Monday, 10 March 2008

Clegg ditches Lib Dem commitment to PR

Yesterday, on the quiet, Nick Clegg scrapped the Liberal Democrats' long-standing commitment to reform Britain's electoral system. So it appears, anyway, from his speech to the party's spring conference in Liverpool. He may not have meant to do it, but the following paragraph, buried in the middle of a 50-minute note-free oration, destroys the long-held liberal hope of a fairer voting system:

The day before I was elected leader, Mr Cameron suggested we join them, he talked about a “progressive alliance”. This talk of alliances comes up a lot, doesn’t it? Everyone wants to be in our gang. So I want to make something very clear today. Will I ever join a Conservative government? No. Will I ever join a Labour government? No. I will never allow the Liberal Democrats to be a mere annex to another party's agenda.

I may be very naïve, but I had always been under the impression that Lib Dems were in favour of coalition government, on a matter of principle. Coalitions are supposed to be more effective, more representative, and more democratic, especially in a country where even the most popular political party can only muster 35% of the vote. Democracy doesn't mean the largest minority group in society getting to steamroller their views over the heads of the rest, and Lib Dems have always rather liked the idea of forcing parties to work together. But here's Clegg, perhaps two years before a general election, ruling out a coalition with either of the other two. What on earth is he doing?

Yesterday's announcement fatally undermines our most identifiable policy position. If we refuse to work constructively with parties that don't share our ideology, yet still support proportional representation, what on earth are people supposed to conclude, if not that we want to see permanent minority government? That surely can't be tenable.

Now to be fair to Clegg (and he's had a rough time lately), I can think of at least one excellent reason for this announcement: the coalition question always screws us over. In the buildup to an election, all it takes us for somebody to ask us who we'd rather go into coalition with, and our campaign goes off the rails. We've never yet found a satisfactory answer.

If we declare a preference for one of the other parties - say, Labour - we throw away our ability to set an independent liberal agenda. Suddenly, there's no point in voting Lib Dem: if people know we're only going to prop up Labour anyway, they might as well vote for Labour in the first place, if they support them, or the Tories if they don't.

But suppose we decide to keep our independence, and refuse to declare a preference for Labour or the Tories. Suddenly, we become the sleazy party of backroom deals, who've already sewn up the result of the next election behind closed doors, without ever consulting the people.

And suppose we say, quite sensibly, that we'll wait until the next general election, chat to the other parties, and try to thrash out the most liberal policy programme we can under the circumstances, without any predetermined favourite. Well, people switch off and don't listen. That sort of message takes a bit of explaining, and is almost impossible to get into a catchy soundbite.

It seems whichever way we turn, we can't win. And so Nick Clegg is going for option four: to refuse to go into government with either Labour or the Tories, instead promising us the nebulous waffle of "a new type of government ... based on pluralism instead of one party rule" - frankly, I struggle to see how that ambition could ever be put into practice without a coalition-based system, even if it's expressed in English so hazy as to require fog-lights.

Don't get me wrong: I sympathise with Clegg a great deal. PR is one of those awkward areas where we have a very coherent and justified position, but one which is too nuanced to be explained simply, and which can be undermined with depressing ease by one well-aimed jibe from our opponents. But Clegg needs to watch out. There's no point countering those jibes if the only way to do it is to sacrifice all the coherence that made our position worthwhile in the first place.

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Anonymous said...

Actually, a minority government would probably be more in keeping with the underlying principles of deliberative democracy than a coalition government. Coalition governments are expected to follow a policy agenda which is a compromise between the respective platforms of the parties which comprise the coalition. This element of 'meeting of the minds' aside, a coalition government would be in principle no more 'democratic' than a landslide majority government; those parties outwith the coalition, or dissenting individual members, would wield very little power and the country would be ruled by a government operating under a 'manifesto' that - if manifestos are seen as unitary things - no MP was elected to uphold.

