What are the LibDems for?

Last Thursday on the BBC's Question Time programme the two candidates for leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, spent the hour ducking and weaving to avoid answering the key question for anyone considering a vote for the third party: what will the LibDems do if there's a hung parliament after the next general election?  

Nick Clegg with pinkish tieThe LibDems, as a party which struggles to win one-fifth of the votes at general elections, and has no hope of forming a government itself, are potentially important and interesting only in that situation:  a hung parliament, with neither Labour nor the Conservatives having won an overall majority of the seats in the house of commons.  Some pundits predict that this is quite a likely outcome of the next election, probably in 2009.  If it happens, the LibDems will probably hold the balance of power, and thus the power to determine whether Gordon Brown or David Cameron will be installed (or re-installed) in No 10 Downing Street as head of a Labour or Conservative government.  Even if the LibDems decline any offer to join a formal coalition with one or other of the major parties, or if no such offer is made to them, they will still be in a position to lay down their conditions for giving general support to either a Labour or a Conservative government and thus enabling one or the other to govern without the immediate risk of losing a vote of confidence in the house of commons.

So every British voter has an obvious interest in knowing, before he or she casts a vote, what are the likely consequences of voting LibDem:  which of the two major parties the LibDem leader would be likely to support in a hung parliament, and what are the conditions that the LibDems would lay down for awarding their support to either Labour or the Tories.  The answers to these questions, after all, might well determine whether we have a Labour government under Gordon Brown or a Tory government under David Cameron for five years after the next election.  Yet neither Clegg nor Huhne, one of whom will presumably be the party's leader at the next election, would even consent to discuss the matter, still less to indicate which way they would be likely to jump.

The LibDems in parliament sound, look and behave pretty much as a left-of-centre party.  Their most recent leader has often confirmed that this is how he saw it.  Before the 1997 election, Menzies Campbell made no secret of his urgent wish to turn out the Conservative government and see it replaced by Labour:

In 1983, and again in 1987 – indeed, to some extent in 1992, we were arguing about equidistance.  But, the truth is no one ever expected us to allow Mrs Thatcher to go back into Number Ten Downing Street or to shore up the fractured aspirations of Mr Major in 1992.  So abandoning equidistance was simply an acceptance of reality. … there's no doubt whatsoever that if the people of the United Kingdom decide they don't want one Party to have an overall majority in the House of Commons, they will not look very kindly on the politicians of this country if they find themselves catapulted into a second General Election within a matter of a few months becauses parties who may have some common objectives are unable to find a way of running with each other…  I do not rule out the prospect, and I never have of an arrangement between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party to bring about these objectives which I've already outlined to you.   Europe, Education, Health and Constitutional Change.
[Menzies Campbell, BBC interview, 22 Sept 96]

The LibDem leader at the time, Paddy Ashdown, was secretly negotiating  an agreement with Tony Blair under which LibDems would be given a few seats in a Labour cabinet in return for backing Labour in the event of a hung parliament at the 1997 general election or a narrow Labour victory without a working majority.  LibDems didn't bother to conceal the obvious reality that they were politically and ideologically much closer to Labour than to the Tories and that any kind of deal with the Tories to keep them in power was inconceivable.

Now, a little more than ten years later, Clegg and Huhne refuse to say which way they would lean — and Polly Toynbee, always sympathetic to the LibDems from a left of centre position and obsessive campaigner for proportional representation, writes in the Guardian that the sole criterion for the LibDem decision in a hung parliament on which of the two main parties to put into government should be which of the two is willing to promise proportional representation for house of commons elections, thus holding out a clear prospect of hung parliaments at all foreseeable elections and so guaranteeing the LibDems a role as king-makers and junior but indispensable partners in every foreseeable British government:

If, at the election, the Tories get most votes but Labour most seats, the electoral system is thoroughly bust. Both would bargain for support from the Lib Dems, who need to be willing to bargain with both, demanding not only a PR referendum but that the party in power back it themselves in a referendum campaign.  [Emphasis added.]

