Polygonic

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

Harbinger of doom

Burning out spectacularly in yesterday’s Barnsley byelection, the Liberal Democrats’ worst fears became a shuddering reality. They fell to sixth position from second in May 2010, now garnering just 4.1% of the vote.

Both byelections and polls can be overestimated. Unlike in general elections, voters may tend to hypothesise a bit more relaxedly than they would when burdened by the seriousness of voting for government. But byelections and polls in the UK right now are pointing to the very same patterns – not just the implosion of Cleggism, but a spite for it that makes antipathy to Thatcher look measured. In less than one year!

Barnsley was a safe, south Yorkshire Labour seat to start with, and their victory yesterday is of zero surprise. But Labour have done more than recoup whatever share of the vote they lost to the LDs in May – they’ve eaten deeply into its local base.

Anyone can tell you why – it isn’t “coalition” as a principle. Liberal Democrat voters by and large were enthusiastic about the prospect of coalition government. It would be novel and fairer. It would shake up the established patterns of governance. They’d have a moderating influence on the Conservatives. So, this isn’t punishment for “coaligning” or “soulselling.”

It’s more because people used to think the Liberal Democrats were a social democratic party. Something to the left of New Labour. That was the presumption that led people to believe they could have a moderating influence on the Conservatives. Now we see Nick Clegg properly. He’s no social democrat, he is a John Stuart Mill liberal. Just like David Cameron. Which is to say, he’s a Tory.

It’s painful to watch Nick Clegg these days. He’s our Prometheus, routinely eaten alive in the House of Commons. He’s putting on weight and losing colour. His eyes are glassy and unfocused. He clearly dreams of himself being anywhere but where he is.

Shrugging off polls and byelections as mere half-stories is a small comfort to him, but a comfort that is getting smaller with every fresh example of the party’s collapse.

Another issue of concern is not just the Lib Dems ungracious fall in Barnsley, but that Labour’s majority was not increased by quite the same measure. The far-right BNP made gains, and the anti-Europe UKIP surged ahead to place second, albeit a distant second. Again, that’s the Yorkshire anomaly – they can be to the left on the economy, and to the right on social issues, especially immigration. Ironically, that’s exactly the opposite political configuration of the Liberal Democrats in the first place. So, if there’s a tiny modicum of a silver lining for Clegg, it’s that Barnsley was always hopelessly out of reach, and the party nationally should do much better than 4.1% at the next opportunity. Hope springing eternal and all that.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , , ,

Common sense news-flash: Non-voters’ non-votes won’t be counted

The surreal mind-game seems to have wound down. And with that, a woot woot. Imagine this. The democratic chamber has overruled the undemocratic chamber (green with envy, Canada?)

MPs reject 40% threshold plan for the AV referendum

MPs have overturned a proposal to make a referendum on the Westminster voting system non-binding unless 40% of the electorate take part in the poll.

Peers backed the measure earlier this month but the Commons rejected the proposal by a majority of 70.

Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper said there was a “compelling” case for voters to make the final decision.

It’s fun reading about someone with the last name “Harper” taking the position that the unelected chamber should bow to the elected. Hee.

The referendum, slated for 5 May, now has a much better prospect of being staged at all, and of being a fair account of the democratic will. The battle for Alternative Vote supporters now is going to be to try to disassociate “Brand Electoral Reform” from the toxic “Brand Nick Clegg,” which will not be easy, nor fun. Many erstwhile supporters of the abolishment of first-past-the-post will now potentially use the referendum as an occasion to simply bludgeon the Lib Dems and rob them of their platform mantlepiece, sadly, which is going deep into cutting-off-nose-to-spite-face territory. Call the Lib Dems what names you will, people – this is your chance to enact one of their platform policies (ones which you voted for last year!), despite Clegg’s apparent Toryboy sycophancy.

That battle will be waged over the next few months. For now, at least, we can be glad that the referendum on the UK’s voting system won’t be subject to quicksand regulations that go beyond those which govern the election of MPs themselves. It’s a goose and ganders situation, which the HoC has cottoned onto. No good setting a precedent whereby turnout thresholds threaten to scupper the voices of active electors.

So, in conclusion – phew. For now.

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

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, , ,

What price ambition? Lessons from the coalition

It’s interesting keeping up a blog about both Canadian and UK politics (and photos of my dinner to boot) as I come to see (or maybe imagine) all kinds of ways one scenario can inform the other. The UK’s coalition government should be mandatory reading for Canadian parties looking for insights as to how it might work, and I think the recent history of Canada’s Liberal Party needs to be studied by the UK’s Labour Party, as they get about finding a new leader, identity, and ambition.

Labour’s new leadership will be announced later in the week, so for now, to the state of the coalition. If Canada one day gets a Liberal/NDP government (let’s fantasize that it doesn’t require Bloc support, please?), how might the governing parties relate to each other? What fortunes for the NDP, as the presumed junior partner? Experiencing simultaneously the dizzying highs of unprecedented influence over government action, and the nerve-wracking lows of intrapartisan discord, as party puritans condemn any perceived sell-out, I suppose? That’s the case for the Liberal Democrats, anyway.

