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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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”!