There we have it.  The LibDems have no political or philosophical preferences as between Labour and the Tories.  All they are interested in is which of the two serious parties will grant them a role as maker and breaker of governments for as far ahead as it's possible to see.  Of course it's true that the Labour Party under Blair and now, apparently, Brown, has moved far to the right, occupying considerable territory once the preserve of the Tories, while Cameron is sporadically trying to drag the Conservatives kicking and screaming towards some limited areas once occupied by Labour; but that doesn't make them indistinguishable, and it's an indolent cop-out to pretend that there's now nothing to choose between the main party of the left and the main party of the right.  It's still true, as always, that in general, and despite multiple backslidings, the left stands for maximum equality of outcomes and not just of opportunity: for a positive and proactive role for the state in promoting social justice and prosperity and not for laissez-faire individualism: for protecting the weakest and most vulnerable against the interests of big business, privilege and property: for putting reform and change ahead of continuity, stability, or preservation of the status quo:  for internationalism rather than narrow nationalism:  for human rights and liberty even at some cost to security.  And in general the right stands for the opposite of all those things.  Yet the LibDems refuse to say on which side of that great ideological divide they stand.  They will if necessary throw their potentially decisive weight behind the party of reform or the party of privilege, depending solely on which will trade proportional representation for a few years in office.  Will no LibDem in parliament summon the courage to denounce this political flabbiness and demand that his or her party tell us where they stand, before they claim the right to invite us to vote for them?

Footnote:  I hope that comments on this post won't be diverted into yet another sterile argument about the rights and wrongs of proportional representation, on which I recognise that many otherwise sensible and right-minded people disagree with me.  Whatever one's view of PR, it should still be possible, and must be desirable, to try to extract from the LibDems a firm or even a conditional indication of what they will do in a hung parliament.  If their position in the political spectrum is where most of them say it is, they shouldn't find it unduly difficult to choose.


15 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    the left stands for maximum equality of outcomes and not just of opportunity: for a positive and proactive role for the state in promoting social justice and prosperity and not for laissez-faire individualism: for protecting the weakest and most vulnerable against the interests of big business, privilege and property: for putting reform and change ahead of continuity, stability, or preservation of the status quo:  for internationalism rather than narrow nationalism:  for human rights and liberty even at some cost to security.

    But that's exactly the problem. New Labour, under both Blair and Brown, emphatically doesn't stand for points 1, 3 and 6; 5 is highly debatable and 4 is meaningless (what kind of change? what kind of continuity?)

    And in general the right stands for the opposite of all those things.

    Unfortunately the Tories are quite capable of outflanking Labour on the Left, on at least some of those points.

    I agree with your overall argument, though – for the Lib Dems to refuse to position themselves politically is elevating opportunism to the level of principle.

    Brian writes:  Alas, I agree with you about the backsliding by New Labour on all the issues of principle that you detect.  I'm less certain about the capacity of the Tories to outflank Labour on the left on these issues:  David Cameron and some of his friends will certainly try to give that impression, and are already doing so surprisingly effectively in some areas, but I am sceptical about their ability to carry the bulk of the Conservative Party with them.  In a curious parallel with Cameron's problem, I don't believe that Blair's New Labour has yet succeeded in carrying the bulk of his party with him, either, although being in office (and Labour's long and frustrating exclusion from power until 1997) enabled him to impose his counter-revolution on his party and the country.  Gordon Brown has a better feel for the party and is more thoughtful about principles than Blair, so I persist in believing that the door is still a tiny bit ajar for some recovery of Labour principles under Brown's leadership, however unpromising the current auguries.  Anyway, neither Cameron nor, I believe, Blair-Brown has permanently transformed his or their parties into their opposites;  Labour remains the last best and only hope for the principles I tried to define as those of the left, and the Tories remain on the whole the champions of their opposite.  That's the choice between one set of political principles and their opposites which the LibDems have an obligation to make, and to make now.

    Your conclusion that "for the Lib Dems to refuse to position themselves politically is elevating opportunism to the level of principle" sums it all up magnificently.  Thank you for that.

