reform Bill would have little difficulty getting passage (although there might be a danger of some Labour backbenchers resisting it for the same reasons as the Tories). But after that, what?

So if coalitions in both directions fail, the Lib-Dems would have to sit back and leave it to the largest Party to form a minority Government. The Conservatives would have to try and govern without sufficient numbers in the Commons to guarantee the passage of any legislation. Governments like that rarely last even as long as a coalition.

For all the three mainstream Parties, the deadlock is a fascinating but agonising dilemma.

The Labour Party might still have a role to play, but only by taking power without a mandate – discrediting Parliament and British democracy – and then only if Gordon Brown relinquishes the leadership, something he appears reluctant to do after having waited so long to receive it.

The Conservatives should form a Government, and must be feeling the pressure to do so quickly; political uncertainty quickly leads to economic uncertainty. But in order to form a Government that they can be confident will be effective, the Conservatives must agree electoral reforms that would sacrifice their chances of winning a majority in any future election, while also flirting with the enormous risk of internal rebellions, leadership struggles, and possibly even a total breakdown of the Party.

And then the Lib-Dems perhaps face the most difficult dilemma of all. Nick Clegg is truly in an unenviable position as he tries to choose between three possible courses of action, all of which will involve a terrible gamble; –

If he sides with Labour, the coalition won’t form an overall majority, plus the LibDems will be tainted with the accusation of restoring a discredited and rejected Prime Minister to Downing Street.

If he sides with the Tories, he will have to support policies that are entirely incompatible with his own manifesto pledges, especially vis a vis Europe and electoral reform.

(Either way, he will implicate the Lib-Dems thoroughly in what happens during this term, and this new Government will have to put through a lot of very unpopular policies because of the economic recession. And as the coalition Government is unlikely to be stable, a new Election will probably be just around the corner, so those policies will still be fresh in the minds of the Electorate. Further, his own policies may not get enough time to be pushed through Parliament, given that the three-month summer recess is imminent.)

The third option is to sit it out and wait for the Tories’ minority Government to fall of its own accord, which, again, will be soon. The problem then is that if the result of the second Election is more decisive, the Lib-Dems’ opportunity to push the reform agenda will be missed altogether. And the result could indeed be more decisive, when we consider that the recent Election has left the coffers of both the Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties pretty much empty. They are in no position to fight another campaign very quickly, whereas the Conservatives have almost limitless funds to draw on (as usual) and considerable sympathy from a loud and shameless right-wing media (also as usual). The chances of the Tories winning a full majority in a second Election might be high.

This might be offset if Gordon Brown relinquishes Labour leadership; the Council Election results this week were resoundingly won by Labour, suggesting that their poor showing in the General Election was a rejection of Brown more than of the Party as a whole, and so with a different leader in charge, they should do better in a second General Election. But either way, the Liberal Democrats cannot rely on the outcome being another Hung Parliament second time around. No, if Clegg truly wants to get a Reform Bill, he must push it through Parliament now, which means that waiting for a Tory minority to fall is not a safe option.

What a decision. What a dilemma. The UK is truly on rare, almost unprecedented ground, and given that it is a time of financial crisis, it may be ground the British cannot afford to stay on for very long. It is fascinating to watch, and the opportunity for far-reaching reforms to the landscape of British politics is a poignant one that only arrives once in a generation. There is a danger that it will not happen, that Clegg might be convinced to back down and accept a less sweetened deal. Expect many accusations of treachery to be hurled his way if that happens – although on that score, while I will feel disappointed and let down in that event, I will understand the decision; time is short with the economic problems so urgent, and having choices like these placed on his shoulders when negotiating with rivals who are in an equal and opposite position, must be a terrible burden indeed.

Whatever the outcome of the immediate deadlock proves to be, there is one certainty that everyone must keep in mind; the political turmoil won’t be over simply when the new Government is formed. Nor will they be over even if the electoral reforms are successfully carried through. Not by a long shot.

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