• The Election the Parties Lost But the Country Won

    The general election of 2010 was the most complex, fascinating and important British election of modern times. In one sense, it was the election that no one won. In another – and perhaps more significantly – it may have been the first election of a new twenty-first century era in which Britain has at last come to terms with the end of empire and abandoned the pretension to a world role.

    For Labour, it was undeniably a defeat, but a defeat on a smaller scale than might have been expected, and one that at least suggests that there is another day to live for. The result should certainly lead to a clear-out of a leadership that led the party down a cul-de-sac and wasted the greatest opportunity offered to a potentially reforming government since the end of the Second World War. The shocking invasion of Iraq, the obeisance to the excesses of the City, the tolerance of widening and damaging inequality in British society, the complicity in torture, were betrayals of principle that were not easily forgiven. A leadership that chose to identify itself by claiming “Newness” cannot complain if the passage of time exacts its toll. Nothing is now more past its sell-by date than “New” Labour.

    For the Conservatives, the result was bitter-sweet. David Cameron is in Downing Street and heads a government in which Tories hold the great offices of state. But the failure to win a majority was a fatal blow to any belief that Britain was about to return to its Conservative roots. If the Tories could not command a majority after thirteen years of a discredited Labour government headed by a deeply unpopular leader and off the back of the most severe recession in seventy-five years, it is hard to see the new Tory-led government as anything more than a default option.

    The election result suggests, in other words, that Conservative Britain is no more. Something less than a quarter of all those eligible to vote cast their vote for a Tory government. David Cameron cannot rely, as his predecessors have done for so long, on a substantial bedrock of conservative sentiment. Even the Sun and Lord Ashcroft’s millions could not swing it this time. We can no longer assume that Conservative government is the rule and other options are the exceptions.

    This is not to say that the outlook for the Conservatives is necessarily bleak. All depends now on Cameron’s ability to construct a new Tory support base, and he does at least – in addressing that task – have the advantage of being in government. Apart from all the other difficulties faced by his government, however, the one most likely to undermine his efforts to re-build Conservative support will be the refusal of his colleagues to understand their true situation. Too many of them will mistake the electorate’s impatience to dismiss a discredited Labour administration as an enthusiasm for the return of a Tory government, and will blame Cameron’s reforming moderation for failing to deliver a Tory majority. They will not understand that the constraints placed by the voters on the new government are a reflection of Tory weakness which only an acknowledgment of that weakness can hope to remedy.

    For the Liberal Democrats, though, these are heady days. They may not, however, last long. The euphoria following Nick Clegg’s revelatory contribution to the first leaders’ television debate was short-lived and did not translate into votes and even less into seats. The elevation of the Liberal leader to the role of kingmaker was a function of the failure of the two larger parties to secure a majority rather than of any sudden transformation of the Liberal Democrats’ electoral fortunes.
    A Difficult Hand for the Lib Dems to Play

    The Lib Dems, however, will prefer to look to the present and future, rather than to the immediate past. For once, the electoral system has worked to their advantage. They have been dealt an exciting but difficult hand. All will now depend on how well that hand is played.

    The dangers are all too apparent. The relationship in government between two parties which have on the face of it little in common and one of which is six times bigger than the other, at least in terms of seats, will always be difficult. For the smaller party, there is a tricky line to walk between on the one hand pushing for too much and being slapped down by the larger partner, and on the other being so subservient as to lose any separate identity.

    It is in the nature of the political struggle that both parties, however well-intentioned they may be at the outset of the coalition agreement, will have a careful eye on the end game. For the Conservatives, the aim will be to keep the Lib Dems on side for as long as possible, so that the new Tory-led government can establish a record of responsibility and achievement, before going to the country with the plea that the time has come to dispense with the exigencies and limitations of coalition politics and to provide the larger party with a full mandate.

    The Lib Dems on the other hand will want to support the coalition arrangement for long enough to demonstrate their fitness of government while at the same time maintaining a sufficiently separate identity as to allow them eventually to appeal to the electorate as a viable alternative to their erstwhile partners. Whatever his current and no doubt genuine commitment to the newly struck deal, Nick Clegg will inevitably be looking for issues on which to strike a different posture from that of the Tories – and perhaps even an issue on which he would be able to end the agreement and ask the voters to say that he was right to do so.