    PS:  I would defend my principle no. 4 (putting reform and change ahead of continuity, stability, or preservation of the status quo) as a key one for the left in the sense that a left position is prepared to accept the risks of instability and division inherent in the reform of society and its institutions in the process of promoting the other objectives of equality of outcomes, defence of the vulnerable against privilege and property, etc., whereas the instincts of the right are to value stability, social calm, continuity of institutions, hierarchy, discipline and authority above anything that entails change, friction and uncertainty.

  2. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    Please forgive the questions of a foreigner,  but I do not see how a third party with seats in the house could announce a affiliation with one of the major parties in advance with out committing suicide.    If the Lib Dems were to, say, announce that they would support Labour in a hung house they would accomplish two things:  First they would sacrifice any negotiating leverage for a cabinet seat in the event;  Secondly they would become a Labour-Lite and their support would disappear into the Labour, or Conservative ranks. 

    I cannot conceive of a serious party doing such a thing.   That is more like our minor parties back East such as the Independence and Conservative Parties of New York — debating societies with little hope of office with out coat-tailing on a major party candidacy. 

    Surely the Lib-Dems do not deserve such a fate?

    Brian writes:  Carl, no forgiveness is required:  as usual you make a highly pertinent point.  This is indeed the excuse offered by some LibDems for refusing to say in advance how they would act in a hung parliament.  But in my view it won't wash.  No-one is asking them to give a bare unconditional commitment that they would join a coalition or negotiate an agreement with one major party or the other to support it in office;  what I do think they should do, though, is (1)  provide a clear indication of their ideological, philosophical and political position (saying that they are in favour of Liberty is really not enough!), which would inevitably place them by implication nearer to either Labour or the Tories; and (2) spell out the conditions they would lay down for using their votes to sustain either of the major parties in office — for example, we're entitled, surely, to know whether a condition of LibDem support for either a Labour or a Conservative minority government would be a promise to legislate to introduce PR for elections to the house of commons, and if so what form of PR:  whether a condition of their support would be abandonment of the Identity Cards and national database programme:  or what other policy commitments would be demanded.  I don't see how anyone can make an informed decision to vote LibDem (or not to) without possessing this information in advance.  We can make judgements about the two major parties by reference to their recent past records in government, the ministerial records of their leaders and senior parliamentarians, and in particular by examining their election manifestos.  LibDem manifestos, however, are not much help in this way, because they generally describe what a LibDem government will do if and when elected to govern on their own, which is pure fantasy.

    The behaviour of the LibDems in local government, where they seem equally happy to go into coalitions with either the Labour Party or the Tories, is bound to arouse the suspicion that the LibDems have no strong views on policy matters, and no philosophical roots apart from a vague attachment to liberty, but that their only real objective in politics is to leverage their prospects of a share of power (while still winning only some 20 per cent or less of the votes cast) by selling their support to whichever main party will promise them PR.  Polly Toynbee's article, referred to in my post above, seems to take it for granted that this is indeed what the LibDems are all about, and nothing more.  Horse-trading has its place in realpolitik, but it would be nice to think that principles have a place in politics too.

  3. Mark Stephens says:

    I spent a good (?) 12 or 13 years in the Liberal Party (the last few in the Liberal Democrats as they became). I then joined Labour for a few years before being disenchanted by the shambles that is the west of Scotland Labour Party, and in any case deciding that I am too much of an awkward sod to be a member of any party. Having spent my entire adult life as a member of a party this conclusion shocked me at the time, but I've got used to it! Living in Scotland we have a different electoral system for every tier of government – as well as four serious parties (at least if we count the 1 MP Tories as such, ho, ho) – so there is much fun to be had by the tactical voter, especially those of a ticket splitting temperament.

    I do not think it is difficult to answer the question "what are the Lib Dems for?" or rather “what SHOULD the Lib Dems be for?”.

    Historically the British Liberal Party is left of centre in terms of social and economic policy: the Asquith government positioned the Liberal Party on the economic left with the introduction of the old age pension and the unemployment/ sickness insurance. Keynes and Beveridge were noted Liberals. This makes the British Liberals very different from their continental counterparts, notably the German FDP, which in part fulfills the function of an economically liberal party that the Conservatives came to fulfill in the Thatcher era.

