Labour, the SNP, and who forms a government?

It’s a challenge to believe it, but according to reliable reports Jim Murphy, the leader of the Scottish Labour party, has been claiming that whichever of the two main UK parties wins the most seats in the election on 7 May will be entitled to form a government. This is constitutionally quite wrong: it’s the party that can win a vote of confidence in the new House of Commons, if necessary with the support of other parties, whose leader is entitled to become prime minister. But Mr Murphy goes even further in error: according to the Guardian‘s report of 7 April,

Murphy also indicated that Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament.  Murphy told Sturgeon the last time the losing party had formed a minority government was in 1924.”  [My emphasis — BLB]

What?!  Is Jim Murphy seriously asserting that if the Conservatives win a few more seats than Labour in May, but the anti-Tory centre-left parties (Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and maybe some LibDems and others) together command a majority in the new House, Labour would “resist pressure to vote down the Tories” and allow Cameron to form another government, even though there was a majority in the House of Commons ready to support a Labour government under Miliband? This scenario surely beggars belief: Cameron forms a government, presents an anodyne Queen’s speech which is either approved (Labour MPs abstaining) or rejected (Labour and the other centre-left parties voting against), followed by a vote of confidence in the Cameron government — which Labour MPs, by abstaining, allow to be carried when they have the votes to defeat it! It’s hard to imagine Labour party members and supporters and the other regiments of people all over the country, yearning to be rid of this austerity-obsessed, class-driven, incompetent Tory-led government, placidly acquiescing in such a betrayal of the hopes of millions. Yet according to a politically astute friend living and working permanently in Scotland,

the ‘biggest party forms the government’ lie is the main plank in Scottish Labour’s pitch. It is repeated endlessly on TV and radio (and presumably on the doorstep) every day. That, and the psychotic belief that the SNP are Tories – their first election broadcast featured the SNP’s role in the vote of no confidence that brought down the Callaghan govt., ‘ushering in Thatcher’ (as if she didn’t have to win an election first).

My cry of pain at this heresy and its appalling possible consequences is the lead letter in today’s Guardian (9 April 2015):

“In his Scottish television debate with Nicola Sturgeon (Sturgeon eyes early push for second referendum, 8 April), Jim Murphy reportedly asserted that: 1) “Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament”; 2) Gordon Brown had been wrong in 2010, having won fewer seats than the Tories, to investigate the possibility of remaining in office with Liberal Democrat support; and 3) Labour “would not need Scottish National party support to win the election or form a government”.

I hope Mr Murphy was wrong on the first count. He was certainly wrong on the second and probably wrong on the third. The right to lead a new government belongs to whichever party leader can win a vote of confidence in the new House of Commons, and he will not necessarily be the leader of the largest party in a hung parliament. By asserting the opposite, Mr Murphy plays into the hands of Lib Dem leaders hellbent on renewing their coalition with the Tories regardless of the consequences for the country.

He is understandably preoccupied with saving a few Labour seats in Scotland from the SNP, but he shouldn’t be allowed to pursue that aim at the expense of Labour’s chances of forming the next government – most likely relying on SNP and other parties’ support in order to do so.

Brian Barder

There’s not enough space in a Guardian letter to spell out the full implications of the Murphy heresy. Constitutionally, the only criterion for forming and administering a government is the ability to win a vote of confidence in the House of Commons: being the leader of the biggest party in the House is irrelevant. In the old days of two-party politics, when around 90 per cent of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative, the two things almost always coincided: the leader of the biggest party was also the man or woman who could win a vote of confidence. Those days are over: in the Jim-Murphy new era of multi-party politics and fractured allegiances, what counts is the ability to assemble a reasonably like-minded group of parties represented in the House and together big enough to command a majority in favour of a vote of confidence. It seems quite likely from current polling figures that the Tories may win a few more seats than Labour but that the group of parties willing to support a minority Labour government may amount to a majority of the whole House, which would make Ed Miliband the prime minister of a minority Labour government.