    The Lib Dems will not accept a future for themselves as permanently junior partners in a succession of coalition arrangements. They will inevitably aim to offer the principal progressive alternative to the Tories, even if the Tories succeed in presenting themselves as reformed and moderate. Their long-term game plan, in other words must be to supplant Labour as the main alternative to Conservatism. That is why a coalition with the Tories, quite apart from the fact that they had the most votes and seats, was a better option than doing a deal with Labour. It will be easier to establish a distinctive identity by breaking with the Tories than it would have been with Labour.

    These differing pressures will of course be played out in a context determined not just by the two party leaders but by their supporters as well. Those hinterlands are populated by many who are nastier and tougher – more committed party warriors perhaps – than they are. Both leaders, in other words, will have to face in opposite directions at the same time – towards their coalition partners and to their own party ideologues. That Janus-like stance is sure to become more difficult as time goes by.
    Policy Issues for the Coalition Government

    All this is to say nothing of the genuine differences of principle and policy that induced Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to join different political parties in the first place. The coalition deal required both parties to abandon at the outset policy objectives and prescriptions that had been regarded in both cases as central to their differing stances. While many both within the Lib Dems and outside will welcome Nick Clegg’s abandonment of the anachronistic commitment to joining the euro-zone, those differences – over Europe, immigration, economic policy, tax and public services – will still be there.

    They will have to be negotiated in a context that is as difficult as any faced by any post-war government. The over-riding priority has to be the recovery from recession and the re-structuring of a British economy in serious and long-term imbalance. The immediate policy issue to be resolved is the response to be made to the government deficit – itself, ironically, the consequence of the massive failures of the private sector.

    The Conservatives will regard the size of that deficit as anathema and its reduction as the most urgent priority of the new government. There will be many Lib Dems, but perhaps not including Nick Clegg, who will want a more Keynesian approach, recognising the deficit not only as the price to be paid for past errors but as providing the essential breathing space to allow for a recovery that will be all the stronger if based on building rather than cutting; and the stronger the recovery, the quicker the deficit will come down. And the pain suffered mainly by the most vulnerable as a result of unnecessarily and ideologically driven deep and immediate cuts will not ease the path of either coalition partner to electoral success at the next election.

    While building a stronger and fairer British economy may top the list, there is a second objective of scarcely less importance – the restoration of faith in democratic politics and of Britain’s reputation in the world. Riding shotgun to George Bush’s out-of-control sheriff did enormous damage to our standing. A return to something like Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy” is desperately needed, but is likely to commend itself more to the Lib Dems than to the Tories.
    Electoral Reform – Is It Really A Game-Breaker?

    Many Lib Dems, however, will be ready to accept almost anything as long as they secure delivery of their central goal – electoral reform, which they have persuaded themselves will transform their prospects. The commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote may not, though, deliver that to them. Quite apart from the need to secure the legislation for a referendum, the Alternative Vote is not the most obvious or effective form of proportional representation and there is no guarantee that the voters would support it. And even if PR is achieved, the consequences for the Lib Dems may not be quite what they expect.

    The experience of New Zealand, which changed from first-past-the-post to a proportional system fourteen years ago, is that voters have a surprising ability to maintain the fundamental choice between a left-of-centre government and a right-of-centre government, even under a proportional system. PR may, in other words, mean that every vote gained because the Lib Dems are newly seen as serious contenders for power might be matched by the loss of a Lib Dem vote that had previously been cast as a form of protest. Fortunately for democracy, we know little about what determines the way people vote.

    This is not to say that there is not a good case for electoral reform. The New Zealand experience is again informative. The real significance of abandoning single-party government is the change that it brings to the process of government. The New Zealand experience of minority-led government has been that Ministers are constantly engaged in a process of negotiation; each piece of legislation, each major policy decision, has to be preceded by discussions to ensure that a parliamentary majority exists to support that particular measure.