In a minority government situation (a situation where there would otherwise be a coalition but no coalition is formed) dissenters and opposition parties yeild an incredible amount of power, and you end up with a situation when the only way you could get legislation passed would be if you could convince over 50% of the elected representatives of the people, at least some of which are not your political brothers in arms and subject to your whips, that it was a good idea. Sounds kind of like what representative democracy is supposed to be, doesn't it?

This is just in response to your claim that coalition governments are more democratic than a non-coalition situation. A more substantial point (and one I think worth making) is that the question of whether or not we would enter a coalition government has NOTHING TO DO WITH PR. They are logically independent of each other, in so far as you could support one and oppose the other with consistency:

1: You wish to reform the electoral system but would prefer a minority government to a coalition.

2: You wish to reform the electoral system and you think in the event of a PR result with no clear majority (which would be common under PR) coalition governments should be formed.

3) You wish to leave the electoral system in the backwards state it is but think we should avoid entering into a coalition in the event that the leading party had no clear majority.

4) You really really like first past the post and the thought of coalitions really appeals to your pro-cooperation sentiments.

Moreover, it is entirely reasonable for him to just speak about what he would do in the event of a result of such-and-such at the next election, the next election almost certainly being operated on a FPTP basis. Saying "there will be no coalition with the Tories or Labour" is not inconsistent with saying subsequently "of course, in the event of the introduction of a PR system, coalitions might be a political necessity; but we'll not enter into one while FPTP is in place."

Having not seen the speech yet, you scared the life out of me as I thought Nick had changed position on one of the most fundamentally liberal issues: only to find out that in fact he was talking about his position on coalition government which I share and which I discussed with him two years earlier. So... 'meh' to you, sir.

Jock Coats said...

Jonny, I think you've read something in that simply doesn't exist. Being the individualist anarchist type I do not do the cult of leader so I didn't stay for the speech, but what seems to be being reported is that he doesn't want to play second fiddle to anyone in the frankly corrupt system we have and that he wants quite fundamental constitutional change, including but not limited to PR

And I agree - coalition on the basis of, say, us having 25% of the popular vote but 10% of the voting power in parliament is no real coalition at all. Something's got to happen first - and that something is the radical constitutional change he has spoken about in the past.

I don't think that his comments, and certainly not the paragraph you quote, infer anything at all about PR.

Jennie said...

Saying they won't be annex to a Labour or Tory government is not the same as saying they won't join a coalition; it means that Clegg wants to be in a coalition of equal partners, not co-opted into another party is all.

Mohsin Khan said...

I'm extremely impressed by Nick Clegg this week.

Think of it not as being blackmailed by a minority. Think of it instead as the Government having to represent more than a simple plurality of the population. In short, whoever comes to power will need to cater to a supramajority of views.

We need that, given how little check there is on any Government in the Westminster system.

Sam said...

Nick Clegg was talking about what he would do under the current political system - first past the post and everything. That is not the same as saying you would not take part in a partnership government under a different voting system and different political system.

Andy Mayer said...

I think you've read this wrong Jonny. What he's done is ditch a commitment to demand a definitive kind of PR as a condition of government. A demand that would near-certain be rejected and leave us looking rather silly if all the other items on the table were part of our manifesto.

In a nutshell his speech meant he wasn't prepared to be a liberal member of an illiberal government. You want us, he is saying, then be prepared to change the system.

What that change would be, would need to be a consensus between at least two parties. It would be sensible in that respect to show some room for manouver rather than issue a list of irrevocable demands. Elections are warfare, coalitions are diplomacy.

Pete Roberts said...

you can read it another way as well. Nick constantly said I not we. This could be read that the party may make and agreement but that Nick may not be part of the cabinet instead staying outside to deliver our point of view without cabinet responsibility and other Cable for Chancellor? to do do the day to day job of running the country

Richard Gadsden said...