    So long as the principal divide in British politics was over social/economic policy it is clear which side of the divide the Liberals sit. Sensible Liberal leaders, i.e. Steel, Ashdown, Campbell, understood this.  I am not sure that Huhne or (especially) Clegg does.

    The first distinctive part of the Liberal message arises from the commitment to civil liberties. The party can still claim this ground, as seen on detention without charge. Implicit in this is a rejection of much of the trade union "culture" and constitution of the Labour Party. It is difficult to see how a Liberal could ever support the closed shop or way in which strike "ballots" were held in open air mass meetings. But now the Labour Party has come to accept the Thatcher labour legislation, although the underlying trade union culture still persists and the biggest failure of Blair’s internal party reforms was not to reform the internal structure of the party (which means that you have to have a boredom threshold somewhere in orbit before you can participate in a meaningful way).

    Where I part company with the Lib Dems is over (a) the role that electoral reform plays in the party and (b) Europe, both of which are "constitutional" questions.

    (a) It does not strike me that preference for a particular kind of PR can possibly be one of political philosophy. The Lib Dems are unable to engage with the trade-offs inherent in PR – and seem to be unable to distinguish between the principles that might underpin the election of a legislature with an executive. I will hold my horses here as we have been urged to steer clear of debating the (dis)merits of PR.

    (b) The bizarre obsession with Europe is another distinguishing feature of the party and one that I have never been able to understand. One can have a sensible debate about the Euro or widening of the EU, or indeed about the role of national or supranational sovereignty. But it doesn't matter what the question is:  the Lib Dems will always be "pro Europe."

    It is the obsession with such constitutional matters that renders the Lib Dems if not useless then at least makes the question "what are they for" entirely sensible. The Huhne/ Clegg debate demonstrated this clearly. Their answer to any kind of resource/distribution issue (the NHS was the one in question) is to say that the problem is that decisions are not taken locally.

    On foreign policy the LibDems switch between Palmersontian liberal interventionism (Balkans) and Gladstonian isolationism (Iraq) with alarming ease, but seem to be very smug about whatever position they take.

    A final note on the leadership. Ming Campbell was always the member of the Lib Dem front bench one could imagine occupying a serious position in cabinet. He was a member of a talented undergraduate trio with John Smith and Donald Dewar at Glasgow. His parents were actually ILPers, which made joining the Liberals an act of rebellion! Clearly his de facto dismissal by his own party in cahoots with the media was an example of ageism, something the party seems reluctant to recognise. The candidates seem to be able men (I used to know Huhne), but together with Cameron (and Blair) represent a new political elite drawn from a perilously narrow background.

    If I might end with a postscript, which sums up why I do not think the Lib Dems are a serious party. The icing on the cake of the Question Time debate was Huhne's claim that Labour and the Tories were always ganging up on each other "to keep the Lib Dems out", and gave some examples from town halls. The former European Editor of the Economist then added to the list Germany where he claimed the same had happened in national politics. If he seriously thinks that the Christian Democrat-SPD coalition was brought about by a fear of the FDP (what do they get? 6% in a good year?) then oh lordy! either he must be delusional or aiming to be delusioning.  Rather he might reflect on the kind of outcome that  PR brings. But we're not supposed to be talking about that.

    Brian writes: Thanks very much, Mark. Terrific comment!  Special appreciation for your point that "preference for a particular kind of PR [cannot] possibly be one of political philosophy", which usefully distinguishes between on the one hand political mechanics and their consequences for the way society does politics, and on the other hand a political philosophy or coherent set of values underlying the idea of the society at which individual political policies and decisions are aimed.  The LibDems, as you say, seem to be obsessed with the former but show little sign at present of possessing the latter.  Until they do, they have little claim to be taken seriously.

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    The answer to the question that you pose in the title of your message is obvious: The LibDems exist to promote Liberalism. And in countries where more than two political flowers are not only allowed but even expected to bloom, the question doesn’t even make sense. I will say no more about that here, though I will look at the matter more closely on my own blog, where I will also attempt to answer the interesting question: What is the Labour Party for?

