Friday, 14 May 2010

The 55% proposal

In my post here I commented adversely on the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition proposal, in my words, "to require any vote of no confidence to have a 55% majority against the government" in order to come into effect. This comment related to my reading of the provision in the coalition document which states, in relation to its legislation for a fixed term Parliament that "This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour."

The purpose of this proposal is not, it now appears, what I supposed. The convention requiring a government to resign in the event of a vote of no confidence being passed by a bare majority is, apparently, to remain. The 55% figure is the threshold that would require a new election before the conclusion of the proposed 5 year fixed term. What is intended to happen in the event of a vote of no confidence being passed by more than 50% of the those voting but not being followed by a 55% vote in favour of a dissolution, is that the parties which passed the motion of no confidence should get together and agree a new coalition to form a government which is able to command the confidence of the House.

In this respect, it mirrors the equivalent provision applying to the Scottish Parliament which requires a 66% vote to trigger an early election rather than the resignation of Alex Salmond's government, which would only require a 50% vote.

Put this way it does not comprise the act of constitutional violence that I supposed it did. The downside however is that a no confidence vote not leading to a dissolution would, without proportional representation (which gives rise to a more even spread of party representation than first-past-the-post or alternative vote), require a new coalition government with probably only a small majority. or maybe a minority government with no majority at all, to limp on to the conclusion of the original government's 5 year term, even though it would be likely to have difficulty completing its legislative programme. One could envisage a succession of no confidence votes resulting in increasingly ill-tempered attempts to form new groupings capable of forming a government. The thinking presumably is however that, were a government to be paralysed in this way, there would be sufficient cross-party consensus on the need for a new election as to enable the 55% vote for a dissolution to be passed.

Without proportional representation, it might be easier to require that an early dissolution may only occur following the passing of a vote of no confidence against the government in office, and in addition to provide (in order to prevent the government triggering its own downfall so as to provoke a new election at a time of its own choosing) that only the leader of the opposition may put down such a motion of no confidence.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A coalition with potential

I am surprised that the Conservatives managed to agree a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but it is an interesting development, and in its form is one that shows considerable political generosity by the Conservatives towards the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives may benefit from this indirectly, beyond just being able to take power for the moment, by making the party more used to occupying the centre ground and by neutralising, for a while, the more swivel-eyed at the far right of the party. As a person in the centre of the party leaning towards, but not yet at one with, the one-nation Tories, David Cameron's talk of this being an opportunity as well as a challenge is probably something he actually feels as well as being a good sound bite. A dose of realism might well be good for the Tories, and in due course become a habit.

The Labour party's attack strategy is already becoming clear, and is a retreat to type: that this government is a government of cuts. If the coalition play their cards right, they may well be able to defeat this one. Gordon Brown was at his most unpopular and most derided when he was pushing his "Tories' 10% cuts" line, when everyone knew that a Labour government would have to do the same and cuts were inevitable. The coalition response needs to be in kind, namely that it is the same old dishonesty. If they play their cards correctly (and they may not), Cameron may be right that the coalition can bring a good portion of the electorate with them on cuts. Their stock response to a Labour attack of this kind should not be a quibble about numbers (nor even the ineffective Steve Hilton nicey-nicey big society stuff), but should work at the level of sentiment with one word: dishonest.

All this of course depends on the coalition surviving more than 12 months. It might or might not. But this is certainly a bold move by David Cameron. It seems that he lacks neither political instinct nor the decisiveness to lead the way and follow his instinct.

The coalition document

Two things of interest were in the coalition document. First, the proposal to require any vote of no confidence to have a 55% majority against the government looks like the same-old same-old political cynicism and seems very ill-advised. Its purpose is presumably to allow the government to continue even with a Liberal Democrat defection, as a minority government, but it simply won't work, and I am amazed the Conservatives had the balls to suggest it and the Liberal Democrats the lack of wisdom to agree it. To be effective it would require any Finance Act and Appropriation Act to be capable of being passed with a 45% vote, which would be outrageous. Update: it transpires that this is a misreading of the intentions of the coalition document: see this for further explanation.

Secondly, also of interest was the agreement, presumably at Liberal Democrats' insistence, that the West Lothian question should be put to a commission rather than implementing Ken Clarke's Democracy Taskforce proposal for an English Grand Committee.