The rather large fly in this sweet-smelling ointment is the position of the LibDems. They alone of the significant parties refuse, as usual, to say in advance of the election which of Cameron or Miliband they would support as prime minister. It sounds from Nick Clegg’s and Paddy Ashdown’s utterances as if they will again adopt the out-dated and cynically self-serving formula that they will “talk first” to the leader of the largest single party in the new House — not the leader of the party with the greatest support from all parts of the House. Even if LibDem MPs in the new House are reduced to a negligible rump, as some polls suggest may happen, they may still just have the numbers to put either the centre-left pro-Labour group or the centre-right group (Conservatives, UKIP, DUP) over the finishing line with the magic figure, 326 MPs, guaranteeing a majority in a vote of confidence. To the limited extent that LibDem intentions will be determined by which single party has the most seats, and not which multi-party group, Murphy is correct in asserting that every Scottish seat won by the SNP from Labour makes a Conservative government more likely. But that is true only if the LibDems emerge from their night of carnage still holding the balance of power.

Incidentally the Tories and some confused commentators are simply muddying the already murky waters by claiming that the SNP may hold the balance of power and thus be in a position to dictate terms to Ed Miliband and to extort policy concessions from him, for example over Trident: the SNP is already committed to supporting a minority (or indeed majority) Labour government and are in no position to impose conditions on their support, since to withhold it would risk paving the way to another Cameron government, the last thing the SNP can afford to seem to want. No policy bargaining with the SNP is necessary or desirable, at any rate until after a Labour government is safely voted into office. It’s only the LibDems who plausibly hope to be able to auction their support to the highest and most unprincipled bidder, without regard to the consequences for the country and its people. In the few remaining weeks before the election, it should be a prime objective of the Labour leadership to encourage the LibDem rank and file in the country, and the left-of-centre element in the LibDem leadership, to insist publicly before 7 May that they will not tolerate Clegg or his successor as leader using LibDem votes in parliament to enable Mr Cameron to stay on in No 10 Downing Street as prime minister.


11 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    Thanks for spotting this & writing to the Guardian about it – it’s nonsense & really dangerous nonsense. I can understand Murphy wanting to push this line – if Labour and the SNP are both intending to form a non-Tory coalition, the main reason for voting Labour rather than SNP evaporates. I hope it’s Scottish Labour kite-flying, and not a pre-emptive white flag from Labour HQ in anticipation of a Tory press campaign to delegitimise a Labour-led coalition. If the need arises, the Tories’ allies will certainly be pushing the biggest-party-wins line – but Labour’s reaction should be (in the immortal words of E. Miliband) “Who cares?”.

  2. Jeremy Varcoe says:

    Whilst i agree that your analysis of the constitutional position is more accurate than that attributed to Jim Murphy, it would appear from the last two paragraphs of this blog that your visceral hatred of David Cameron causes you to be able to justify almost any actions by the smaller left-leaning parties provided the result is to get Ed Milliband into No 10.

    You criticise the LibDems for having in 2010 talked first to the Party which had won most seats but was this not constitutionally, politically and ethically the correct thing to have done? I recall that at the time Clegg, I think, referred to the fact that the electorate would not have understood if the will of the majority of the voters had been deprived of having a fair chance of their party being in – or at least sharing – power. I believe that was valid and indeed to would be again if, as you posit in your penultimate para, the Libdems were again required to determine which group would hold a majority of seats. Given that some LibDem policies are more in line with Tory philosophy and some more aligned to Labour I cannot see how a decision to support a Cameron government would necessarily have such damaging consequences for the country and its people.

    Far more unprincipled is your readiness to urge that a minority Labour government should be formed without the country being made aware of the extent to which the SNP would be leading the new government by the nose and gaining unjustified benefits for Scotland as the price for not withholding their support on other more important issues. Rather like Fallon’s stupid and ill-advised criticism of Milliband in today’s ~Times I do not think your stop-at nothing determination to see Labour in office suggests an unusual victory of emotion over reason on your part.