    The point that I make is of relevance to PR. I do not wish to go over all the ground again, but the point that you overlook is that with a proportional election system there would no longer just be three parties with the Liberals in the middle – and I might mention here that the example of Germany that is usually used at this point is invalid; the Federal Republic had three parties (with the FDP as kingmakers) only until the Greens took off in the seventies to make four, and till 1989 a hard-left party was out of the question for obvious reasons. Germany now has five main national parties (counting the Union as one) and a few smaller regional ones.

    It is reasonable to suppose that in the UK a proportional parliament would contain, as well as Liberals, a number of Greens, some Socialists and Social Democrats from a (finally and mercifully) split Labour Party, moderate Conservatives and fire-breathing defenders of British exceptionalism, Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, and maybe even such an exotic thing as someone elected to speak for Yorkshire or Cornwall. In other words, the situation that exists in other countries whereby the people present the politicians with their choice and the politicians then have to make the best of what they have been given; it is called popular sovereignty, or having the people not the politicians in charge.

    My point, however, is that in such a situation, with flowers blooming all over the place, the LibDems alone would not necessarily hold the key to power. Clearly in coalition government there are foreseeable alliances and non-alliances; sometimes these are stated beforehand and the parties campaign openly on that basis; sometimes it is obvious to the voters what will happen after the election; and sometimes the result is a surprise to everyone – look at Germany now. But the flexibility of a multi-party system (rather than the three-party system that you propose but that would not survive the introduction of PR) is that a party that is clapped out can be shown the door and have a restful period in opposition while a collection of others run the show for a time. That happened to the Socialists in Spain in 1996 and to the Nationalists in Catalonia in 2003; and it should have happened to the British Conservatives in 1992. In Spain now there is no one party that is the permanent key to power nationally or regionally; in a devolved system alliances can be made in one place that are impossible elsewhere.

    So, my point is that you are wrong in thinking that the LibDems or any other third party would hold the perpetual role as kingmaker, though I accept that you may well not like the scenario that I have described either. And as for the LibDems in or after the next election, I remember the party’s poster in 1971 with pictures of Wilson and Heath and the slogan: Which twin is the Tory? Who cares which one they support?

    Brian writes:  Peter, thanks.  You and I have long since agreed to disagree about proportional representation after exhaustive and exhausting debate on it in this blog and elsewhere, so I needn't repeat my views here.  I'm glad however that you recognise that if the effect of PR on our political parties were to be what you predict (i.e. their disintegration into numerous splinter and single-issue pressure groups, forming and re-forming themselves into a constantly shaken kaleidoscope of shifting alliances in order to form successive governments after and between elections, thus disconnecting the hopes and intentions of the voters in casting their votes from the eventual and wholly unpredictable results), that outcome would strike some of us — certainly including me — as undesirable and retrograde to the nth degree, even if it were to rob the LibDems of the permanent king-maker status that they so fervently seek.  On your concluding shot, I would say only that if you can't see any material difference between the Labour party and the Tories, you must be taking an exceedingly broad-brush view of British politics.  New Labour has certainly succeeded in blurring the party's core philosophy and largely disguised its original raison d'être as a party of organised (and unorganised) labour, committed to protecting and promoting the interests of the have-nots of society;  and Cameron has sporadically tried, with varying success, to persuade his party partially to disguise the Conservatives' core purposes as the party dedicated to preserving and promoting the interests of business and the well-off.  But these are transient, opportunistic divergences from the underlying norms, which will probably reassert themselves in due course, because each party has its roots in one or other of the great interest groups of the state, and each is consequently saturated in the values of the left or of the right as described in my post above.  To describe them as indistinguishable is to ignore this fundamental difference.  But I look forward to reading your promised further exposition of the argument on your own blog.  Meanwhile let's concentrate here on the LibDems' distinctive philosophy and values (or lack of them: we're all for liberty and civil rights!) rather than on the political mechanics and possible consequences for the way we do politics of various kinds of electoral system, however obsessive the LibDems' interest in them might be.

  5. Peter Harvey says:

    we’re all for liberty and civil rights

    Well, all of us except the Labour Party. And the Tory Party.

