That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Matchmaking and minefields

The Commons blog today revisits coalition or merger scenarios, and gratefully, omits the Liberal Party from the speculation. What if the NDP and Greens worked together instead?

I’ve argued the same. The Liberals already struggle with unity inside the cavernous red tent, and adding a ready-made superfaction to that mix would cause any leader difficulties for the foreseeable future. There is common ground already between the GPC and NDP on the environment, of course, and both parties attract disproportionately high numbers of young voters (those who vote, anyway) through an attractive anti-establishment discourse.

Which, in a unity scenario, is one of the problems. What if the anti-establishment party suddenly came within striking distance of becoming the establishment?

As I commented on Scott’s Commons piece, I’d have two main concerns about a GPC/NDP merger scenario.

1) Their vote wouldn’t likely be as big as their combined independent totals suggest. Though the Green and NDP combine for an apparent 27 – 29% of the electorate today, good enough for Stornoway, this would be difficult to sustain once united. They’d struggle to attract from the centre and the LPC, while some hardcore GPC and NDP partisans would feel betrayed and would peel off into the non-voting cloud somewhere. Witness the Conservatives – their support is consistently lower than the combined totals of the Alliance and PC pre-merger.

Also 2) putting the NDP and Greens in a position of real power would stir up lots of unflattering media scrutiny. They’d have to be sure they would be prepared to weather that, clean their closets in advance, and be able to reject people saying “now that they might win, they look too risky,” which would be an inevitable assertion from the galleries.

A “Progressive Party of Canada” (I’ve not trademarked that, so go ahead) would be brilliant in many respects. It would just have to watch its back a lot more carefully as it lunges into quite serious competition with the biggest parties.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , ,

Dear NDP

I like you guys. I’d like you to take a record-breaking number of seats in a federal election, which does not seem unreasonable at the moment.

But what any pollster – or a Grade 3 student who gets arithmetic – could also predict is a hung parliament. And that, rather than tolerate minority governments ad infinitum and the fractious brinkmanship parliaments they engender, stable coalition government may well be coming to Canada.

Not that I distrust you’re prepared for that. But in advance, may I ask to kindly to please not cock things up this badly. If one senses a whiff of power, one must ensure one has 1) watertight authority over the departments and ministries they will oversee, and 2) a secure sense that election pledges are achievable.

NDP supporters, like Lib Dem supporters, are hugely idealistic, and that’s an asset. It’s also a vulnerability if the base, post-election, sees neck-breaking volte faces.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , ,

“Sad-eyed defender of the new reality”

Nick Clegg is kind of the man we hate to hate. We don’t want to hate him, and we do hate doing it. But there it is. It’s a double-hatey.

Charlie Brooker’s today pointed his blinding laser-beam of cynical humour directly Clegg’s way, in an article so cruelly funny it almost seems unfair. But what does fair really mean to the Lib Dem leader these days? Hum.

On cutting off his nose to spite his face

“Before the election, I made a solemn pledge to leave my nose intact. I even printed that pledge out, signed it, and posed for photos while holding it up and smiling like I meant it. So I can understand people’s disquiet over this. It’s something I’ve wrestled with personally. But nonetheless, off it goes. Cutty cutty nose time! Tee hee! Hoo hoo! Chop, chop, chop!”

Worth reading the whole thing, before falling into a small quandary about whether you feel more pity, or actually more hate, for the poor Lib Dem leader these days.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , ,

Didn’t win? You need a coalition

She can’t be happy. But Australia’s Julia Gillard is able to concede something that Harper never would.

“It is clear that neither party has earned the right to government in its own right.”

Interestingly, the Globe didn’t include this phrase from Australian PM Julia Gillard in her post-election speech, though the BBC did. Political cultural chasms reflected in journalism?

It seems a minor point, perhaps, but this immediate concession from Gillard is quite telling. It seems that, in Australia, we have a country where the uncontroversial reaction after the election of a hung parliament is to concede that a plurality is not the same as “winning.” Effectively, everyone’s a loser. The UK’s David Cameron agrees with this, though Harper refuses to recognise his rightful place in their company.

Britain is governed by coalition. Israel is. We see coalitions in Germany, Japan, India, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand – and overall, 10 of the world’s 16 Triple-A economies are run by coalitions.

When will Canada give up the fear and accept that government should represent a majority of the public? Even if that majority has to be achieved through bi- or even tri-partisan government? It’s too early to tell what kind of government Australia’s going to get – but to approach coalition as the first and the fairest of options is something to envy.

