Sunday, 9 May 2010

Will a Tory minority government be good for the left?

The short answer is yes. But first, I should say I'm raising this question now because a minority government is looking increasingly likely. There are three possible outcomes to the current post-election stalemate.

One is a Lib-Lab coalition. But this doesn't quite seem credible. It's a question of elementary maths - or democracy. The fact is that Labour took far fewer seats, and a much lower share of vote, than the Tories. People ask the obvious question: why should Labour, therefore, be leading the next government? While we might be tempted by a Lib-Lab coalition as a way of blocking the Tories, it simply wouldn't reflect what people voted for.

So that leaves the Tories and Lib Dems trying to cobble together a deal. This won't be helped by The Observer's revelation of a secret memo indicating just what a hardline approach to Europe the Tories want to take. This puts them in conflict with the Europhiliac Lib Dems. Then there's the gulf between the two parties when it comes to attitudes to electoral reform - this may prove an unbridgeable gulf.

The Independent on Sunday reports: 'Nick Clegg was urged by senior figures in his party last night to back a "traffic light coalition" with Labour, Green and smaller parties amid signs that David Cameron's proposed deal to the Liberal Democrats has triggered an angry backlash among Tory and Lib Dem MPs.'

The paper also says: 'Senior Lib Dem figures were pressing Mr Clegg to shun Mr Cameron's overtures because the Tories would never deliver on PR. And in a major blow to the Lib Dem leader, senior Tory sources made clear there would be no further concessions on electoral reform – presenting Mr Clegg with a hardball "take it or leave it" deal – and that Mr Cameron would press ahead with a minority government if coalition talks collapsed.'

There's consequently a good chance of a minority Tory regime, which will have weak authority and probably last until a fresh election in the autumn. The first problem for such a government is that the Tories are currently tearing each other apart, following the party's failure to win a majority. Lord Ashcroft has lashed out of David Cameron in just one example of the frustrations inside the Tory party.

But the problems go deeper than that. Two very different bloggers offer insight into this. The first is Robert Peston in his BBC Business blog:

'On BBC Breakfast this morning, Vernon Bogdanor said he had no doubt that there would be a minority Tory government, without explicit support from the Lib Dems, that would limp along till another general election in the autumn. Now he's seen a good few electoral cycles. And his view is not to be dismissed lightly.

The obstacles in the way of the LibDems forming a pact with either the Conservatives or Labour look insuperable. So what would happen on markets if the Tories do end up governing as minority, with all legislation subject to cross-party negotiation and haggling? Well, the strong probability, perhaps a racing certainty, is that investors would take fright.'

Peston goes on to comment that 'investors would be unsettled at the idea that a Conservative finance bill or reconfiguration of the public sector would be vulnerable to being voted down in toto'. Such a government will be very weak, yet attempting to push through severe cuts.

That, of course, is precisely why it would open up opportunities for the extra-parliamentary left. Suppose the Tories want to push a controversial austerity measure through the Commons. There'll be great impetus for people to mobilise because there's a genuine chance of success - it's a case of pressuring Labour and Lib Dems to oppose the Tories. There is no guaranteed majority for unpopular measures. More generally, it means a government with a flimsy mandate to impose the kind of heavy austerity measures called for by business and the City.

Peston writes: 'If there were another election in the autumn, fought against the backdrop of a flight from sterling, it would be all about the detail of how to slash the £160bn-odd deficit. That is the debate that many said we should have had over the past few weeks, but didn't - in the view of some - because the party leaders were too frightened to tell voters the painful truth about precisely which public services would be squeezed. A combination of an indecisive election and pressure from financial markets may make that a debate postponed rather than cancelled.'

The ruling class demands that serious cuts are made. It wants a strong government to implement them, but it isn't going to get what it wants. The crisis of confidence that follows simply exacerbates the problems.

My second source is Salman Shaheen at The Third Estate, who has this to say:

'Firstly, and most obviously, the Conservatives didn’t win a majority. After 13 years of New Labour, after two unpopular wars, the worst financial crisis in almost a century, the total ideological abandonment of Labour’s traditional supporters and a raft of scandals, that the Tories didn’t win by a landslide is nothing short of a miracle.

In two-party politics, enforced by our archaic and deeply undemocratic electoral system, parties enter parliament on a wave of support, they become increasingly unpopular the longer they’re in power, then the other party gets in and the cycle repeats. That’s how politics works. Not this time. Clearly there is a deep dissatisfaction with the way politics operates and there is a yearning for change. That will have to come, and the case for PR has never been stronger.

Unless the Tories can offer the Lib Dems PR, they are likely going to have to govern alone as a minority. Their priority, as they’ve consistently argued, is to reign in the country’s deficit through severe cuts to public spending. This is going to be a catastrophically unpopular move. Even before the election, Mervyn King was arguing that whoever wins will be out of power for the next 30 years for precisely that reason.

This sounds to me somewhat alarmist, but should the Conservatives move immediately down the cuts route, they will find their already limited popularity significantly dented. They have a moral mandate to govern. But unlike Tony Blair in 1997, they don’t have a mandate to do whatever the hell they like and screw whoever the hell they like over in the process.

Meanwhile, they will find it increasingly difficult to operate as a minority government, particularly on the most contentious pieces of legislation. If they are unable to compromise, it is a real possibility that they will lose a vote on the Queen’s Speech of the Budget and bam, that’s a vote of no confidence and another election. An election which, if their popularity has already been severely hit by proposed cuts, they may very well lose. Winning the election in this way may very well be the worst thing to happen to the Conservative Party since 1997.'


  1. Yes, a Tory minority government is probably the best possible result now: they'll be unable to achieve what they want to achieve and in the meantime, Labour can change leader and even argue for a Labour-Liberal pact prior to an autumn election.

    Unfortunately, a new Labour leader will probably also be a New Labour leader (a Blairite). Still, a progressive coalition elected on a constitutional reform platform would be generally good, even if a Blairite *is* in charge.


    the fight back begins!