Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Westminster: the soap opera

We are still unclear who will form the next government. It is, however, clear that all three parties are deeply split over how to proceed.

The Tories are split because many of them deplore the idea of a coalition with the Lib Dems. They feel a sense of entitlement to be in power (and govern alone), they definitely don't want any compromises on electoral reform, and those on the right in particular are mortified at having to compromise with those woolly Liberals.

Labour is torn for a number of reasons. Some don't like the idea of a coalition because they fear such a government would quickly become unpopular and would lead to a heavy defeat at the next general election, which is likely to be next year or even this autumn. They would prefer being in opposition - with a hefty number of seats (by opposition standards) - than being in a weak, unstable government. This probably lies behind David Blunkett's comments criticising a prospective deal. Left Foot Forward has an insightful assessment of why a Lib-Lab coalition - or more accurately 'rainbow coalition (because it depends on minor parties) - is now looking unlikely.

There are others further to the left who feel a coalition with Liberals would leave Labour, with its working class base and strong links to the unions, fatally compromised. It would be a sell-out, not comparable to Ramsay Macdonald's National Government in the 1930s, but serious nonetheless (although Diane Abbott has made just that comparison). It could threaten the basis of the Labour Party - which was, lest we forget, established precisely as a break from Liberalism.

Lib Dems are in a tortuous predicament. A high proportion of their MPs, members and voters regard themselves as roughly centre-left and as more aligned with Labour than the Tories. A coalition with the Tories appals many of them. But there are also many who are anxious about a Lib-Lab coalition, perhaps because it would be weak (needing at least 8 MPs from minor parties to even reach a majority) or because they are further to the right and feel more comfortable with a Lib-Tory coalition.

Within each party there are also those who strongly support some kind of deal. There's a very strong body of opinion within Labour ranks wanting a coalition. This is largely driven by anti-Tory sentiment and rests on the assumption that Labour and Lib Dems combined form a 'progressive majority' or 'anti-Tory majority'.

This notion is about half-correct. It's true that a large number of Lib Dem voters view the party as 'centre left' and much closer to Labour than to the Tories. Some will have voted Lib Dem partly to block the Tories. However, there are also 2 substantial problems with it.

Firstly, it's also the case that many Lib Dem voters are classic 'centrists', who tend to be middle class and view Tories and Labour with suspicion, broadly agreeing with the traditional Liberal idea that both of the biggest parties are too bound up with 'vested interests': Tories with big business, Labour with the unions. These people are no more or less likely to support a coalition with Labour than with the Tories.

Secondly, we need a reality check on the politics of these parties. Neither of them are progressive, neither are left-wing. It's absolutely justified for people to want to prevent a Tory government, and that desire will have been the motivation to vote for many Labour - and some Lib Dem - voters. But we shouldn't buy into the myth that either party offers an alternative to the Tories in the field of policy.

Brown's resignation will not serve as an opening for a change of direction. The right of the Labour Party has long been triumphant, and there's no indication of that changing. Some may feel this is the end of New Labour, but only in as much as it's the end of New Labour government and the whole Blair/Brown era. It is, however, the heirs of the two most recent leaders - like David Miliband and Ed Balls - who will form the future leadership. Any alternatives within Labour have long been shut down.

I've previously raised a major stumbling block to a Lib-Lab coalition: democratic credibility. I'll be clear about this: I'm not remotely interested in what is and isn't actually legitimate. We have a parliamentary system that is deeply flawed and, in situations like the current one, a sort of 'custom and practice' approach (or, frankly, 'make it up as we go along') is adopted in the absensce of any written constituion. The truth is that nobodys knows what is or isn't legitimate as a way out of the current stalemate.

The point is, rather, about the perceived credibility of any arrangement. There was a Tory on Radio 4's 'The World Tonight' last night saying that "from a centre-right perspective" the best option is a Lib-Lab coalition. His main reason was that it wouldn't be credible - due to being what's widely dubbed a "coalition of losers" that doesn't include the biggest party - and therefore struggle to have authority.

It's safe to assume Tory MPs and right-wing papers will constantly remind us of the election results, and paint the coalition as not having a democratic mandate. It is pointless getting bogged down in the ins and outs of whether or not such a coalition can be justified. The important thing here is that its tally of votes and seats influences its authority. It would be a very weak coalition indeed.

All the mainstream parties are in a mess. In all cases the leadership needs to sell any deal to backbench MPs and the wider party membership - and in all cases this will be exceptionally difficult. In the case of the Lib Dems there's another layer of sensitivity: what if many voters, believing the party to be anti-Tory and 'progressive', turn against it in disgust at a deal with the Tories?

Whatever happens over coming days, there will be an absence of strong government. Yet any government will be determined to push through heavy cuts; the Tories will aim to do so that bit more swiftly and viciously. There is a contradiction between weak government and the desire to push through unpopular and drastic measures. There is also, just as crucially, a contradiction between the shared pro-cuts consensus of the political class and the majority public opinion opposed to cuts.

It is those contradictions that provide the basis for a mass popular campaign that can shake Westminster - and potentially stall or defeat the devastating cuts wanted by the ruling class.


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