Monday, May 10, 2010

The Electoral Reform Society

The ERS has published an interesting set of analyses about how Britain's political map would change under three main systems:

  1. First Past the Post (current system)
  2. Alternative Vote (PR for people who don't like change)
  3. Single Transferable Vote (The system the Tories told us would 'confuse the voters')

The plot thickens....

Well, the Prime Minister has announced he will stand down.  Nick Clegg and his team are now talking to the Labour Party.  The Tories are 'furious'.


Nick Clegg is probably right to hold talks with both parties, however I do not believe that we should do a deal with the Labour Party.


I hate myself for saying that.  I thoroughly despise the Conservatives and their values. BUT....


They are the largest party.  There are signs that the negotiations between the two parties have found enough common ground to put in place a programme for government that both parties can live with.  William Hague this evening has offered a referendum on PR - albeit on AV, not STV.


The Labour Party does not have enough seats to enter a coalition with ourselves and have a majority without the support of the nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  I fear the cost of their support may be too high - in the same way as most conservative voters probably see working with the Liberal Democrats as being too high a price to pay for a majority.  There are however three other important reasons that I believe we should not ally ourselves with Labour:

  1. Gordon Bruin has announced his intention to stand down in an honourable and statesman like way.  In doing so, he has cleared away some of the objections the Nick Clegg and his team have to working with Labour.  However, it means that we do not know WHO the Labour Prime Minister would be for months.  This is not a recipe for strong government and the markets would crucify the country if we did a deal under such circumstances.  Additionally I do not believe the electorate would forgive us for landing the country with another, unelected PM - especially if it was Harriet Harman!
  2. No overall majority - more than two parties in a marriage is usually not a recipe for success!
  3. PR - Labour have offered, so we are told, immediate legislation in the Commons to introduceAV, with a referendum to follow on full PR.  Now, I want PR - badly. Really. However, I do believe that this is a significant change to our constitution and the public I believe has the right to make the decision on whether the system should change.  Not politicians in a dark room somewhere hammering out a dodgy deal.  The country should have an open, honest debate on the merits of the different systems and make an informed choice, and that includes the introduction of AV.
There we are then.  In my last post I pointed out areas where I think the Liberal Democrats could work with the Conservatives without too much pain and grief.  Of course, such a coalition would only work if both sides deal with each other in good faith and work together without unnecessary backstabbing. Unhappily, I think it would be the best outcome for the UK as a whole.


I never thought I would say that.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Liberal Democrat dilemna

The outcome of the General Election has left the party in a significantly weaker position than forecast.

England has voted Conservative in sufficient numbers to almost deliver them a majority, however the Conservative failure to make progress across the UK that has led to them not being able to form a government.   If the Liberal Democrats do a deal with the Conservatives  they could be seen to be propping up an english government that is not representative of the United Kingdom as a whole.  We have strengths in Wales and Scotland that may add UK legitimacy to such a government, but may damage us electorally in the future.

However, I believe that we have a duty to the country as a whole to recognise that we have to try very hard to do a deal with the party that has the largest share of the vote.   The country will expect Nick Clegg to demonstrate that the country has nothing to fear from a hung parliament, and that whoever becomes Prime Minister, a strong decisive government that can tackle the systemic problems within the economy and the political system.

So, let's have a look at the Conservatives.  Where are the commonalities between the parties that could form the basis of a deal?

Education

Both parties agree that there should be increased funding for schoolchildren, but differ in application. 

Conservatives:  A focus on extra funding for headteachers in schools to take on children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  They want it to be easier for parents to set up their own schools.  Allow state schools to offer international exams e.g. IGCSE and International Baccalaureate.

Liberal Democrats:  A 'pupil premium' to be paid to enable smaller class sizes - reduction in class size to 20.  Abolition of university tuition fees when resources allow.

My view:  Education could potentially be an area in which the two parties could profitably collaberate.

Defense


Conservatives:  Unstinting support for Trident, and have ruled it out from the upcoming defense review.

 Liberal Democrats: Want a wide ranging review and consideration of a non-ICBM based solution.  The LDs' are anti-nuclear, having ruled out expanding the country's nuclear power industry.
My view:  the differences between the two parties are huge.  I can't see many areas of policy agreement.



Environment

My view:  A potential area of collaboration, though the Conservatives want to see a new generation of nuclear power stations to form the backbone of a 'low carbon' economy.  Agreement on blocking a third runway at Heathrow.  I personally think we need nuclear power stations, and do not see this as a potential deal breaker.  Potentially could help re-shape the british economy through the development of jobs in the nuclear industry, which would be a good thing.

