Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Next Coalition and the fight for Liberalism and Reform

The UK opinion polls are volatile and extremely difficult to read. it has become a cliche that the next election is both uncertain and very open. The only certainty is that the chances of a hung Parliament seem very high. In fact in the face of such uncertainty I can claim no special knowledge ahead of the result. Yet I think that there are actually some significant shifts which are now on the political agenda.

There is still a chance that at the last gasp either the Tories or more likely Labour can snatch a single party mandate under the current system. Nevertheless although Labour have an advantage in that it takes far fewer votes for them to win each seat, there remains the imponderable of what impact any SNP surge might have on their overall total. For what its worth, I think that, as in the referendum itself, and as so often before, the SNP confidence will prove highly misplaced, and what might be a quite promising result of -say- 15 seats will be deemed a relative failure and the bombast and economic contradictions of the SNP will make the 2015 election their high tide for at least another generation. So, in principle Labour are likely to have an advantage, should the vote, as the polls suggest, split pretty evenly. 

Yet the Tories also have some hidden strengths. There is credible polling evidence that the UKIP surge peaked in 2014, and the sustained attack on that party in the media is eroding their support. Furthermore, the evidence is that that in only a very few seats does UKIP actually look like a credible contender. Therefore it seems entirely possible that over the coming weeks there will be a swing-back to the Conservatives. Nevertheless, at no stage have the pollsters shown a Conservative lead that would allow them to match the structural Labour advantage under the current system. The Tories could win quite a few more votes, but still be behind on seats.

What then of the Liberal Democrats?

The latest polling surge of the Greens has pushed the party back into single figures, and on such numbers, no matter what the advantage of incumbancy and popular local MPs, the Liberal Democrats are on a knife edge. As in a series of council elections, in the Scottish and Welsh elections and in the European elections, the party may face very painful losses and in some areas possible obliteration. 

The implications of this in wider politics are far more profound than they may first appear.

Firstly, if the Lib Dems do not confound their dire poll ratings and do indeed lose more than half their seats, then it is going to be much harder to form a coalition, should one be needed after the election. The message to any other party-UKIP or the SNP, for example- that might be asked to join a coalition, is that there are huge risks to the junior coalition party. The novelty of the situation in 2010, would not be there in 2015- and neither would the immediate economic crisis, so the pressure would be less. It is also probable that a three-party or even four or five party arrangement could be needed, so clearly the negotiations would inevitably take a lot longer- and may not be successful which could lead to new elections or even far reaching constitutional change- a  subject for a different blog.

The second implication is for the Liberal Democrats themselves. Even if it would still be possible for a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to continue in office after the election, I do not believe that it would necessarily happen. For the fact is that the agreed programme of the coalition -forged in the heat of an unprecedented economic mess- has in fact largely been executed. There is now ever less that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can agree on- certainly not Europe- and unless full throated constitutional reform is on the agenda, the timid managerial brake on the Conservatives that Nick Clegg likes to think he supplies to mitigate Tory wrongs, is simply not enough for the Liberal Democrat members to give the leadership a mandate to rejoin a Tory-led coalition. If Mr Cameron emerges as the leader of the largest party in May, the most he can hope for from the Liberal Democrats is a confidence and supply arrangement. The options for a coalition itself would probably only be with whatever UKIP MPs get elected- and it may be less than a handful- and the Ulster Unionists.

What then of a Labour led coalition?

Once again, Mr Miliband- despite his own pretty awful personal ratings- has an extra card: The Scottish Nationalists have already said that they would only join a Labour, not a Conservative coalition. This is despite the fact that if the SNP are to make the breakthrough they already believe they have achieved (before a single vote is cast, let alone counted), it must come at the expense of Labour. A Labour-SNP coalition maybe possible, but it would be fractious, and given the SNP propensity for grandstanding, it could be unstable and volatile too.

Yet the personal relationship between the Liberal Democrats and Labour could hardly be worse. The Lib Dem leaders who actually survive the election- even those more sympathetic to Labour than the Conservatives- have endured five years of bruising, and often highly personal and unfair criticism from the Labour front bench. Some figures, such as Ed Balls, are held in little short of contempt by the Liberal Democrats because of their arrogant and duplicitous attitude towards the Liberal Democrats as a whole. 

Even if the Liberal Democrats emerge from the next election without the losses that the current polls must lead us to expect, it is clearly going to be difficult for the party to form a coalition. Clearly Nick Clegg will downplay these difficulties during the campaign, for to focus too heavily on these difficulties implicitly suggests the party is less of a contender and therefore less relevant to the final outcome.

Frankly, there are many ex-Lib Dem members who have already drawn that conclusion and so left the party. For myself, however, as a convinced Liberal, I see a new phase emerging in the battle for reform. There will be a need to recapitulate fundamental Liberal values and restate the ideological- not merely the managerial- relevance of the Liberal agenda of a reformed and open politics within a reformed and open society. That battle is already beginning, and whether or not the party forms part of any coalition in the next Parliament, we need to renew the Liberal compact.

Externally, Vladimir Putin and Islamo-nihilists, and internally, misused surveillance technology and unaccountable corporate and government interests, are creating new threats to the open society. 

The Conservatives, despite their drastic loss of members, have had no corresponding loss of funding: they have become the prisoners of a narrow and self interested corporate lobby. The Labour Party has lost its ideological soul and become the populist mouthpiece of state employed cronyism. It is not a wonder that the electorate seems poised to reject these two ugly sisters in unprecedented numbers.

The core Liberal agenda of diversity, anti-conformity and freedom is winning converts across wider society. It is something of an irony that only in the political sphere is Liberalism still a beleaguered ideology. The party needs to recover its emotional and intellectual zeal and to push back against the enduring threats of poverty ignorance and conformity and to broaden the sphere of freedom in our society.  

The Liberal Democrats are more relevant than ever. 

The battle for the renewal of the party starts now, ahead of the election. 

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