Political parties are not cults, not clans, not agents so righteous that any formal cooperation between them should be regarded is impure and immoral, if not illegal. For any one party to advocate such a view ought to be a clear signal of their failure to understand what the purpose of public representation really is.

Australia has its faults – but a country that can entertain full independence from Britain, as well as forging coalition government, has a leg up on Canada in some important regards.

Filed under: International, Politics, , , , , ,

Am I bovvered?

I’m beginning to wonder if Nick Clegg actually has a penchant for self-harm.

Nick Clegg: Coalition will go on even if electoral reform fails

Here is the man who co-pioneered Coalition Government in the UK, marching the Liberal Democrats into cabinet amidst great critical acclaim, and establishing, finally, that electoral reform would be put to the British people, and that a truly representative democratic system would emerge from the dreary status quo. Applause, excitement, huzzahs.

In a remarkable and unforgettable move back in May, in the midst of coalition negotiations, he even addressed a crowd of pro-electoral reform demonstrators, using a megaphone to promise he would not let them down.

How far we’ve come in three months. He seems unmoved in relinquishing every old Liberal Democrat devotion at the first opportunity – his approach offends his Parliamentary Party, it offends the Lib Dem local organisations, his own deputy leader, and most severely, his fragile base.

But to openly pontificate on whether or not electoral reform is really that big a deal after all…

“I wouldn’t have stood for the leadership of the Lib Dems if I thought the sole purpose in life was to change the electoral system.”

I don’t really think Clegg’s actually into self-harm. It’s more about a cackhanded strategy to appear, at all times, in control and happy as a pig in shit.

Are you happy with Tory cuts to public services and the VAT rise? Yes, yes, though I prefer to call these ideas “Liberal Democrat efficiencies.”
Are you happy with where you are in the polls? Couldn’t be happier. Polls are volatile, and that’s fine. Very happy. All part of the plan.
Would you be happy if you lost big-time at next years local elections? Oh, yes. Parties of government are prone to lose some support. I’d be upset if it didn’t happen, frankly. It will help us listen and learn.
Would you be happy if the most important policy ambition of your party, electoral reform, failed in the end? Pretty much, yes. No biggie. Lots of other ways to be useful, you know.

He knows, as we all know, that even should electoral reform make it to referendum and survive Tory rebel scuppers, that the public are more than likely to reject the reforms in their growing distaste for the Lib Dems themselves. It’s a tragedy unfolding in slow motion. But, rather than mitigate this disaster in advance, Clegg instead just wants to appear as though everything that happens is part of the Liberal Democrat masterplan.

He must be utterly deaf to the outrage in his party and across his broad (and shallow) support base – essentially, he appears to be giving up already. Perhaps Simon Hughes will lead the party putsch before May 2011 – I can’t see how it would hurt.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , ,

100 days of Coalition

We’re past the 100-day mark of Coalition Government in the UK, and the universe hasn’t yet imploded. Lib Dems support may have, but the universe appears to be fine.

How is the public coping? Jonathan Freedland at The Guardian notes that:

The most striking change is the fading of novelty. This is not to be confused with the end of the coalition’s honeymoon, which – if lukewarm approval ratings are any guide – has also come astonishingly fast. It is instead the speed with which a political arrangement once confined to the dreams of nerdish games of fantasy politics, has become entirely unremarkable. There was some gasping at the “firsts”: Lib Dems strolling up Downing Street for their first cabinet meeting since 1945; Vince Cable clambering into a ministerial car; Lib Dems sitting alongside Tories on the government benches; Clegg deputising at prime minister’s questions. But after each first time, the second lost its frisson. Now the sight of Chris Huhne at the dispatch box is no more unexpected than the sight of, say, Jeremy Hunt: they’re just the government. Coalition politics is the new normal.

It’s something I’d like to shout out to any of the doom-mongers in Canada who hyperventilate with fear at the prospect of coalition government.

Indeed, there are good reasons why Canadian coalition could work even more smoothly than in Britain. Big caveats being that Canadians are more party-tribal than Brits, more cautious regarding electoral reform – and of course Canadians tend to view the big sovereigntist party in Parliament as not only intellectually distasteful, but as thoroughly immoral. The British don’t take the same emotional view of Scottish nationalists, so Canada has a bigger problem in terms of which parties would be deemed acceptable coalition partners.