    Curiously, this does not seem to have meant that the government’s programme is hopelessly delayed or frustrated. It has meant, at times of course, that legislation cannot be introduced until the necessary deals have been done, but the corollary is that the passage of more thoroughly prepared and carefully drafted legislation – once introduced – is smoother and takes less time. An even bigger plus is that the legislation – appealing as it must to a wider constituency than that represented by just one party – is often more soundly based and widely supported, with more of its contentious rough edges rounded off.

    The psychological change is also important. There is less of Quintin Hogg’s “elective dictatorship”. There is less obsession with doing down the opposition parties at every opportunity, since their support might be needed on the next item in the government’s programme. Governments are not only freer, but are required, to think more about broad-based positions than about the immediate party battle. There is a greater understanding of the value of broad public support and keeping in touch with public opinion. And Parliament itself is more widely representative of the range of opinion, and its members have a greater interest in and understanding of the processes and responsibilities of government.
    Welcome to the Twenty-First Century

    Perhaps the most significant long-term consequence of the 2010 general election, however, is that it may herald the demise of a dominating aspect of British politics for 200 years or more, the sense that in electing a British government we are also electing an administration that will play a significant role in governing the world. The oft-repeated need for “strong” government is in many ways a hangover from an imperial past when British education, public service and government were directed at providing able administrators to run large parts of the globe. Certainty and authority in decision-making were everything.

    But today, Britain’s role is as a medium-sized country which needs to focus on creating an effective, inclusive and prosperous democracy at home, rather than on wasting resources and energy on pretensions to a world role that is now beyond us. Other comparable countries, in Europe and elsewhere, have done very well without our particular obsession with “strong” (for which read “tribal”) single-party government and a winner-takes-all electoral system. A sustained experience of coalition government and a more representative Parliament, with all that that means in terms of inclusiveness, responsiveness and taking the wider view, might help us to that realisation.

    Bryan Gould

    15 May 2010.
    This article was published on the Newnations website www.newnations.com on 18 May

  • The Real Story of the 2010 Election

    Let us make some entirely plausible assumptions about the outcome of the general election. Let us assume that the Conservatives attract the largest share of votes, but fall short of a majority either of votes or of seats. Let us assume that Labour comes second or third in terms of the number of votes but might actually win the greatest number of seats, though still well short of a parliamentary majority. And finally let us assume that the Liberal Democrats score well – and perhaps substantially better than was expected at the outset of the campaign – in both votes and seats and, as a necessary consequence, hold the balance of power.

    The first issue will be for the Queen and her advisers. In such circumstances, who does Her Majesty ask to form a government? Do her advisers stick to precedent and advise that Gordon Brown, as the incumbent and commanding the greatest number of seats, should get the nod? Or do they pay attention to the pre-election assertion by Nick Clegg that, as a proponent of proportional representation, he would support only the Party leader who had gained the biggest share of the vote?

    I suspect that the advisers would initially stick to precedent and that Gordon Brown would be asked to give it a try. I further suspect that, unless he were prepared to give a guarantee of a referendum on electoral reform, his attempt would founder on Clegg’s determination to stick to his guns. The failed attempt could, however, take some time before the failure became definitive.

    The Queen would then ask David Cameron to form a government. He would seem to have a better chance of success, being able to argue that he had won the greatest share of votes. Nick Clegg would again try to extract a major commitment on electoral reform, but Cameron would refuse to accommodate him. Clegg would, however, be compelled, for fear of being accused of irresponsibility and of forcing a second and unwanted election on the country, to do some sort of deal to allow Cameron to form a government.

    That deal would probably fall short of a formal coalition but might take the form of an undertaking to support the new government on issues of confidence and supply. It might be time-limited, but whether or not the deal included any such formal provision, the issues of how long it might last and of the circumstances in which it might be brought to an end would constitute the real story of the 2010 general election.

    The parties to the deal, both Cameron and Clegg, would have clear but conflicting strategic objectives. Both could imagine scenarios which would greatly advance their parties’ interests.

