March 2015 notebook
The prime minister is trying to scare us all with the spectre of Ed Miliband doing a deal with the Scottish National Party involving a Labour-SNP coalition after the election in May, thus allegedly “bringing into the government the party that wants to break up the UK”, or words to that effect, and conjuring up the ludicrous idea of Alex Salmond as deputy prime minister. Mr Cameron knows perfectly well that there’s no question of a Labour-SNP coalition: both the Labour party (e.g. Caroline Flint on the Andrew Marr Show on 8 March) and Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader in Scotland, have made that clear. If however there’s a hung parliament again on 8 May, there might well be a majority of the progressive parties combined, including Labour and the SNP, plus the Greens and some LibDems, which would support a minority Labour government on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis, enabling Miliband to form a government and win a vote of confidence. But any such loose understanding needs to be set up by Labour, however informally, before the election, so that it would be clear as soon as the results are in on 8 May that there’s a majority of progressive MPs from several parties collectively willing to support a Labour government. This would avoid a prolonged period immediately after the election and before a new government could be formed of arguing and haggling between all the parties of both left and right about coalitions and alliances and deals and multi-party policy agreements and party splits, with no certainty about the outcome. Anyway we voters have a right to know the intentions of the various parties before we cast our votes.
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Another canard being spread shamelessly by the Tories is that if there’s a minority Labour government that depends on the SNP’s support for its majority in the House of Commons, this will enable the SNP to force Labour to make excessive concessions to Scotland, which in turn will enrage the English. In addition, it’s being suggested that English voters will be even more enraged by the spectacle of a Labour minority government having to use SNP Scottish votes to pass legislation that only affects England. The first of these nightmare scenarios is nonsense: the SNP would have no leverage to extort unreasonable concessions for Scotland from a Labour minority government since their only recourse if the government rejected their demands, as it would, would be to withdraw their support and bring down the government. This would probably mean fresh elections, leading to either a Conservative-led government or else a majority Labour government, with the SNP losing any influence at Westminster either way. The solution to the second objection is a Labour declaration at last in favour of an eventual English parliament and government, probably in Manchester or Birmingham, relieving the federal government at Westminster of all responsibility for purely English matters. Of course it would take a decade or more to achieve this, but just adopting it as a clear Labour objective would effectively disarm the accusation that a Labour government dependent on SNP votes would mean England being governed by a gang of Scottish MPs. It would also, incidentally, answer the West Lothian Question — nothing else does!
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You don’t need to be a paying member of Chatham House (aka the Royal Institute of International Affairs) to listen to a fascinating podcast about Britain’s membership of the EU and its future prospects. Chaired by the Chatham House Director, Dr Robin Niblett, those discussing the issues with exemplary clarity and brevity are Dominic Grieve, among the best of the few good Tories (and accordingly summarily sacked by David Cameron), Peter Kellner, political commentator and superpollster extraordinaire, and Quentin Peel, Mercator Senior Fellow at Chatham House and long-time former FT columnist and correspondent. The discussion lasts for less than 20 minutes but says more in that time than a year of Prime Minister’s Questions.
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Speaking of which, once upon a time the feisty Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, a Tory MP cordially disliked by the Tories and rather popular with the rest, used to interrupt the present prime minister at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) as he was making the usual allegations about the defects of the Labour party’s record and policies, to remind him that at PMQs he was required to give answers relating to his own responsibilities as prime minister, not about Labour policies for which he had no responsibility at all. More recently Mr Bercow seems to be allowing the prime minister unlimited latitude to bang on endlessly, voice raised and purple-faced, with obscure quotations from Labour speeches of long ago supposedly demonstrating U-turns (the ultimate sin of the modern politician), inconsistency and hypocrisy, often culminating in that stale old chestnut, the demand for “an apology”. I suppose the Speaker has his work cut out trying to quieten the baying mobs on both sides of the Chamber so that the questions and non-answers can be heard, without once again taking on the prime minister for his relentless abuse of the original purpose of PMQs.
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The great Financial Times guru, Martin Wolf, on the feebleness of George Osborne’s boasted recovery from the recession:
“The overall picture of a dismally slow recovery is quite clear. … Voters are grumpy for understandable reasons. Such a long period of stagnant living standards is not to be found within living memory. In the third quarter of last year — despite the vaunted recovery of the UK economy — real gross domestic product per head was the same as in the third quarter of 2006 and 1.8 per cent lower than in the first quarter of 2008 (the pre-crisis peak). This has given the UK something very close to a lost decade. Why such a poor recovery should be a matter of congratulation is hard to comprehend.