Economy

Ouch!

Conservatives: 
  • Public sector pay freeze.
  • Revers 1% NI 'tax on jobs'
  • Inheritance tax threshold increase  to £1M
  • Married couples allowance
  • Immediate cuts totalling £6bn on unspecified waste
  • Identified £16 Bn  cuts in manifesto

Liberal Democrats:
  • Delay cuts in government spending to 2011-12 financial year
  • Reverse NI increase when deficit has been cut
  • £10,000 tax free threshold to be funded from the 'mansion tax'
  • Cap public sector pay increases to £400
  • Replace council tax with a local form of income tax - rejected by other main parties
  • Identified £20bn of cuts in manifesto

Both parties agree on the need to cut, and cut deep.  However, the underlying philosophy that drives the cuts is completely different.  Both parties are broadly libertarian and want to see a smaller state, however the Liberal Democrats are more focussed on efficient provision of public sector services as opposed to cutting services in order to contain costs, and placing increased responsibility upon the individual.

My view:  There are undoubtedly areas of agreement e.g. Scrapping ContactPoint and ID cards.  There are differences in approach on the troubled NHS IT schemes and other government IT projects.  However, I think the underlying philosophical differences about what to cut, where to cut and how will make co-operation unlikely.

Electoral Reform

Conservatives:
 Completely opposed to reform of the electoral system and favour first past the post, knowing that any form of proportional representation would reduce their chances of obtaining a majority of seats in the House of Commons on relatively low percentage of support. A 3.8% swing has seen an increase of 97 parliamentary seats! 
Reduce number of MPs' to 585
Cut MPs' pay by 5%
Make constituencies the same size (in terms of population)


Liberal Democrats: 
Commitment to changing the system to the Single Transferable Vote (STV).
Introduce fixed term parliament
Reduce number of MPs' to 500
Commitment to changing the voting system a pre-requisite for their support.

My view:

This is the deal breaker.  The majority of the Conservatives do not believe in changing the electoral system or see the need to change the House of Lords.  Even if David Cameron offered a referendum, I do not believe his party would support him. 

So, then their should be no deal with the Tories, right?

Well, I do not believe that we should do a deal with Labour. They have been defeated and even a tight coalition with the Liberal Democrats will not deliver a working majority.  Labour would still need to do potentially expensive deals with the nationalist parties to get their support in order to guarantee an overall majority.

Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats lost the case for change over the last week of the election.  The country does not support Liberal Democrat policies, and we lost seats - not increased our seat count.  IF we had captured another  10 - 15 seats, then the moral authority of the Liberal Democrats would be much greater.  However this did not happen.

We are unlikely to get electoral reform from the Conservatives, and it is possible that we will be condemned to minor party status for another generation if we support them.  We could also be punished electorally in the future for supporting the Conservatives; after all the Labour Party would be allowed to position themselves as the only natural opposition.  The electorate in England especially could see that a future vote for the Lib Dems would be a vote for Conservatives - so why not vote Conservative?

My honest view (and I am not happy with this) is that in the national interest we need to be seen to deal honestly with the Conservatives and try to  make a deal that will be in the best social and economic interests of the country by ameliorating the worst excesses of the right and influencing from within government.   That deal need not be formal - indeed it could be on a case by case basis.  However, if the Liberals are seen to be a single issue party and by default force another general election in the short term by voting against a Conservative Queen's speech ad budget, then I suspect that we will be punished electorally, and the system further polarised.  We could be set back a generation.

I cannot see how we can make a good deal with Labour.  They are even bigger losers in this election than we are.  A coalition between the two parties will not deliver a majority government.  Their would be the need to deal with the minor, nationalist parties who would demand preferential treatment; the cost of the 'pork' could be higher than anybody in the UK wants to pay.  The  only way I could support a deal with the Labour Party is if they guaranteed PR and  reform of the House of Lords through immediate legislation and then agree to go to the country to seek a new mandate within two years.  Can't see that happening.  Too much to do, and the electorate might well be frustrated that we are changing the electoral system as opposed to tackling the structural deficit in the economy.

The best thing I think we could do is to not formally agree to support either party.  Allow the Conservatives to form a minority administration as the largest party and negotiate bills through the House of Commons properly.  David Cameron would need to then produce bills that all parties could support, and that could be the best thing for our democracy.  Politicians talking, negotiating and trying to produce something based not on self-interest (no matter how enlightened). Who knows? The electorate may even choose to reward us for responsible, grown up behaviour!