  6. Clive Willis says:

    I agree with Carl Lundquist. In the event of a hung parliament LibDems would need to bargain in turn with Labour and the Tories. It would be utter folly to anticipate the outcome of such negotiations, for all that there is a prima facie and, some would say, historical leaning of LibDems towards Labour.

    Whenever I've checked on LibDem philosophy with its adherents, there seems to be a similar (and again historical) emphasis on social justice to that claimed by the Labour Party (and to which Cameron now lays superficial claim as well!). LibDems, however, declare that they eschew the pettifogging and expensive micromanagement which has hampered Labour governments (and of which I have first-hand experience as a former chair of school governors and former vice-chair of a health authority). To some extent the LibDem emphasis on 'freedom' works against the sort of equality which the Labour Party claims to pursue (though commentators adduce statistics to point to a growing gap over the past decade between Labour's aspiration and achievement). That LibDem 'freedom' includes the pursuit, in given circumstances, of local solutions of the kind that the Labour Party disparages but which many find attractive. One Procrustean size, the LibDems argue, does not fit all.

    I repeat that, in the event of a hung parliament, there would be a more natural alliance between the LibDems and Labour: nevertheless, these issues of bureaucracy, freedom, equality and local solutions would require sensitive and careful negotiation. Labour would need to avoid crassly driving the LibDems into finding that the Tories (opportunistically, no doubt) were more compliant.

    Once their leadership election is completed, LibDems must then set about clarifying, making more specific and, above all, rigorously publicising their key policies – just as Cameron's Tories have at last started to do.

    Brian writes:  Clive, I agree with your conclusion, which echoes my original post, although a LibDem catalogue of promises of what they would do when forming a LibDem government wouldn't mean much.  But I don't see it as a given that "in the event of a hung parliament LibDems would need to bargain in turn with Labour and the Tories".  In the past the LibDems and their predecessors have ruled out in advance any kind of bargain with the Tories on the grounds that Tory values and aims were irreconcilable with those of the LibDems;  and at least one LibDem leader has held discussions with the Labour leader in advance of the election to  try to establish what collaboration between the two parties might entail.  So it hasn't by any means always been assumed that the LibDems would obviously 'bargain' with both the big parties.  One of the most important things we need to know in advance of our votes is whether the LibDems would envisage bargaining with both parties in a hung parliament, meaning that a vote for the LibDems might result in the return of the Tories to power.  At present we don't know.  Nor would an indication, in advance of an election, of the conditions for their support that the LibDems would lay down pre-empt or prejudice the outcome of any post-election discussions.  Why are the LibDems so secretive about, for example, whether they would make a commitment to PR an absolute condition for their support for a minority Labour (or Tory) government?  What kind of PR do they demand?  Do they accept that neither Labour nor the Tories could promise to introduce PR without first putting the issue to a referendum, whose outcome would be unpredictable?  What other conditions would the LibDems set for their help in sustaining a minority Labour or Tory government in power?  Would they be influenced in their decision on which party to put into No. 10 by which of them had won the most seats in the election?  Or, alternatively, by which of them had won the most votes, not necessarily the same thing?  If Labour lost its overall majority but simply continued in office as a minority government, and the Tories put down a motion of no confidence, would the LibDems vote for or against it?  And finally, if the LibDems continue to refuse to answer any of these questions before an election, what reasons do they advance for us to contemplate voting for them?

  7. Clive Willis says:

    I agree that bipolar bargaining is not a given (though it ought to be a corollary of not declaring one’s hand in advance). But I can envisage the ambitious Cameron offering a far juicier bait than ever Heath offered to Thorpe (or Callaghan to Steel in the Lib-Lab Pact).

    On electoral reform, that is one of the key policies on which the LibDems must have clarity (even if the minutiae were left to be haggled over). Clegg is bright enough to grasp this; Huhne seems to delight in smokescreens with which to obscure his red herrings.

  8. Peter Harvey says:

    Heath offered Thorpe the Home Office and Grimond the Scottish Office, and I don't know what else. They were tempted but pressure from inside the party (and I remember that weekend very well indeed) was such that it proved quite impossible for them to support a party in government that most of their own party didn't like (Heath being impossibly far to the right) and which had just lost an election.