“The main cause of the slow recovery in standards of living … has been the feeble recovery in GDP per head. Given the robust employment performance, this weakness is, in turn, directly related to the feeble productivity performance. … An important question is how far the reaction of a flexible labour market to policy-induced weakness in demand explains this dramatically poor productivity outcome…”
Martin Wolf Financial Times 06 March 2015. [My emphases — BLB]
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Ugliest new verb of the year (so far):
“The Independent reports that representatives of Channel 4, ITV, Sky and the BBC have discussed the ultimatum and whether to “empty chair” the PM if he refuses to take part.”
— Times Red Box, 6 March 2015
“…not to mention increasing speculation about Cameron somehow being empty-chaired…”
John Harris, Guardian, 6 March 2015
The verb ‘empty chair’ isn’t quite so new, Brian:
‘PM to be empty chaired in TV debate?’ (Labour List, 2 September 2009 http://labourlist.org/2009/09/pm-to-be-empty-chaired-in-tv-debate/
How about other verbs from an adjective + noun combination, such as ‘cold shoulder’, first attested in the OED in 1843?
Brian writes: Thank you for this, Barrie. Your 2009 precedent is interesting, especially as it’s from a website to which I often contribute. I don’t object to adjective-noun combos as verbs per se (blacklisting, blind-copied, freeloading, etc. etc.) — I just think “to empty-chair” as a transitive verb is cumbersome. But its meaning is clear and it’s pithy.
Surely if substantive conversations are going on between Labour and SNP, we won’t know about them for many years. No political party would be well-advised to publicly concede, prior to an election, that it does not expect to win a majority and is planning to govern in concert with a party whose chief commitment is deeply at odds with its whole outlook and tradition.
“To empty chair” is indeed an awkward construction. “To graveyard whistle” has at least the benefit of being intransitive, so it doesn’t drop a direct object thudding onto the end of the phrase. And I do suspect you are engaging in a bit of graveyard-whistling in this post. If Scootland does vote as overwhelmingly for SNP as now seems likely, and if as a result of that vote SNP becomes a powerbroker at Westminster, the Scottish branches of the other parties will likely go the way of their counterparts in Northern Ireland. A Scotland where politics is a contest between the SNP and two or three Scottish Unionist parties without formal affiliations south of the border may not lead to the breakup of the UK, but it’s hard to see how it doesn’t advance the ghettoization of Scotland in the same way that such a party system has contributed to the ghettoization of Northern Ireland.
‘Acilius’, thanks for your comment, which I agree accurately reflects conventional political wisdom. My suggestion is that in present circumstances the conventional wisdom may be a bad guide for the Labour party. Political leaders make themselves look dishonest and out of touch when they pretend to be unaware of the overwhelming evidence of virtually all the opinion polls, all pointing at another hung parliament. In any case, how would a Labour campaign aiming at an overall majority differ from a campaign that acknowledged the possibility that Labour might hope to win more seats than the Tories but still possibly be short of an overall majority?
The assumption that if Labour is talking to the SNP it is necessarily in secret also strikes me as Old Politics — probably accurate but not necessarily what is needed in the current multi-party situation. What’s more, there isn’t necessarily anything substantive for Labour to discuss with the SNP, other than to seek its confirmation that the SNP will use its parliamentary votes, whether or not it holds the balance of power, to help keep a Labour government in office, whether that government is a minority or a majority government. There’s no need to ask for SNP (or LibDem or Plaid or Green) support on specific issues or on any particular items in the Labour manifesto: if Labour is in office, with or without a majority, it will still need to seek support from other parties for each of its measures, issue by issue. The essential initial need is to ensure that there will be enough supporting votes from other parties in the initial vote of confidence for Miliband to be able to form a government at all. As things stand, this seems likelier than not: the Tories plus UKIP plus a few LibDems seem unlikely to win more seats than all the left-of-centre parties put together.
For the reasons in my post, I believe (again contrary to the traditional conventional wisdom) that the process of establishing commitments from all the other left-of-centre parties to support a Labour government in votes of confidence (and supply) really needs to be completed, publicly, *before the election*, not after it. This could be crucial in empowering Miliband as soon as the votes are counted to assert his right to form a government and submit it to parliament for approval. To leave it until after the election could well be too late: in the confused situation following the announcement of the results, with a complicated arithmetic and Cameron claiming the right to remain in office and submit a programme for government to the house of commons, enough LibDems and some other fence-sitters might be tempted, or bribed, to vote for the status quo to rob Labour of its opportunity to take office.