    Cameron would hope to emulate the experience of other leaders of minority governments who had used the prestige of government to underpin their electoral appeal and to push on in a second election to achieve an overall majority. Harold Wilson pulled this trick off twice.

    But it might not be so easy this time. Cameron has to grapple with urgent and desperate issues. He either begins to deal with them effectively and accepts the pain that will inevitably attend such an enterprise, or he ducks the issues and is easily attacked as failing to attack the country’s all too obvious problems. A year or two into a new Tory government, and the voters could be – one way or another – badly disappointed. The honeymoon this time might be a very short one.

    For Nick Clegg, the issues are almost equally daunting. His task will be to pull the plug on the new government at a time when he won’t be accused of irresponsibility and of plunging the country into further electoral turmoil. He will want an issue which will, from both a position of principle and of prospective electoral advantage, allow him to go to the country as the alternative government. He will argue that while he had played his part in providing stable government he could no longer support a Tory-led administration that was heading down the wrong path. But his long-term objective would rest on the assertion that the Lib Dems were now the only party that could both defeat the Tories and form a stable majority government.

    It is now 100 years since Labour began its push to supplant the Liberals as the alternative to the Tories. The Conservatives, like the poor, are always with us (and some would argue that there is a causal connection between the two propositions). The perennial question in British politics is as to who will constitute the alternative. Today’s Liberals have their sights on the real possibility of reversing 100 years of history.

    Bryan Gould

    4 May 2010

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 5 May.

  • Joy In Heaven – A Sinner Repents

    When I left British politics in 1994, the Independent published a leading article in which, alongside some generous comments, they regretted my adherence to “Keynesian macroeconomics” and my “fervent Euro-scepticism”.

    I imagine that support for Keynesian macroeconomics does not seem as anachronistic today as it apparently did then. And, I would argue, my “Euro-scepticism” (which was so easily and wrongly translated into anti-Europeanism) should now more readily be recognised as all of a piece with the Keynesian view that keeping control of one’s own macroeconomic policy, rather than handing it over to an unaccountable international central bank, was an important safeguard against recession.

    I was reminded of all of this by last week’s Financial Times piece by the veteran economics commentator Sam Brittan. He argued that the introduction of the euro had been premature, and that the plight of Greece (and perhaps of other euro-zone states to follow) was a direct consequence of failing to recognise that a common currency could succeed only if there was a convergence of costs across the whole economy – and if the common currency helped towards, rather than hindered, that end.

    Sam Brittan’s current view is of course in marked contrast to what he thought and wrote on many previous occasions. I recall that, in 1988, when Britain’s membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism – the euro’s precursor – was a live issue in the Labour Party, Sam Brittan spoke at a meeting of the party’s backbench economic affairs committee, and advised my colleagues to “put Bryan Gould on a slow boat to China” while the party changed its policy in favour of supporting ERM membership.

    Since Keynes is now once again all the rage, Sam Brittan is entitled to quote the great man’s famous response that “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?” The problem here is that it is not the facts that have changed; it is the minds that were wrong. The arguments against a common currency across such a wide and diverse set of individual economies were as strong in 1988 as they apparently have now become.

    The essence of the case for the euro (and of the EMS and the ERM before it) was always a political one. A common currency can only work and make sense if the whole economy is subject to one central monetary policy which must supplant other elements, such as a national fiscal policy, that would ordinarily constitute macro-economic policy. In a democracy, a power of this kind could only be properly exercised by a democratically accountable government. The unstated conviction of the proponents of a single European super-state was that this logic would mean that a common currency would inexorably lead to the creation of a single European government to provide at least the illusion of democratic control over what would otherwise be government by central bank..

    The economic consequences of such an arrangement pointed to the same outcome. The improbability of the whole of such a diverse economy being appropriately served by a single monetary policy was so great that it could only be contemplated if a sort of Faustian bargain were struck by the participants.

