Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Ruminations on the British election

Interesting times in my native land. Following the first televised leaders debate, the perennially hopeful Liberal Democrats have been catapulted to giddy heights in the polls, round about 30%. This is even higher than the ratings they enjoyed even back in the 80s, when they formed under the unhelpfully long-winded name of SDP-Liberal Alliance. Some polls put them ahead of Labour, behind the Conservatives, and a couple even put them out in front. Dizzy, crazy times.

Of course, it isn't as simple as that, as Britain is still lumbered with the monstrous First Past The Post electoral system, which tends to entrench the conservatives and Labour. Electoral maths means that Labour are now likely to be the biggest party, with the Libs as a coalition partner. It's a very strange thing, but an aggregate of about 60% of the voting population will likely produce a bare majority of seats.

if this comes to pass, the Tories are still in opposition. The David Cameron 'renewal' is brought to a juddering halt and - with no prospect of winning power under a PR electoral system - a civil war between the Clarkite wets who'll be at a disadvantage because something like their policies didn't win them this election) and those favouring a Long March To The Right all the Tories have got to look forwards to. John Redwood as the next Tory leader? Don't be surprised.

In coalition, the Lib Dems can not expect major concessions from Labour. On the economy, they'll get next to nothing - that's one area where Labour will try to retain total control. The Libs will get to play about with social policy and the environment, where their policies are closest to Labour's. The might be able to push this or that a bit further than Labour would, but essentially they'll be implementing their coalition partner's policies.

They will also - probably - manage to force Brown away from Alternative Vote to proper proportional representation, and the net result will probably be something akin to MMP. For some reason, the idea persists that STV is too complicated for the electorate. That in itself would be a satisfactory outcome for them, as it will serve them far better in the long term.

A Tory-Liberal coalition is a remote possibility, but it seems to be contrary to the wishes of the Lib Dem's supporters, and the electoral maths. Also, the Tories offer the Lib dems nothing that they can't get from Labour. Also, they are unlikely to get any give from the Tories on PR, or social issues, or the environment, where there is far more of a gap between them. And the Tories will fight much harder over every concession.

As for 'flipping,' bringing down a Labour government and then form,ing a new coalition with the Conservatives, that is even more unlikely. The Liberal Democrats are nothing if not patient. They've been working towards this for years. Now, their thinking has to be strategic, about the long term. If they behave like flakes, putting one party and then another into power within one parliament, they undermine their credentials as a stable centre party in future PR based elections, and confound their own argument that PR will improve democracy

A coalition with the Lib dems wouldn't serve the Tories, either. If they don't immediately collapse following effective defeat (if that happens, of course), they might relish an election based on 'stable, conservative values versus Lib-Lab flakiness.' They wouldn't have much to gain in forming a coalition with the Libs, and a lot to gain from another election in a couple of years time, with their two rivals discredited and tainted through their association with each other.

A few months ago the newspapers were full of stories about how - strategically - this election might be a 'Good one to lose' because of the economic problems. That's still the case, though the argument has weakened somewhat. Throw in some Lib Dem parliamentary flakiness, however, and a snap election in 2012 or 13 would be looking very good for the Tories, with the economy on the mend, Labour looking hopeless without coalition support, and the Lib-Dems a busted flush through opportunistically bring down the government. So if there is a coalition agreement, and the Lib Dems don't abide by it, and bring down the government in a fit of pique, they damage their own long term prospects and the case for PR. So it is unlikely they would do it, unless effectively forced to walk away.

If, on the other hand, they play fair and things fall apart through no fault of their own -say the coalition collapses over a 'moral fault line' such as an attack on Iran - a second election in a year or two might work quite nicely for the Lib Dems. It would certainly be better for them than trying to form a second coalition, with the Tories, within the life of the parliament. That would just make them look like power hungry opportunists. Which they are, of course, but they don't want to look like that ... A second election, following the demise of a Lib-Lab coalition, on the other hand, would give them a 'This is why we need real, decisive change in Britain's broken politics - Vote Lib Dem!!' platform.

I really think that talk of Lib Dem governments or even majority positions in coalitions is pure madness. The Lib Dems can't make much further inroads into the other parties 'embedded' support, or overturn the big majorities in the 'heartland' constituencies. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that people who have stuck with the Tories through 13 years of opposition - including the horrors of Hagueism, Duncan-Smithery and the Rocky Howard Picture Show aren't going to abandon the party because of a couple of TV debates. The soft support has gone, what's left is likely to be pretty solid.

The same applies to Labour, of course - anyone still saying they are going to vote Labour after 13 years of Blairism and Brownism is not the stuff of which floating voters are made.

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