    La lutta continua…

  3. Brian says:

    Brian writes: Jeremy, I don’t know where to begin to deconstruct your Daily Telegraph-like indictment. The most damaging of your misconceptions is perhaps your apparent fear that the wicked ScotNats would lead any minority Labour government “by the nose” and extract “unjustified benefits” for Scotland in exchange for SNP support on other (unspecified) issues — the current shroud currently being waved by the more imaginative Tory propagandists. So let’s start with that. Leaving aside for a moment the interesting concept of an “unjustified benefit” for Scotland, why pick out the SNP for this particular warning? In a hung parliament, any minority government — i.e. any government — is forced to negotiate with other parties in order to build an ad hoc majority for each specific measure in order to carry out its programme. Such negotiations will often involve concessions by one side or another, or more often by both. It’s called the necessity of compromise, and it’s really a feature of politics everywhere, since all parties are informal shifting alliances of groups and factions which negotiate and horse-trade with each other in order to arrive at every policy decision. The present Conservative-LibDem coalition conducted much of its horse-trading and compromising in the five days after the election, leading to the Coalition Agreement which crystallised the more or less reluctant compromises made by both sides in order to enable both to share power. I don’t remember you describing this event as the Tories being “led by the nose” by the LibDems, although it now seems that that was how it felt to a good many Tories. A similar process of horse-trading and compromise has continued throughout the life of the Tory-led coalition: the Tories broke their implied promise to support the LibDems’ programme of electoral reform, helping to cause it to fail, and the LibDems retaliated by withholding their support from the Tory plans for re-drawing electoral boundaries. Whose nose was led by whom in that little exchange? When Mr Cameron yielded with obvious and justified reluctance to the demand of his Europhobic back-benchers for a commitment to hold an in/out referendum on UK membership of the EU, did you complain that he was being led by the nose by the section of his party that is obsessed by the desire to cut the UK loose from the rest of Europe? It’s just politics, and those who are too fastidious to engage in its rough and tumble are condemned to a life of failure to get anything done. If you can’t stand the heat…

    As for unjustified benefits for Scotland, all three of what used to be the major parties made a solemn pledge to legislate for devo max, or home rule, or full internal self-government, for Scotland as the price of a No majority in the independence referendum. If those parties fail to honour that pledge after the May election, the inevitable consequence will be the disintegration of the United Kingdom. No doubt the fulfilment of the pledge will be noisily denounced by political illiterates with faulty short-term memories, lamenting that the government of the day, whether Labour- or Conservative-led, is being “led by the nose by the SNP” and granting “unjustified benefits” to Scotland. To quote Phil quoting Ed Miliband, who cares?

    I’m puzzled by your apparently rosy view of the LibDems. Your no doubt accurate observation that some LibDems are closer to Labour than to the Conservatives while others are closer to the Conservatives than to Labour is a roundabout way of admitting that the LibDems as a party have no coherent political principles or philosophy apart from a vague attachment to liberty, an attachment almost as widely shared as the widespread approval of motherhood. To cite this lack of principle as an excuse for the LibDems’ refusal to tell the electorate, before the election, whether they would use the balance of power, if they hold it, to put Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband into No 10, is surely to take leniency to quite excessive lengths. How dare they invite a single voter to vote for a LibDem candidate when not a single LibDem voter can know how his or her vote will affect the outcome of the election? If the LibDems’ attachment to liberty is vague, their new-found addiction to ministerial office at, apparently, almost any political cost, is all too sharply defined.

    The real possibility that a party which seems likely to struggle to win as much as 10 per cent of the national vote should have the power to determine whether we are to be governed by Labour or the Conservatives is a spit in the eye of democracy. Yet it’s the election outcome which would be permanently guaranteed by “electoral reform” and PR, prominent among whose zealous advocates, unsurprisingly, are the LibDems. If that’s how the arithmetic of the election turns out, the next prime minister will quite likely be chosen by Mr Clegg (or his successor), not by the majority of voters who will have voted for the three or four centre-left parties which have already declared themselves in favour of a Labour government.