The Lib Dems are currently holding their annual party conference. A chance to review the year that’s been, and to set the stage for that which is coming. As the first conference since coalition, I had feared it would feature a lot more wailing and gnashing of teeth, but so far the need to appear not on the edge of a collective nervous breakdown seems to be holding. Nick Clegg is making the case for party unity; faith that coalition is not a soul-selling betrayal; that the Conservatives may be big and bad but partnership is a virtue; and that the Conservative agenda is being moderated by the progressive impact of the Lib Dems in coalition.

A few of Clegg’s quotes from the weekend party conference:

The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are, and always will be, separate parties with distinct histories and different futures. But for this parliament we work together to fix the problems we face and put the country on a better path. That is the right government for now.

and

People have got used to us being outsiders against every government that comes along. Maybe we have got used to it ourselves. But the door to change we want was opened, for the first time in most of our lifetimes. Imagine if we had turned away. How could we ever have asked the voters to take us seriously again?

and

[We won’t] suffer some mysterious cross-contamination in Whitehall which means that we will suddenly warp into something different. You can share power with others and still retain your values.

There is lots of commentary that NDP folks are hopefully taking notes on. Visit here and here and here for a few views.

UPDATE: One can always speak too soon – there is some emerging discord at the Lib Dem conference after all. The party has voted against its leadership’s cooperation on the government’s new free schools policy. It was a non-binding vote, and won’t actually force Clegg to back away from supporting the policy (already passed anyhow), but it does come as an embarrassment for him.

Clegg’s main conference speech will take place later today – curious whether he’ll acknowledge what’s just happened, or what his reception will be. Stay tuned folks.

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

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.'”

and

“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, , , , , , ,

Stirring the hot pot

Labour has several reasons to be furious these days. But, it has to be said, they’re being clever with that fury, and they’re doing it through dividing the Coalition Government anytime they can – now, by appearing to ally with Thatcherite Tory backbenchers.

Part of Labour’s fury comes from the proposition, to be put to the Commons in the Autumn, to combine the Commons vote on adopting a referendum on AV with the proposition to realign the electoral district boundaries. Such realignment will largely dissolve what is (let’s face it) a northern urban Labour bias, and create districts with greater population equity – but at the expense of lots of Labour safe seats. So, it’s understandable from Labour’s perspective that boundary realignment is a bad thing. But, in arguing that they want to disentangle the Commons vote on boundary reform from a Commons vote on the date of the electoral reform referendum, what exactly do they want to accomplish?

Separating the motion into two, and introducing a separate motion on electoral boundary reform, wouldn’t itself make a positive difference to Labour. An electoral boundary reform bill, alone, would (we think) pass in the Commons, no? The Lib Dems and Tories both express commitment to it. So is Labour’s motive to create obstacles for the 5 May referendum on voting reform?

I think yes – but their motives seem indirect here. There are Tories who don’t want the public to vote on AV at all, let alone on the 5th of May when turnout is likely to be high, due to the coincidence of local elections that day. Labour’s motives here are more murky. They are half-ambivalent and half-supportive of voting reform, and Labour no longer maintains any predetermined opposition to AV. David Miliband would apparently welcome it, if he were leader, which he is supposed to be soon.

So if it isn’t AV itself that Labour wants to scupper (though they might not mind if it is scuppered), what they really want to scupper is the Coalition itself. It’s just a brutal, wedge-driving, pot-stirring strategy: to generate early rifts in the Coalition, and to disenfranchise and disenlighten the Lib Dems over their solitary Big Win in this Coalition deal, which is the referendum itself.

If the referendum date were to be changed away from the local elections date, and referendum turnout was thus rather low, provoking people like Bernard Jenkin to then advocate that the result isn’t conclusive enough, then Clegg might be provoked to abandon the Coalition.

That would delight Labour, really. They must feel confident that they could precipitate an early election in 2011ish, if they pot-stir successfully enough between now and then. By next Spring, Labour will have a new leader, they’ll have the polling bounce that inevitably comes with that, and if the Lib Dems look disorientated and failed in not getting the AV vote on a day of their choosing, their wider support will be highly vulnerable. Labour is already hoovering up LD support, and it’s only July 2010.

So while Labour have direct political reasons to oppose boundary reform, perhaps they have only indirect political reasons to oppose the timing of an AV referendum. Their tactics of late appear to be designed only to frustrate the Lib Dems, to kick them while their base is trembling and weak, to drive wedges in the Happy Marriage, and to set up a future election scenario that’s a highly comfortable and traditional bipartisan race.

I’m hoping Clegg can pull this out of the fire… he’s already argued that a referendum on 5 May, coupled with local elections, would save the country £17 million. Which is more than will be saved by abolishing the UK Film Council, so it’s (in this new Age of Austerity) no mean sum. He may want to impress that upon Cameron, and get him (with some urgency) to ensure his backbenchers don’t indulge in Labour’s proposition to wreck the Coalition through wrecking the referendum.

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, , , , , , , ,

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