Canada’s advantage, though, is that its Tories have already ruled themselves out of any potential coalition arrangement – they’ve slandered and smeared the very concept as impure, borderline criminal, unworkable and illegitimate. As he reminds us quite literally ad nauseum, Harper doesn’t do partnership. This means that the risk of a coalition with an ideological chasm embedded within it is unikely. The Liberals and the NDP, the only real Canadian coalition possibility, share an ideological compatibility that the UK’s Tories and Lib Dems aren’t supposed to enjoy.

“Supposed to” being the operative phrase there. The rifts and the faults that are emerging are not between the Tories and the Lib Dems – it’s within the Lib Dems themselves. The question is no longer existential and unimportant – What is their identity? Are they social democrats or are they liberals, finally? What does an alloy look like, and is that what we have? Joining government, and especially at a time of huge economic pain, forces this jagged question right through the heart of the party and through its base.

Cuts to public finances are deep and severe. They don’t offend the Tory base too much – Cameron’s voters are largely wealthy, and don’t tend to sympathise too much with those who aren’t. The Lib Dems base, though, is disproportionately young, less wealthy, and views itself as fiercely (if ambiguously) anti-establishment. So being the establishment was always going to feel uncomfortable.

Couple that with competing visions of what the party even is. Two observations this morning from Lib Dems Deputy Simon Hughes, and Leader Nick Clegg:

On Clegg:

8.29am: Not a very revealing performance by Clegg on the Today programme. He painted a picture of perfect harmony within the coalition, refusing to identify any subject on which the Tories and Lib Dems disagreed. Perhaps, given the Conservatives’ positive poll rating, he sees aligning the Lib Dems as closely as possible with the Tories as the way to revive his own party’s flagging poll ratings?

On Hughes:

Hughes wants a veto: “If you want a coalition to deliver the vote then you have to make sure everybody has bought into that,” he said. “It’s a matter of practical politics, the answer is therefore: yes, the parliamentary party, on behalf of the wider party, on big issues has to say, ‘No, we can’t go down this road.'”


“The idea of a centre left, of a progressive liberal Britain, is still very much for me what I am here to achieve,” said Hughes, who took over from Vincent Cable as deputy leader in June and has since become a lightning rod for Lib Dems discontented with the coalition. “Who knows, there may be a coalition with a Labour party if they are progressive at the next election, after the next election or sometime in the future. It’s on the agenda.”

So, on the same morning, this 100th anniversary, we see opposite tacks at the highest levels of the party: the social democrat who openly covets partnership with Labour, and the neo-liberal who simply cannot identify a single area of dispute with Conservatives. The ambitious social democrat who thinks the Lib Dems could punch above their weight, despite having just 1/6 the seats of the Tories – and the relaxed neo-liberal who is easily resolved to having got a few ideas in the joint manifesto, and is happy to cruise from here on in.

I don’t want the Lib Dem’s party conference this autumn to be an acrimonious dog-pit. But the odds are looking pretty good that it will be. With the unresolved wings of the Lib Dems flapping in different directions, the battle for unity of purpose lies within the Lib Dem tent, not between it and its Tory partners.

I voted Lib Dem, and I for one am not outraged at the Coalition’s performance so far. I know to place my outrage towards the senior partner where their policies seem short-sighted, careless, amaterurish, meanspirited. We do have to accept that it’s a Conservative government at heart – they’ve got the portfolios and they’ve got the bulk of seats. So while I share Simon Hughes idealism and would prefer the party better reflected his outlook, I also share Clegg’s degree of realpolitik around what the party can do with barely 50 seats. Here’s hoping they can unify around a strategy, that’s pragmatic and still distinct, to boost that seat count in future, not see it abolished through splittist infighting.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , , , , ,

Growing into the marriage

They’re beginning to get it.

The UK’s coalition government, while perfectly functional so far, has been beset by two main troubles:

1) party leaders who are each much more enthusiastic about coalition than their respective parties are. David Cameron loves it because he can use the Lib Dems as leverage against the Thatcherites on his far right, and Nick Clegg loves it because he gets to be called “Deputy Prime Minister” and feels as though this is the opportunity for his party to finally be viewed as a “party of government.” If only their parliamentary parties were as chuffed.