    And so to Mr Cameron. I don’t accuse those who want to prolong his tenancy of No 10 of “visceral hatred” of Ed Miliband, and I don’t like to be accused of “visceral hatred” of Cameron, or for that matter of Osborne or Duncan Smith or Gove, although I certainly regard most of their policies as harsh, ineffective and detestable, which is a different matter. As for my “determination” to see a Labour government in office, that suggests that I have an influence over events which I wouldn’t claim in my wildest dreams. I believe that another five (or even two) years of Tory or Tory-led rule would be a disaster for Britain. I believe that it would generate uncertainty over Britain’s future in Europe that would be economically and politically extremely damaging. I believe that it would raise the real possibility of British exit from the EU, which would reduce us to powerless isolation in the world and almost certainly also to the secession of Scotland and the end of the UK. I believe that another two years of even deeper cuts to welfare benefits for the poorest and most vulnerable of our fellow-citizens would complete the ruin of the post-war welfare state consensus and cause a bitter division in our already unequal society that would take a generation to heal. I believe that the coalition’s continued failure to stimulate aggregate demand in the economy by increasing, instead of deliberately reducing, the spending power of those in society with the highest marginal propensity to spend — namely the working poor, the unemployed, the disabled, the retired and the sick — would continue unnecessarily to retard and unbalance our much delayed and shaky recovery from a global recession of which the immediate cause was the international bankers and the ultimate cause was the inherent defects of capitalism. (No, I don’t have an alternative to capitalism to propose.) And that is quite apart from the dreadful social and human costs of making the weakest in our society pay the lion’s share of the cost of a crisis manifestly inflicted on us by the rich and powerful. I find it genuinely difficult to understand how anyone of goodwill like yourself can defend such a dismal record or want to see it continue. Visceral hatred of David Cameron? No. I’m sure that in private he’s a decent family man with a sense of humour, probably very good company. And I suspect that the viciousness and incompetence of the policies over which he has presided stem from his weakness and inability to think outside the confines of his social class, not from any fundamental wickedness. (But on that at least I may be wrong!)

  4. John Greenwell says:

    A general comment from Australia:
    Jonathan Holmes is a respected Australian journalist and commented in the Canberra Times, 8th April.
    Speaking of Nick Clegg, the Lib-Dem leader, he wrote that in 2010, the Lib-Dems gained 57 seats, “that was enough to give them the balance of power in a finely balanced House of Commons. Nick Clegg .. made the fatal choice of allying with the Conservatives in a formal coalition. It gave his Party, for the first time since 1914, a taste of power, and seats at the Cabinet table. But, in the process, it alienated the Lib-Dems’ bedrock vote, because they acceded to hugely unpopular policies. All the polls say the Lib Dems will be lucky to get 25 members elected this time around. After the general election on May 7, they’ll be replaced as power brokers .. by a new major player, Not Nigel Farrage’s far-right UKIP, which is unlikely to gain more than four or five House of Commons seats.
    The new player will be the Scottish National Party. In August, the Scottish people rejected independence for Scotland, But now, with actual separation from the United Kingdom ruled out, Scottish people are flocking to the SNP banner ..
    According to the Polls, he (Alex Salmond) will win and so will 50 of is fellow Scots Nats. And that means, in all likelihood, it will be the SNP that decides which of the major parties can govern the nation. As several English voters grumbled to me in the pub, ‘the Scots have got their own damn parliament now,but they’re going to be governing us, too”

  5. Acilius says:

    “the three or four centre-left parties which have already declared themselves in favour of a Labour government.” Well, if a voter really wants a Labour government, the only thing to do is to mark the ballot for the Labour candidate, as the only party that is genuinely in favor of a Labour government is the Labour party. Even UKIP, which is likely to take almost all of its votes from disaffected Tories and thus to do a great deal to improve Labour’s chances, can hardly be called a friend to the Labour Party. But at least UKIP and Labour have a common enemy in the Tories. The centre-left parties are in direct competition with Labour for votes, and have no incentive at all to help Labour succeed.

  6. Brian says:

    Brian writes: Phil, thanks for your comment with which I entirely agree – except for your references to ‘coalitions’. I think it unlikely that either the Conservative party or the Labour leadership are much attracted by the idea of a formal coalition with any other party if they manage to form a government in a hung parliament. Indeed both Labour and the SNP have explicitly ruled out a coalition with each other. The only coalition I can envisage is a renewed coalition between the Tories and the LibDems, which Nick Clegg repeatedly muses about, but I hope that’s just wishful thinking on his part. A minority government with or without a confidence and supply understanding with other broadly like-minded parties seems to me the likeliest and most desirable outcome.

    John, welcome back to Ephems! I read Jonathan Holmes’s comments on the UK election scene with interest: it’s always good to hae the gift to see oorsels as ithers see us. But I think Mr Holmes has it slightly wrong about the Scottish National Party. Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly made it clear that SNP MPs at Westminster will be part of the anti-Tory group in the new parliament and that if it’s a hung parliament agaion, as seems likely, the SNP will vote to put a Labour government into office and to sustain it there, although it won’t always support specific Labour measures or policies (for example on renewal of Trident). So the ‘balance of power’ concept doesn’t really apply to the SNP as it’s already committed to one of the candidates for leading a minority government. My fear is that the LibDems, who refuse to commit themselves to either side before the election, may hold the balance of power and therefore be in a position to auction their support to the highest bidder – as I have tried to set out in my post above.