    The point about losing an election is important. If a party can't sustain itself in government, should it be kept there artificially? In fact, one way of looking at it is to say that the party that gets the greatest number of seats should have the first crack at forming a government. That cannot be a constitutional principle but it is a useful rule in countries where coalitions and minority governments are the norm — and work perfectly well.

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this, Peter.  I think many would claim that there's already a fairly widely accepted convention that the party with the greatest number of seats should normally get first go at forming a government and trying to put together a majority for a vote of confidence, but there are two riders to that:  (1) One of the Queen's (or in future the King's) few personal powers, not exercised on ministerial advice, is to choose whom to invite to form a government when the previous government has resigned, and the Queen/King isn't bound by any convention as to whom to invite first if there's a hung parliament.  If the party that comes second in an election already has a pact of some sort with a third party whose support would deliver a majority in the House, she might well give its leader the first crack at it.  She can consult whoever she likes — the outgoing prime minister, her private secretary, the Cabinet secretary, the Speaker — but in the end she has to judge who is likeliest to command the confidence of the majority of the MPs.  (2)  It's always open to the prime minister at the time of the election, even if his party loses its overall majority, to refrain from resigning and to go on governing until and unless he loses a vote of confidence in the house of commons, leaving it to the LibDems or whichever party or combination of parties holds the balance to judge whether to give him conditional support (on negotiated terms or otherwise). If I remember rightly, Heath tried to do this for a while but it didn't work out, for the reasons that you describe.  Ability to get supply from the House is the touchstone, of course. 

  9. Peter Harvey says:

    Why not cut the monarch out and let the parliament manage its affairs by itself?

    Brian writes:  That's a very good question, and I'm not sure what the answer ought to be.  I would have thought that where there's a hung parliament either as a result of an election or through a government losing its overall majority through by-election losses or defections, and where it's not obvious which party leader has the best chance of putting together an alliance with other parties that will deliver even a temporary overall majority, perhaps for a limited and pre-agreed programme, there would need to be some non-party-political person or authority to act as referee and to decide who is to have the first go at forming a survivable government.  If this is not to be the monarch, who should do it?  If it's to be kept within parliament — i.e. presumably the house of commons — only the Speaker would seem to fit the role, and even he or she is almost always a party politician originally elected on a party ticket, so it wouldn't necessarily appear that he/she had acted impartially.  How does it work in Spain, Peter?  (In France the head of state simply appoints the Prime Minister, of course, but then France doesn't have a Westminster-style political system and the President is the de facto head of government — which, mercifully or otherwise, the Queen is not.) 

  10. Peter Harvey says:

    The way the system works in Spain is this. After the election the new parliament (Congress of Deputies, the lower house) meets within a fixed period, and there is a minimum as well as a maximum time for this. The first business of the Assembly is to elect its Chair (Speaker). This election is managed by the oldest member and the youngest member acting together as an ad hoc committee. When the Chair has been elected he/she oversees the election of the Prime Minister. It is at this point that the point about the largest party comes into play. During the negotiations between the parties, assuming that none of them has an absolute majority, it is usually assumed that the leader of the largest party should make the first attempt to form a government and that the leader of the second party shouldn’t try to cobble together an alternative coalition behind his back. Well, in theory anyway. But the end result is that a leader who is proposed for Prime Minister most probably has the backing of a majority of the Congress and can be expected to win. Once the new PM has the support of the Congress, he appoints his ministers. At this point the King is informed of the people who make up the new Government and they go to him to swear their loyalty to him and to the Constitution. In fact in 2004 only one of the sixteen ministers plus Zapatero (who is technically not a minister) chose to take a religious oath (that was the Minster of Defence!) while the others, being atheists, affirmed.