2) perceived, and real, sycophancy from Clegg towards Cameron. In effort to appear central to government decision-making, Nick Clegg has publicly agreed with all kinds of things his party blatantly does not agree with, and which contradict his own recent election campaign. This breeds resentment among Team Yellow, and has hurt Clegg (and thus the apparent durability of the coalition) relatively badly.

To address these challenges, I’ve thought that the Lib Dems (maybe counter-intuitively) need to disagree with the Tories more often, and more loudly. They need to be consistent in the message they made during the campaign – that they disagree with severe budget cuts, that they remain committed to creating equality of opportunity, that they ideally want a scrapping of tuition fees and a nuclear weapons programme, etc. – and stress that, as a junior partner in coalition, they won’t get their way every time. There are going to be some nasty policies which are all Cameron’s fault. Go on and say it guys – it won’t cause a divorce.

The Lib Dems deputy leader Simon Hughes has taken a step in the right direction over Cameron’s plans to end lifelong council housing tenancies. Hughes says:

“It’s a prime ministerial idea, it has no more validity yet, and I think our party would need a lot of persuading that it has merit or could work and that’s something clearly if he wants us to talk about we’re happy to talk about.”

That is, we didn’t dream this one up, we don’t much like it, and if the Tories want to pursue it, we’re going to need some give and take. That is much better for the Lib Dems’ integrity than pretending they really believed in curtailing housing benefits all along, which, while an attempt to seem supremely influential at government’s heart, just discredits the whole idea that the Lib Dems ever offered anything new.

So yes, good for Hughes – create respectful space. Defend your corner, and reach any compromise with dignity intact. I hope Clegg is listening.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , , ,

Cloaks, daggers, vested interests

Tests are coming fastly and furiously for the Ruling Coalition.

When the Lib Dems joined government, not two months ago, much unease and anxiety followed in yellow ranks. Are we getting the right deal, or are we being used in some strange way we’ve never been used before?

Many think the latter. A former leader has gone public, and all manner of signals indicate that party puritans don’t care for the compromises that Clegg has had to make in order to secure the one holy grail, the one policy meant to ensure greater Liberal influence in parliament from here on in – the referendum on electoral reform.

Without that promise of a referendum, there would be no Lib-Con coalition. This was the deal-breaker. In exchange, Clegg could swallow anything. He could swallow a VAT rise: like a snake (not that I see him as such, mind), he could extend his jaws to swallow just about every Conservative policy going in exchange for a deal on proportional representation, or something vaguely resembling it.

But no sooner was the announcement of a referendum date for the automatic run-off system announced (5 May 2011, if you’re wondering), and signs emerge that both of the established parties (Labour and the Tories, if you’re wondering) are in to quash it from the get-go.

Remember the negotiations that led to this government? Spooked by Clegg’s apparent partisan flirtatiousness, William Hague announced that, contrary to expectation, the Tories would concede to a referendum on the Alternative Vote – after all, why not let the people settle this argument?

Which people are these? The people in the 1922 Committee?

It is very clichéd to campaign on a “change” ticket, as the Tories did this year, and the hollowness of such a campaign is exposed by the power of vested interests, in both the Labour and Conservative parties. But, with both the Tories and Labour trying to appear as change-makers, it’s going to be difficult for them to go whole-hog anti-referendum. They have to appear willing to tolerate the possibility of real electoral reform. Skullduggery and obfuscation of the reforms will be subtle, backbench-led, and indirect.

This opposition is all bigger than Cameron – I don’t think he’s especially principled one way or the other on electoral reform. His speciality is speaking out of various sides of his mouth – he’ll do the minimum necessary to appease Liberals at one moment, but will be constantly prompted by the Thatcherite hawks in his coterie to change course whenever it’s politically feasible.

Here’s how I fear Clegg’s been screwed.

Cameron says to himself: “electoral reform” sounds zeitgeisty at election time, and Clegg was insistent upon it, ok, alright, let’s cope with that for now. But by mid-term or so, the public will have lost interest in things like ‘how elections work’ – the people will just be glad there isn’t another one soon.

By mid-term, we’ll have implicated them in loads of our horrifically unpopular policies – policies that especially outrage their base, and less so ours. They’ll be bleeding support to Labour, and into the ether, and the last thing they’ll want to do is walk out of the coalition and force an election. Great stuff. We can run the AV referendum aground with unreasonably high turnout thresholds, implementation red tape, and other thorny obstacles. What precisely will they be able to do about, chum?