Putting things to commissions is of course the standard way of kicking things to the long grass. In the 1970s we had the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution of the United Kingdom, which enumerated the arguments against an English Parliament and/or restricted voting at Westminster and/or regional bodies with legislative powers within England (the majority report recommended instead pseudo-devolution within England along the lines of the hopeless John Prescott proposals). As Ken Clarke is the new Justice Secretary and will therefore presumably be in charge of this project, it will be for him to move it along should he feel the urge to do so, and maybe his appointment to the office of Justice Secretary is an indication that he proposes to do so.

What we need though is a commission which looks for solutions and not for problems. In particular it needs to eschew the straw-man approach of those who advocate the "do-nothing" option, which I touch on here. I do not think "do-nothing" is going to work for a great deal longer.

Even better would be a commission which actually listens to what people in England would like, which is surely going to have to happen at some stage, or would that be too much like open government for the taste of this coalition? Probably, it would: the coalition is a bold step in government, but it will probably not turn out to be the start of a new kind of politics as claimed for it. However, let's keep hoping.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

How much time is there

So it appears that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat talks have not so far yielded fruit. We were told this afternoon, after the days' talks had finished, what they have been discussing, but not whether the gap is unbridgeable.

William Hague said "We are agreed that a central part of any agreement that we make will be economic stability and the reduction of the budget deficit" apparently in an attempt to calm the markets, but it remains to be seen whether they will remain calmed once the main markets reopen tomorrow.

From that point of view, I am not convinced that there is a lot of time remaining. My view on Friday, which is here, was that the most likely outcome was a Liberal Democrat undertaking for the time being to vote with the Conservatives or abstain at the Queen's Speech and on budget/taxation matters, and I am a little surprised that the Liberal Democrats have not by now at least given some indication in that direction. If we do end up with another election in a few weeks' time, which seems the likely outcome were the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to fail to agree something, I suspect the Liberal Democrats will be significantly punished by the voters, as well as showing themselves as a party which prefers to bleat from the sidelines rather than to be taken seriously and accept the burdens of office.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Gordon Brown doing the right thing

There is a disgraceful headline in tomorrow morning's Sun, with its "Squatter holed up in No 10".

It seems highly unlikely that Gordon Brown does not realise that it is all over for him, for the reasons I have given here. The best that can happen for him is another election in a few weeks' time at which he might get a better result, but he is probably exhausted and would prefer to avoid that as much as the other party leaders.

I am not a great admirer of Gordon Brown's policies nor his moral compass. Nonetheless it seems highly improbable that he thinks he can forge a lasting coalition which will keep him in power. Instead, he knows that someone needs to run the country until a new government can be formed by others or another election held next month, and he is the one the constitution requires to do it. He gave, in my view, a dignified address earlier today. Contrary to the Sun's headline, it is much more likely that, rather than attempting to stay in office until someone prizes him out and throws him overboard, he is sadly watching his ship list and settle in the water while remaining at his post, knowing that that is what he has to do and there is no way out.

The aftermath

What an intriguing election result; the most interesting result which it is possible to imagine. It looks as if the voters have, whether inadvertently or not, given a fine two fingers to the political class.

With the numbers now coming out, neither the Conservatives, nor a LibDem-Lab coalition, could actually achieve a majority government. This means that the only coalition game in town is a Conservative-LibDem coalition. My bet is that that won't happen, because the LibDem's price would be proportional representation in the Commons and the Conservatives are not prepared to offer it, and the LibDem's "triple-lock" would prevent a coalition on any other basis.

Gordon Brown could try to form a coalition of Labour, the Lib Dems, the DUP and/or the SNP and Plaid Cymru, but the bribes payable to the DUP/SNP/Plaid would probably be too high to be acceptable to voters in England, and even if not it would be so unstable as to be unworkable, particularly if the SNP and Plaid Cymru stick to their policy on not voting on England-only matters.

So my bet is a Conservative minority government with a LibDem undertaking for the time being to vote with them, or abstain, at the Queen's Speech and on budget/taxation matters. If the Conservatives are willing to offer the LibDems an elected House of Lords under proportional representation, which they probably are, that may keep it in place into next year, but probably not much beyond that.