The final clinching argument is surely that the electorate has an absolute right to know what it is voting for – in other words, what the various parties are going to do in each of the possible situations after the election. Will the SNP support a Labour government and not a Tory one? Easy, in fact: they have already said they would. But Labour needs a firm commitment on that. The LibDems also ought to be pressed to come clean about their intentions: if they refuse, how can anyone be asked to vote for them? Unless all the serious parties have declared their intentions before the election, the electorate is being invited to buy a pig in a poke.
You will notice that none of this involves the SNP acting as a “power broker” or exercising a disproportionate – or any – influence over the Labour party’s policies. No horse-trading or bargaining is involved. The SNP will be in no position to demand a price from Labour for its support in votes of confidence. If it withholds its support from Labour because Labour rejects its demands, the consequence is likely to be another period of Conservative-led government – political suicide for the Scots at Westminster, and a disaster in the eyes of most Scots for which the SNP at Westminster would rightly be held responsible. They would hold no cards with which to bargain because they have nowhere else to go. The Tory campaign representing Miliband as being in Salmond’s pocket flies in the face of reality, as David Cameron knows perfectly well. No wonder so many people think politicians are rogues. And Ed Miliband’s great strength is that whatever else he might be, he’s not a rogue.
“enough LibDems and some other fence-sitters might be tempted, or bribed, to vote for the status quo to rob Labour of its opportunity to take office.” Difficult as it is to predict first-past-the-post races where the polls show so many parties receiving 5-10% support, I can’t really imagine the LibDems winning enough seats this year to hold the balance of power. They have enough strongholds now that they are unlikely to be wiped out completely, but they look to be headed for disaster.
Be that as it may, my greater concern is not so much with the Westminster parliament beginning this year as with subsequent parliaments in Westminster and Holyrood. If SNP comes close to the level of success the polls are now predicting, it will be very difficult for any ambitious Unionist politician in Scotland to support Scotland’s current party system. A party that represents none but Scottish interests and that can point to a time when the UK government depended on its support for its continued existence will have a credibility that no local branch of an all-UK party will be able to claim. To compete with that kind of appeal, Scots Unionists will have to form their own party, matching the SNP’s independence from London and erasing divisions among the old parties. That would be a new politics, all right, but the experience of Northern Ireland shows that it would likely be a dead end that would leave the UK longing for the old politics.
I must also say that you seem to have made rather a damaging admission when you say that “there isn’t necessarily anything substantive” for Labour and the SNP to discuss. If all the agreement that’s needed is on the sort of points that can be settled with a smile and a nod, then what is the need for these Labour-SNP talks you keep proposing? As for the pig-in-a-poke argument, who doubts that if Labour and SNP combine for a majority of seats they will arrive at just such a confidence and supply arrangement as you propose? And if they don’t combine for a majority, well, who cares what the eventual losers planned to do had they won an election?
Brian writes: Thank you for this. I agree that on current voting projections Labour plus the LibDems are unlikely to win enough seats for an overall majority. It looks as if Labour might need the support (in the sense of willingness to support a Labour minority government in a vote of confidence) of both the LibDems and the SNP. You have taken seriously out of context my observation that “there isn’t necessarily anything substantive” for Labour and the SNP to discuss: it’s not ‘damaging’ at all if you read the whole paragraph in which those words appear. An understanding that other left-of-centre parties such as the SNP will support a minority Labour government in votes of confidence and budget resolutions, but not necessarily in other votes, i.e. a “confidence and supply” (C&S) arrangement, need not involve discussion of policy matters and certainly would not entail any policy concessions by Labour in exchange for a C&S understanding with the SNP. The SNP might demand specific policy concessions in exchange for its C&S support, but Labour could and should ignore them. What is the SNP going to do if Labour rejects its demands, if those demands are contrary to Labour policy? Vote with UKIP for a Tory minority government instead? Hardly!
There’s an animated debate on these and related issues going on over at LabourList (http://labourlist.org/2015/03/cameron-is-trying-to-scare-us-all-with-the-spectre-of-labour-doing-a-deal-with-the-snp/) where LabourList has re-published the first part of my March 2015 Notes here. You may be interested to read it and perhaps to contribute to it, although I think by now most of what needs to be said on the subject has been said.
Brian writes: Thank you. You don’t seem to have noticed any of the changes that Ed Miliband has made in the Labour party’s values and policies since becoming leader. ‘New Labour’, which you appear to be describing here, is a thing of the past. The idea of a Labour-Conservative coalition is utter nonsense and Lord Baker’s airing of it is a mischievous ploy. Labour people have never forgotten the lessons of 1931. No, not worth a try.