    The point is that this process is coherent and moves constantly upwards from the point at which the citizen places a ballot paper in the box to the moment when the government is formed by the politicians working out how to manage the hand they have been dealt. There is no need for outside oversight or intervention as the assembly pulls itself up by its own bootstraps. It is thus an expression of popular sovereignty and it produces what could be called the Citizens’ Government rather than His Majesty’s Government. A point associated conceptually with this is that on 6 December, the anniversary of the Constitution, the Parliament has an open day. Citizens enter the building through the impressive main door, which is not used for day-to-day business; entrar por la puerta grande (to go in through the big door) is a Spanish expression meaning to make an impressive and honourable entrance. Once inside they are encouraged to wander around the hemicycle and to sit in the deputies’ seats while they listen to the guide’s commentary. And why not? Those seats belong to the citizens, who allow their representatives to use them when they need them.

    One very important difference is that this process takes several weeks during which the country continues to governed by the former ministers, who have always scrupulously been referred to as, for example, the Acting Minister of Defence since the calling of the election and whose powers have been limited to routine business. Parliamentary business is handled by the all-party Parliamentary Standing Committee that manages parliamentary business during recesses. There is no need for the mad rush that follows a British election, which is hardly conducive to reflection and considered action. There is also the point that the use of a list system guarantees that the composition of the Assembly will not change, thus building a very useful element of stability into the system – look at what happened to John Major; there is no reason, incidentally, why this cannot be done with FPTP with a substitute being named on the ballot paper, so that in the event of an MP dying the party balance remains the same.

    I have described this in terms of the national Parliament, but the same goes for every elected assembly in the country down to the tiniest municipal council (and some have fewer than 100 voters). A Spanish mayor has the same relationship to his/her council as the PM has to the Parliament. You mention France, and it is true that France (like Russia) has a strong President. However, though I cannot be sure, I would imagine that at lower levels the French model is similar to Spain. I say this because Spanish public administration is based on the Napoleonic model, which was introduced during the French occupation; we have the equivalents of départements and préfets. In America south of the 49th parallel there is a universal choice for executive presidents who are also head of state, as Hugo Chávez mischievously pointed out the other day with reference to King Juan Carlos.

    Brian writes:  Thanks, Peter.  That's very interesting and deserves careful consideration.  BTW, when you say that  the "election [of the Chair or Speaker] is managed by the oldest member and the youngest member acting together as an ad hoc committee", does that mean the oldest and youngest members in terms of their birth dates or does it mean the longest and shortest serving members?  (Presumably the former since there could be several newly elected members after an election.)  The system does entrust a heavy responsibility — for deciding whom to call on first to try to cobble together a coalition or alliance with enough support to enable him/her to form a government — to a person who is by definition himself or herself a party politician with personal ambitions and political debts and party interests to put to one side (theoretically, anyway) in making that decision.  If one was starting from scratch, one might prefer to devise a more obviously impartial figure or group to manage the process: e.g. the outgoing Speaker, the Lord Chief Justice and the principal private secretary to the head of state;  or, indeed, the head of state himself or herself but on the basis that he or she would consult those three dignitaries before deciding whom to summon first, along with agreed guidelines to help determine the choice.  There are, it seems to me, pros and cons for all these possible variants.  Our own system works all right as long as it's obvious who's to be the next prime minister, as it usually is under First Past the Post, and even if it's not obvious, it will probably work all right so long as the monarch is a sober and responsible person who can be relied on to take private advice from persons of judgement, discretion and experience:  i.e., Elizabeth II…

  11. Peter Harvey says:

    Yes, the oldest and youngest by age.

    You have failed to grasp the point that no-one calls on anyone to try to form a government. The parties do the negotiations among themselves and then when one leader thinks he has put together enough support to form a government, he tries it out in the house. It is all done from the bottom up with no-one on top managing the process.

    Brian writes:  I was relying on your account of the procedures when you wrote:  "When the Chair has been elected he/she oversees the election of the Prime Minister."  I'm glad that you have now clarified that. 

  12. Peter Harvey says:

    I meant that he/she chairs the parliamentary session at which the PM is elected.

  13. John Miles says:

    Just a trivial point:

    I may well have missed it but I don’t think you, or any of your fellow  LibDem-experts, have mentioned that the LibDems, for all their shortcomings, were the only one of our major parties to oppose the invasion of Iraq.


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