    The powerful advanced economies would inevitably dominate monetary policy which would be framed to suit their interests; and that would mean that weaker economies would have great difficulty in living with it. In the absence of the ability to deploy an independent fiscal policy or to devalue, their only recourse would be to deflate and accept unemployment. They could be persuaded to accept this only if the stronger countries would implicitly undertake to treat them as – in effect -social security claimants and recipients of regional aid, and that could be made palatable to the taxpayers of the richer countries only if they could be induced to see those in poorer countries as fellow-citizens.

    That bargain has now – as evidenced by the difficulties that Greece and their euro-partners are facing and failing to resolve – broken down. The Greeks, having long struggled with an inappropriate monetary policy, are finding the required deflation extremely painful; while the Germans have reneged on their implicit undertaking to maintain the integrity of the euro by bailing out countries that find the going tough.

    The collapse of that bargain may well signal the end of the euro-zone. But it should also sound an alarm. We ignore the importance of a broader-based, democratically accountable, properly focused macroeconomic policy at our peril. The economic interests of a wider European economy – to say nothing of small matters like a functioning democracy – will be best served, not by a forced but failed attempt at convergence through a single monetary policy, but by country-sized governments deploying all the instruments of macro policy to suit the needs and interests of the economies for which they are responsible. The European dimension should rest mainly on a high and growing level of co-ordination of policy and functional cooperation among separate and well-performing economies which see their future as developing together.

    Keynesian macroeconomics and a scepticism about forcing the pace on creating a single European state and economy should be seen as going hand in hand. As we now know, a failure to learn the lessons threatens recession and drags down all parts of an artificially constructed single economy. Hopefully, that has now become clear; and it might have served us well if it had been recognised in 1994.

    Bryan Gould

    25 February 2010

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 27 February.

  • A False Dichotomy

    Nothing better illustrates Labour’s current malaise than the reported difficulty the leadership group is having in agreeing on a strategy for an election that is now only a few months away.

    Some, we are told, including most of the “New” Labour veterans, favour a direct pitch for middle-class support, with plentiful assurances that the Party’s leaders come themselves from “comfortable” backgrounds. Others recommend a focus on Labour’s “core vote” in a belated attempt to re-assert the Party’s traditional values and priorities.

    Neither group seems to doubt that this is an unavoidable dichotomy. Just as the Blair/Brown schism is seen as essentially unbridgeable, so this dispute seems to reveal a deep fault-line in the Party’s thinking. After thirteen years in government, and nearer sixteen years with the current leadership group, it is surprising that this is the best that can be done.

    It is hard, after all, to see that either strategy offers much prospect of electoral success. First, the notion that “we are all middle-class now” is hardly new. It has been the leit-motiv of New Labour since its inception. If the aim is to re-enthuse the voters, the strategy seems to lack a certain sense of excitement or breath of fresh air. “Vote for us and we’ll go on doing what is perceived to have failed” is not much of a rallying cry.

    It also commits the cardinal sin in political strategising of allowing one’s opponents to frame the debate. The American specialist in cognitive science and linguistics, George Lakoff, is clear that to adopt the opponent’s language is to concede the debate. In a contest as to which party is more likely to put middle-class lifestyles, privileges, and values ahead of anything else, especially off the back of recession, there will only be one winner.

    There is not much better to be said for the rival strategy. Labour’s “core vote” is now a sadly wasted asset – one of the consequences of ignoring it for the past sixteen years. It is unlikely to be revived by a quick and short-lived about-face by Labour’s spin doctors. And it is in any case a defensive strategy designed only to limit losses – a strategy that, by abandoning a large part of the battlefield to the enemy, necessarily concedes defeat in advance.

    If Labour cannot do better than this, they deserve to lose. The inevitable burden of cumulative disappointments after thirteen year of government, to say nothing of egregious errors like the Iraq War and a recession engendered by a sustained obeisance to the City, will not be overcome if Labour’s much-touted strategists do not come up with something more intelligent and imaginative – and more optimistic.

    The perceived dichotomy in electoral strategy must be rejected as a chimera. There is no success for Labour in either restricting itself to the “core vote” or in ignoring it by manifestly adopting other priorities. Labour strategy has always required a successful effort to persuade a sizeable slice of the more affluent that they will be better off, both materially and in other ways, under a government that accepts as one of its priorities that it should look after the less advantaged.