    Acilius, thank you too for your comment. I cordially agree that in almost all foreseeable circumstances those who want a Labour government, with or without a majority in parliament, should vote Labour and not for any other party, however well disposed to Labour it might be. The exception I would make is in a constituency where the competition is between the Tory and LibDem candidates, with Labour so far behind that he or she has no realistic hope of winning. In that case I personally would be tempted to vote LibDem, on the grounds that minimising the number of Tory MPsin the new parliament is more important than making a symbolic gesture on behalf of a hopeless Labour candidate. But I accept that others may differ on this.

    Where I do disagree with you, though, is about the position of UKIP. It seems to me pretty clear that in a hung parliament the UKIP MPs will vote to keep Cameron in No. 10 and to keep Miliband out of it, mainly because of UKIP’s passionate demand for an in/out EU referendum but also because UKIP is overwhelmingly a party of the political right. The question is whether the centre-left parties (Labour, SNP, Plaid, Greens and maybe a few others) will win enough seats to defeat the centre-right group (Conservatives, UKIP, DUP) in a vote of confidence in a Cameron minority government without needing the LibDems to do so. It looks as if the centre-left group may be bigger than the centre-right, but the LibDems may yet win enough seats to allow them to tilt the see-saw either way. Not a palatable prospect!

  7. Robin Fairlie says:

    Two quotes from above, which might be labelled idealism versus pragmatism: which do readers prefer?

    “To cite this lack of principle as an excuse for the LibDems’ refusal to tell the electorate, before the election, whether they would use the balance of power, if they hold it, to put Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband into No 10, is surely to take leniency to quite excessive lengths. How dare they invite a single voter to vote for a LibDem candidate when not a single LibDem voter can know how his or her vote will affect the outcome of the election?” BLB

    “It’s just politics, and those who are too fastidious to engage in its rough and tumble are condemned to a life of failure to get anything done. If you can’t stand the heat…” Also BLB

    Brian writes: Robin, I hope you are not suggesting that idealism and pragmatism are incompatible? Or that it makes sense to “prefer one to the other”? Both quotations seem to me to be a nicely judged blend of the two isms. But I would think that, wouldn’t I?

  8. formula57 says:

    An interesting topic and thank you for your thoughtful analysis. Two points occur to me: –

    1. The Lib Dems are surely entitled in a world of coalition formation to state a willingness to negotiate with some or all other parties, as are their rivals. It is impossibly restrictive to demand of them (or any party) in such a world that every “single LibDem voter can know how his or her vote will affect the outcome of the election?”. (Note in this context that neither of Messrs Miliband and Cameron have (I think) ruled out a so-called Grand Coalition.) UKIP-like, the Lib Dems might appropriately state what would be their minimum demands or particular policies they would not surrender to coalition negotiation: more than that seems an unreasonable burden and moreover one that would often make coalition formation impossible.

    2. The objection to the SNP having influence arises from two important distinctions that would not affect the Lib Dems or UKIP or some others perhaps, being (i) the SNP’s intent and raison d’être is to see the dissolution of the UK (so an “enemy within” perhaps rather more potent than the last to carry that epithet) and (ii) the unresolved West Lothian question that as you will know of course may see a Miliband government passing unpopular legislation affecting England only in reliance upon SNP votes – a veritable outrage made extreme if like measures had been rejected for Scotland by the SNP government in Edinburgh.

    (At least we learned today that the leader of Scottish Labour will not be setting the UK budget. Small mercies!)

  9. Brian says:

    Brian writes in reply to formula57‘: Thank you for your two interesting points.

    On the first, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the LibDems to do what all the other smaller parties have done, explicitly (as in the case of the SNP and UKIP) or by implication, namely to say which of Messrs Cameron and Miliband they will put into No. 10 Downing Street in the event that their votes will help to determine which of them is able to form a government. This after all is the key issue whose outcome the vast majority of voters of all persuasions hope to influence with their votes, and if all the other parties can make it pretty clear (or absolutely clear) which of the two they will back if and when it comes to the crunch, I see no reason why the LibDems should refuse to do likewise.