I thought this was very clear - if he joined the government then it wouldn't be a Labour government or a Tory government any more, would it?

A coalition would be exactly the kind of new pluralist politics.

Wit and wisdom said...

I agree with the general thrust of the comments above. This is not ditching a commitment to PR, it is quite clearly saying we won't be dragged into supporting someone else's government.

I would also be quite comfortable with a LD leader approaching a possible deal with another party without having to have PR as a 'line in the sand'. PR would be great but then so would proper investment in education, a fair local taxation system, a logical policy on Europe. Should all these things be abandoned in a possible future deal for a principle a majority of people in this country simply aren't interested in?

Jock Coats said...

PR would be great but then so would proper investment in education, a fair local taxation system, a logical policy on Europe. Should all these things be abandoned in a possible future deal for a principle a majority of people in this country simply aren't interested in?

Now there's an interesting question. One could just as well argue that if we were the ones having to bring those issues to a negotiation with another party - ie that they were things they were not manifesto committed to doing on their own - then actually it would be preferable to have PR first so that the next time they voted those other issues received their proper representation in parliament by people actually voting for them (ie for us)!

Wit and wisdom said...

That's equally true, which is why our leader should have a degree of freedom to do what he or she considers would be best in the event of any such deal being brokered.

No LD leader is going to go against the general mood of what our party wants, after all. Otherwise they wouldn't be leader for long.

Anders Hanson said...

I disagree that as Lib Dems we agree with coalitions as a matter of principle.

We believe in a fair voting system as a matter of principle. And of course a coalition would be the most likely outcome of that. But if one party got over 50% of the vote then my principles say that they should get on and govern on their own.

I do want a PR voting system, but if that is all another party offered us in return for a coaltion then I think we should refuse. I might think that PR is vitally important, but I feel as strongly, if not more so, about health, education and transport and would want us to have liberal policies on those as part of a coalition deal too. If that is what Nick meant in his speech then I entirely agree with him.

Paul Walter said...

I agree with Richard Gadsden and Jennie. As Jennie said:

"Saying they won't be annex to a Labour or Tory government is not the same as saying they won't join a coalition; it means that Clegg wants to be in a coalition of equal partners, not co-opted into another party is all."

Indeed. He doesn't want to be in a Labour or Conservative government. Of course not. He wants to be in a Liberal government. If we went into a coalition government it wouldn't be a Conservative or Labour government. It would be a Conservative/LibDem Coalition government or a Labour/LibDem Coalition government. That's what he means.

Jonny Wright said...

I understand Jennie's argument - but if that's what Clegg means, surely it's just a truism? It's almost not worth his while saying it.

It's just odd that everybody feels the need to read things into Clegg's words here. During the leadership election, Chris Huhne managed to say, perfectly explicitly, that the current constitutional settlement is biased against effective coalition governments, and that he couldn't join one without serious reform to the system. Why couldn't Clegg have said the same, if that's what he means, instead of giving us vague soundbites that have kept everyone on this comments thread guessing?

MatGB said...

Heh: I comment on your note as it's on the top of my feed on FB, then come here to find that the comments have already all said it, and Jennie said it best. I shouldn't be surprised really should I?

Jonny, I don't think we are reading too much into his words here, we're reading what he said, and the atmosphere in the hall was very clear, I thought what he said was clear and obvious, but well stated and to play very well with media commentators. You're right, we do need to neuter the "which will we support" questions, but we need to do it in the right way.

What he's done is restate our longstanding principle, but done it in a way that the media gave it positive spin (for once).

Anonymous said...

Jonny writes:

'PR is one of those awkward areas where we have a very coherent and justified position, but one which is too nuanced to be explained simply, and which can be undermined with depressing ease by one well-aimed jibe from our opponents.'

A similar thing could be said for Tory policy on immigration, welfare reform etc...

It is a bit of a cop-out to hide behind the notion that PR is too complex an issue for the soundbite generation.