If the LibDems are not prepared to agree even that, then the emerging make-up of the House of Commons would prevent any workable government being formed and we can look forward to another election in four weeks' time and a Gordon Brown "caretaker" administration in the meantime. The LibDems almost certainly don't want to take that risk: so big pressure on Nick Clegg.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The SNP and the BBC

On Wednesday the SNP lost their application to the Court of Session in Scotland for an interim interdict (what the law of Wales, England and Northern Ireland would call an interim injunction) precluding the showing by the BBC in Scotland of the final election debate on Thursday, in the absence of the leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, being given the same right to appear as the Conservative, Liberal and Labour party leaders.

This was probably bound to fail, if in part because of jurisdictional and pragmatic reasons, and I am sure they knew this. They were really just making a point. The debates were in Manchester, and the Court of Session has no jurisdiction in respect of Manchester. The holding of the debate there would have been a matter for the High Court of England and Wales. An interdict precluding the showing of the debate from transmitting stations in Scotland would probably have been within jurisdiction, but fairly pointless given that it was also broadcast by Sky and was available over the internet.

One can understand the SNP's point. The Liberal Democrats have benefited greatly, and somewhat unexpectedly, from the three televised debates and there is every reason to believe that the SNP would pick up more votes in constituencies which are marginal for them had they been allowed to appear. There have been a number of newspaper articles about it, such as Magnus Linklater's "the BBC doesn't understand devolution" in the Times which in my view was lightly reasoned to the point of trivialising the issues. There have been similar articles in the Guardian of better quality. The purpose of this blog article is to invite consideration of the wider range of questions to which Mr Salmond's request for an appearance gives rise.

Contrary to what Magnus Linklater says, the BBC almost certainly do understand devolution, and spend considerably more time and trouble spelling out, in their news reports, the territorial extent of the political matters which they report than do most other organisations. They have become pretty rigorous in not conflating England on the one hand with Britain and the United Kingdom on the other (and vice versa), which is something the newspapers and the three main parties are less good at. In the case of the newspapers this is mainly from genuine ignorance, and in the case of the three main parties is from a desire to obfuscate. For the interested, compare the BBC's coverage of the three party manifestos, which did explain territorial extent, with the manifestos themselves (including that of Mr Linklater's wife's party, the Liberal Democrats) which largely did not.

Devolution and the television debates

The fact of the matter is that devolution has thrown up real dilemmas. The first televised debate covered matters which were largely devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and during the debate the ITV presenter gamely made that point (frequently) and indicated that there would be separate leadership debates in those three countries on them, as indeed there were. However, discussion of devolved matters such as health, education and policing at the Scottish leader's debate which did take place subsequently would still have been irrelevant to this election, since Westminster and the UK Parliament do not govern those matters in Scotland. They will instead be for the Scottish elections which are to take place in 2011.

That did not stop the Scottish party leaders waffling on about those things in Scotland as if they were of relevance to the choice of their electors in the Westminster election. If the Scottish leaders had waffled on in their debate about their parties' policies for England on the NHS and education, that would have had more relevance, because pending a solution to the West Lothian Question Scottish MPs do exercise a decision making function on them, but for England and Wales only.

Most reasonable people would I think agree that it would have been absurd for Alex Salmond to have been present at the first televised debate which, as I have said, largely concerned policies affecting England or England and Wales only.

Should Alex Salmond have been allowed to participate in the second and third debates, which covered a number of matters not devolved, such as taxation, the deficit, defence, foreign affairs and immigration? The case for that is certainly stronger. But the fact of the matter is that these will be matters for the UK government, and the SNP are only fielding candidates in Scotland and therefore will be unable to form a government for the UK.

It must be acknowledged that in the event of a hung Parliament they may exercise some influence on these UK matters, but so will the DUP, the SDLP and Plaid Cymru, as will also the Greens and UKIP (should they obtain any seats) and Sinn Fein (in the unlikely event of them deciding to take up their seats). The remaining defining feature of the SNP is that they are in government in Scotland, albeit without a majority, but so are the DUP and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland (who are in a coalition government which does have a majority) and Plaid Cymru in Wales (who are in a coalition government with Labour). Should the SNP be allowed to appear while in government, but not if they cease to be after the 2011 elections? If so, the proposition is that the elections for the Scottish Parliament will determine the right to appear in debates on elections for the Westminster Parliament, which has its own logical dilemmas; and this appearance would clearly have to be accompanied by an appearance also by the leaders of the DUP, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru (should they want it). The DUP, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru did not seem to appear on Mr Linklater's radar however.

There is simply no easy answer to this. The BBC's holding of separate debates for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was a defensible one. Plainly however it will not satisfy some Scots, but it seems few things do.