    There’s a clear distinction between (a) saying in advance whether the party in question will back Cameron or Miliband to form a government if the election results leave that open, and (b) declaring in advance their negotiating objectives in the event of becoming involved in coalition policy-formation after the election — especially as it’s by no means obvious that there will be any coalitions this time. The SNP’s opposition to renewing Trident is a ‘red line’ only in the sense that if and when either a minority Labour government or a minority Conservative government seeks parliamentary approval for Trident renewal, SNP MPs will vote against it — knowing that it will be approved by a large margin whatever the SNP does. It’s clearly not an SNP condition for joining a coalition with Labour that such a coalition should agree not to renew Trident, since the SNP knows as well as you and I do that (a) Labour is not going to agree to any such condition, and (b) there is not going to be a Labour-SNP coalition anyway, as both parties have explicitly confirmed. It’s not even a condition for SNP support for Labour to form a government: the SNP has promised to vote against the formation of a government by Cameron and in favour of one formed by Miliband.

    Mr Clegg obviously hopes to be in a coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives after 7 May but it’s far from obvious that either of the main parties will want another coalition with the LibDems or anyone else. Once a minority government has been formed and confirmed in a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, all the parties other than the governing party will have to decide as they go along which government measures they will support and which they will vote against. If the government can’t muster a majority in the Commons for any specific measure, that measure will have to be dropped — or amended to meet some of the other parties’ objections to it. The role of the SNP (or of UKIP) in these processes will be no different in principle from that of any other opposition party. Those of us who yearn for a humane, progressive government after five years of the opposite should be grateful that the SNP, unquestionably an anti-Tory party of the centre-left with very substantial support in a vital part of the UK, is likely to use its voting strength in the new parliament in support of progressive policies — and that it will be in no position to insist on those of its policies that the rest of us find unacceptable.

    On your second point, if the right-wing parties in Northern Ireland can work in a coalition government with Sinn Fein, whose main objective (like the SNP’s) is secession from the UK, there seems no reason why the corresponding UK parties should not work with the SNP — not even in a coalition, but merely accepting SNP support on those specific issues on which the governing party and the SNP can agree. The SNP explicitly accepts that until the people of Scotland decide otherwise, Scotland continues to be an intrinsic part of the United Kingdom, and its elected MPs are entitled to be treated in exactly the same way and to exercise exactly as much influence in parliament as any other party enjoying electoral support. To treat the SNP as a kind of pariah is a sure way to hasten the departure of Scotland from the Union. If the UK parties had adopted that attitude to Sinn Fein there would have been no Good Friday Agreement — and Sinn Fein, unlike the SNP, had actually been engaged in terrorism in pursuit of its objectives.

    As for the West Lothian Question, the kind of anomaly that you identify results unavoidably from the UK’s failure to correct the unbalanced form of devolution which denies England, alone of the four UK nations, its right to internal self-government. As long as the federal UK parliament and government at Westminster insist on continuing to act simultaneously in their spare time as the parliament and government of England as well, we will have to accept the anomaly involved in Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs taking part in governing and legislating for England. This would be intolerable if it were not for the fact that there is so little Westminster legislation that genuinely affects only England: almost all policy decisions relating primarily to England have implications (e.g. under the Barnett formula governing revenue and expenditure allocations) for the other three nations, whose MPs are therefore fully entitled to participate in those decisions. Anyway they are all elected for the governnment and legislation of the UK as a whole and for subjects affecting one or more of the four nations that have not been devolved to any of them, and the anomaly at the heart of this will only be made more toxic by any discrimination against the SNP in isolation. In the US federal Congress no-one suggests that the Senators from New Hampshire should be prevented from voting on federal legislation banning racial discrimination in, say, Alabama. (I know, I know, it’s not an exact parallel, but it’s instructive all the same.) We too should be aiming at a constitution under which the federal government and parliament at Westminster no longer deal with matters affecting only one UK nation, since such matters should obviously be decided instead by the devolved second-tier government and parliament at Cardiff, Belfast, Holyrood (Edinburgh) or (say) Manchester, as appropriate.

