Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jumping all over the fence

For all the inherent mishmashedness of the construct, I'm a natural Liberal Democrat.

Not a liberal in toto, because the ideological purity of that philosophy needs for me the counterbalancing of a concern for freedom with concerns for social justice, democracy and our environment. I have had plenty of animated discussions with friends who have argued that liberalism properly understood can encompass all that I need from the latter concerns, but I think the debate is far from settled; and when it comes to a framework for shaping political decision-making I'd rather run the risk of amalgamating philosophies that lead to potentially contradictory conclusions (that can be pragmatically compared against each other) than have conclusions that omit the above concerns because the arguments are too subtle.

Whatever. Philosophically, it's a mess. But I'm certainly not a conservative or a socialist.

So when it comes to the charge of "supporting" a Tory government or "propping up" a failed Labour government, I am uncomfortable, as are many Liberal Democrat voters.

Looking back over my tweets from the last week, I find evidence of this discomfort.

I started with...
I don't relish Nick's choices. My gut feeling is to permit - but be no part of - a minority Tory govt, & explore new HoC's opinions on STV
This got me accused of being a soft Tory, which of course stung. But, I reasoned, coalition with Labour would be seen as keeping a failing government in power. The parliamentary arithmetic is dodgy, and would lead to an unstable government, beholden to tiny parties. Struggling on like this would also lead to both parties hemorrhaging popular support. At the same time I thought that coalition with the Conservatives would be unlikely to work given the sharp policy differences and instinctive psychological antagonisms. And I believed the Conservatives were temperamentally incapable at this time of handling compromise, and so would screw up coalition. Either option would lead to a quick second general election in which (without electoral reform) tactical voting in favour of the two larger parties would lead to electoral wipe-out for the LibDems.

A minority Tory government might protect the LibDems to some extent, gain some minor policy concessions, and lead to cross-party agreement on electoral reform. In this scenario, Labour and LibDems would work in opposition together to block the worst excesses of conservatism. The Tories would screw up minority government and a second election would lead to gains for both Labour and the LibDems. The downside would be that this option would play to the "hung parliament = instability" accusation.

The importance of electoral reform in all this is not purely party self-interest, by the way. Firstly, our current voting system allows a party to attain absolute executive power with a small share of the vote. As Mark Pack put it, "It's not about academic debates on the features of different electoral formulas; it's about the gritty realities of taking power away from the political establishment and giving it to voters". Secondly, the fact that about half the parliamentary seats never change hands between parties leads to complacency and abuses like the expenses scandal. Thirdly, the quality of our national debate suffers because so few voices outside the Labour and Conservatives are heard in Westminster. There are more than just two views in the country. And it's not just the Liberal Democrats: Green and UKIP perspectives deserve to be heard in Parliament since they speak for many in the country, albeit not at the level of the two large parties. But at a more obvious practical level, a British coalition would struggle to survive if the leader of the larger partner can choose to call an election as soon as the polls favour it, and see tactical voting in the FPTP system squeeze the vote of the smaller partner.

So when the Liberal Democrats began coalition talks with the Conservatives, I was of the #dontdoitnick movement:
I agree #dontdoitnick for unworthy reason: Tories can't handle compromise, so will screw it up. But not good advert 4 PR
At this point Twitter and the blogosphere became almost unbearably tribalist. Conservatives suddenly began to be unsettlingly nice to LibDems; Labour supporters frighteningly antagonistic.

The presumption on both sides was that this was all about party advantage. One minster was quoted as saying "If the Liberals do a deal, they will be toast at the next election... You can write the leaflets now". This truth disproved the assertion that a LibDem-Conservative coalition was about party advantage, but no-one seemed to notice. "Party advantage" quickly elided into "A seat at the top table for Clegg", "Trading principle for ministerial cars" and the like.

On Any Questions, Shirley Williams reached the conclusion, as I had done, that there could be no coalition without electoral reform, but allowing Tory government would be possible. Meanwhile, John Redwood thought that calling the LibDem's campaign for fair votes a "pet project" would set the proper expectations.

At about this time, Evan Harris (praise be upon him) wrote that Labour offered the closest value match. The quest for a Rainbow Alliance of red, yellow, green and others was underway, and I got caught up in the enthusiasm for a #progressivemajority.
If it can work, brilliant.
Interestingly, though, the abuse from Labour supporters did not ease up, even after the LibDems opened talks with the Labour party. Conservatives wallowed lovingly in the phrase "Coalition of Losers", but it became apparent, as Ed Balls sabotaged the talks, that Labour seemed psychologically unprepared fora Progressive Majority. The SNP were publicly rubbished; electoral reform was batted away. Perhaps, as some younger Labour supporters notes, there are quite a few conservatives (small c) among the Labour old-guard. Or perhaps 13 years of unthinking authoritarian ways has cut Labour off from the progressive movement.

The irony is, a progressive majority could have been possible if there had been more LibDem MPs and fewer of these old-style Labour MPs. It truly was a case of "Vote Brown; get Cameron".

Finally, with the tribalist abuse reaching fever pitch, a deal was struck. My MP Ben Bradshaw offered warm invitations for Liberal Democrats to join the Labour party. I reserved judgment on the deal itself, until I read the details, but declined Ben's kind invitation:
Let me think... climate change, Iraq, STV, #debill, expenses, banks, authoritarianism, #nuttsack, Vince... no, I'm good thanks
Labour spin doctors insisted angrily that Nick Clegg made David Cameron the Prime Minister. I prefer to think that the voters did that, albeit through a bad electoral system. Things could have been very different if Labour had honoured its promise on voting reform.

When the coalition agreement was published, I read it carefully. I was pleasantly surprised:
I've read the coalition agreement. There are so many good things there, that I can probably live with the bad.
Following the election, few Labour tweeters, bloggers or politicians seemed to want to engage LibDems in policy discussion, and yet this Liberal Democrat - Conservative coalition agreement includes policies for a pupil premium, a scrutiny of Trident's value for money, the restoration of the earnings link for the basic state pension, an increase in the personal allowance for income tax, an increase in Capital Gains Tax, the tackling of tax avoidance by the very rich, the halting of the Conservatives' planned cuts in inheritance tax for the very rich, the replacement of the Air Passenger Duty with a per-flight duty, the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments, a referendum on electoral reform, a power of MP recall, PR for the House of Lords, a statutory register of lobbyists, the removal of big money from politics, the devolution of power to local government, the phasing out of the default retirement age, the repeal of Labour's assault on civil liberties, the scrapping of ID cards, a review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech, the ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason, plans for home energy improvement, support for renewables, the cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow, measures to promote green spaces, a national recharging network, prohibition of public subsidy for nuclear power...

So many good things that would have been unlikely without this coalition.

I'm still very wary:
Particular concerns about STV, welfare, nuclear energy, Higher Education, marriage tax bonus, slimy bastards & electoral oblivion
... but coalition on the basis of these policies does, on the whole, seem better for the country than the unstable Tory minority government I originally favoured.

The "I voted LibDem; now they've let in the Tories; I'm never voting for them again" meme was, and continues to be, highly virulent. It's nonsense of course: LibDem votes have prevented both a Tory-only government and a continuing Labour-only government, both of which would have been dreadful for the country. I fully expect the LibDems to be shafted by the slimy bastards, and, if the gamble on an electoral reform referendum fails, to be wiped out at the next general election. But that is the price to be paid for getting so many progressive policies implemented.
RT me [can't quite believe this situation] It's amazing Tories are willing to implement progressive policies & Labour isn't.