If that is indeed Cameron’s thinking, then the Liberal Democrats will want to create space between themselves and the Tories soon. We haven’t seen them publicly disagree with the Bullingdon Boys on much of substance yet. This marriage will need to mature into allowing public disagreement on non-confidence issues, otherwise Clegg could well end up with a disillusioned base, tanking support, and an empowered 1922 Group who’ll get the wink from Cameron to kick electoral reform into the long grasses.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , , , ,

Birds of a feather…

Can I make up an adage? “If you don’t water the grass, the roots will cause you problems.” Maybe it’s a real adage already, but in this hot English summer, I just thought it apt.

There’ve been elements of dissent in Lib Dem ranks since the coalition deal was first signed, but I suppose such dissent, however expertly quelled at first, was always more likely to increase over time, rather than diminish. Disputes over policy design will ensure that – and now that we’re out of the Rose Garden and into policy-making war rooms, evidence is mounting that the Parliamentary Lib Dem Party hasn’t been keeping its grassroots concerns very well watered.

This month’s Austerity Budget, with its projected million+ lost jobs, has almost certainly ratcheted up internal tensions. Nick and Danny, seemingly lost for words much of the time, are either implicit in the design of this job-slashing budget, or they’ve powerlessly acquiesced to it. It’s either active or it’s passive malevolence, so the Lib Dem base asks itself, and you can almost hear the votes bleeding out of Nick Clegg’s very pores.

David Cameron’s helping, too. He’s being very clear that the Liberals have lots of influence – that they are an “active partner.”

But of course! The PM is in a remarkable position: able to speak as though he’s shoring-up his oft-insecure coalition partners – but his intent is only to hang this budget around their necks too. “They aren’t just witnessing this butchering – no, no – they picked out the axe.”

This bird may not be flying with the flock

And so it is that the Liberals begin to, even accidentally, expose their frustrations. One small example: an upcoming 6 July 1 July local council byelection, right where I live. Our local Lib Dem candidate in Tulse Hill (Lambeth), Terry Curtis, has implored us (in a lovely, faux-hand-written letter!) to think this way:

“This election is not about the government – whether you love it or hate it! It’s simply about who is the best person to represent us on the Council.”

Shouldn’t Curtis want to say things like “The Lib Dems are a party on the rise, we’re in government for the first time, we’ve got a referendum on electoral reform, we’ve quashed the higher threshold for inheritance tax, we’ve got a hand in reviewing Trident, join us on this journey to a better future” etc. etc? No. He says “Never mind the government – it’s me personally you should focus on.”

The use of pretend hand-writing is a lovely communication tool (sweetly, it’s even on airmail blue paper, as though sent to me by a long-lost lover), but this explicit distancing from the government – of which his party is part – takes all the love away. It’s not the sign of a happy family, or that there is much confidence amongst the party’s grassroots that they’re getting things done in government that they’re proud of. Remarkable to be communicating in this way, not two months since the general election.

Sure enough, it’s a council byelection, and yes, let’s vote for the local candidate with local credentials, etc. etc. But a local Lib Dem concession of the “hateability” of the new government seems to betray a bit more Orange Anguish than I’m sure they intended.

There are growing pains in the party, sure – the country and the system is not used to coalitions, and party organisations aren’t used to seeing their erstwhile heroes nodding and smiling alongside erstwhile enemies.

My fear for Nick Clegg generally is that Orange Anguish will catch on and find its own minor leaders in the backbenches, and, encouraged by the discouraged local party organisations (evidently, Lambeth is one), HoC Lib Dem rebellions will begin to flower. They’ll be perpetrated by LD MPs seeking to restore public faith in some original and pure Lib Dem ideal – but the public will just see a party that’s not only “sold out,” but is also disorganised and riven by feuds. That will exacerbate the perception that “they don’t know what they stand for.”

Rightly or wrongly, it’s a perception that Opposition Labour will happily encourage. How the Tories will respond, god knows.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , , , , ,

On the subject of marriage…

These are apples I could like.

…though with qualifications 🙂

As Jack Layton is the most successful NDP leader since Broadbent, and the first in yonks to poll decently in Quebec, I’ve got no reason to suggest he leave his post. Nor do I have any reason to suspect Thomas Mulcair would do a better job.

But, between the Greens and NDP, we do have a much more coherent coupling, and genuine space to end up with a progressive party that gets both votes and seats – enough, if spread right, to outgun an independent Liberal Party, no less.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , , , ,


July 2020

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