    And, finally: let’s not fall for the deliberately misleading Tory myth that a minority government which by definition relies on the support of other, smaller parties to get its measures through parliament is giving those smaller parties control over its policies (e.g. the nonsense suggestion that a Labour minority government relying on SNP support to get some of its measures through parliament will be “led by the nose” by the SNP and forced to capitulate to every demand made by the SNP for policy changes). This allegation casts a pretty lurid light on the relationship between the Tories and their current coalition partner, the LibDems, who by implication must have “led the Tories by the nose” and forced them to capitulate to every LibDem policy demand. That’s certainly not how it looked to the rest of us. All politics requires frequent temporary alliance-building, compromise and consensus — ask any Tory or Labour Whip! In some ways, that can be healthy; in other ways, a tedious constraint on necessary reform. It’s certainly what the zealous advocates of Proportional Representation are asking for. Now, with minority governments as far into the future as it’s possible to see, they have got it. They should stop complaining.

  10. robin fairlie says:

    Let me be clear that I am not a Lib Dem supporter.

    Nonetheless, I find it odd for a dyed-in-the-wool Labourite like yourself, Brian, to lecture the Lib Dems on what they ought to do. Your sentence that starts “I don’t think it unreasonable to ask the Lib Dems to…” should be rewritten to read “I would like to ask the Lib Dems to….” For some reason, it appears that your wishes in the matter are not high on the Lib Dem agenda – nor do I see any reason why they should be, or are ever likely to be. Politicians, and political parties, will continue to do (within the law) whatever seems to them most likely to serve their own interests. Get used to it.

    Brian writes: Thanks again, Robin. I’m surprised, though, to see you resorting to that familiar device, forever associated with lovable old Tony Benn, of re-phrasing what someone else has said or written in order to demolish the revised version. I meant what I wrote and not what you unaccountably think I should have written. No-one could dissent from your proposition that the LibDems, like any other party, “will continue to do whatever seems to them most likely to serve their own interests”, a somewhat banal point that echoes what I wrote in my original post when I called their position “self-serving”. But few, I suspect, would agree with the proposition logically implied by your comment that the LibDems should be immune from exposure by non-members of their party as guilty of either chronic indecision about what they stand for, or else of a culpable failure to come clean with the electorate about their real intentions, either way a failure that undermines their good faith in seeking voters’ support in a general election. In other words, they presumably think that it “serves their own interests” to keep their intentions secret from the electorate until after the election, whereas I think it serves the interests of transparency and honesty in a democracy for political parties to tell voters what they stand for and what are the likely consequences of voting for them. We can both read the long interview with Mr Clegg in last Sunday’s Observer and wind up none the wiser about the likely consequences of voting LibDem except on the one point about which Mr “I agree with Nick” Clegg is crystal clear, namely that he wants very much to go on being deputy prime minister in a coalition government and doesn’t much care whether it’s a coalition with the Tories or with Labour — very understandable in a grubby kind of way, very human, rather disreputable. But that’s what middle-of-the-road plague-on-both-your-houses liberals are like, neither hot nor cold, these days. Get used to it.

  11. formula57 says:

    Many thanks indeed for your comprehensive response. If only , as you say, we were actively “aiming at a constitution under which the federal government and parliament at Westminster no longer deal with matters affecting only one UK nation” then perhaps a good number of our present problems might well be resolved, not least those arising from the present fashion for coalitions or minority governments.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. But I suppose that even in a fully federal system we would still have to learn to live with coalitions and minority governments at the federal level so long as no single UK party comes anywhere near to enjoying the support of a majority of the electorate, and even with the distortions produced by First Past the Post no party can win an overall majority of seats in the house of commons any more. This is of course a result of the fragmentation of party allegiances and the decay of almost universal commitment to one or other of just two big parties. If ever Proportional Representation were to be introduced (which heaven forbid), this would be a permanent condition: no party would ever get an overall majority in the house of commons and we would be permanently into coalitions and minority governments, like most of our partners across the Channel. Personally I think that would be most undesirable, but many people, like the Blessed Polly (Toynbee), think it would be an absolutely wizard idea.
    However, at the level of the nations’ parliaments, Scotland has shown that despite having a PR electoral system, it is possible for one party (the SNP) to win an overall majority and to govern alone.