    The argument should be that both the economy and society will function better if everyone has a chance to make a positive contribution. Excellent public services will produce a better educated, better housed and healthier workforce, better able to take the jobs that full employment will make available. Running the economy in the interests of the whole workforce, and not just City fat cats, will boost output and productivity and increase the resources that can be invested in our economic future. Investing in new skills and technology, and in the development of new products and markets, will in turn lay the foundations for an inclusive prosperity in which all can share.

    An economy run like this would produce a stronger and better integrated society, no longer riven by division, no longer weakened by a disadvantaged underclass that increasingly sees the only way out being achieved through crime, drugs, gambling and prostitution. Even the most purblind defender of middle-class privilege might be persuaded to recognise the benefits of living in a healthier and more inclusive society.

    A message like this might sound impossibly idealistic, but would this necessarily be a bad thing? To set a course that at least aims at something better is more constructive, more likely to enthuse, than constantly triangulating for supposed electoral advantage. Labour should not, in other words, allow itself to be forced to choose between its “core vote” and middle-class support. The two are perfectly compatible, and to act with that conviction offers Labour’s best hope for the forthcoming election.

    Bryan Gould

    19 January 2010

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 20 January.

  • Labour’s Coup

    The most disturbing aspect of Labour’s latest attempted and abortive coup is neither that it took place nor that it failed. It is the level of incompetence, self-interest and self-delusion in Labour’s ranks that it reveals.

    The latest damp squib reflects little credit on any of those involved. The self-designated coup leaders in 2010 showed as little aptitude for conspiracy as their predecessors did in 2009. They appear to have had no alternative policy programme, no leader-in-waiting ready to take over. They had not, in other words, made the slightest attempt to ensure the success of their venture. They seem to have launched their bid to unseat Gordon Brown on the basis of no more than disappointed personal ambition.

    Those, including Cabinet members, who apparently promised support and then chickened out when the chips were down deserve even less credit. Each of these ersatz soldiers presumably made their own calculations as to where personal advantage might lie. If the coup were to succeed, they would each wish to be on the winning side; but no one of them was prepared to take the risk of putting their heads above their parapet until hostilities had been successfully concluded.

    The next group deserve little better. These are the senior parliamentarians who decided, after careful calculation, that the attempted coup was led by amateurs, and that it suited their interests to show their belated and conditional loyalty to a leader who looked likely to survive only as long as he was hooked up to a life support machine. Each of them, after careful consideration lasting many hours, succeeded in the difficult task of drafting statements that expressed the minimum degree of support needed to keep the life support machine ticking over for a few more weeks or months. They remain ready and eager to switch off the machine as soon as it suits them.

    The usual suspects – the serial plotters – played their usual ineffectual role. They remained available as foot soldiers to any general, or at least subaltern, who cared to raise the standard of revolt. But they lacked any firepower of their own and seemed to have little idea of where or how to get any. Constant exercises on the parade ground proved of little value when and if real hostilities threatened to begin.

    But perhaps the most culpable group are those who soldier on, prepared to change nothing, unwilling to risk anything, ready to accept inevitable defeat, as long as they can prolong their own tenure and cling on to their seats for as long as possible. These are the MPs who have lost faith in the Labour government and who will either not stand again or will throw themselves on the mercy of the voters and hope that they have a better view of that government than they have themselves.

    What attitude should be taken by Labour MPs? The first step is to wake up – to realise that the voters’ judgment in the next few months will be made of Labour’s total record in government under both Blair and Brown, and their sense of where a re-elected Labour government might take them. That judgment would be only marginally affected by a last-minute change of leader, even if it could be arranged, especially when no credible candidate currently presents himself or herself. And what serious leadership candidate would willingly step forward at this point to carry the can for election defeat when a new start would be available after Gordon Brown has lost the election?

    The next step is to rally behind the leader so as to present a united front and minimise the damage inflicted by election defeat. The success of the election campaign should be judged according to how well – and how much of – Labour survives. The priority is to live to fight another day. There are never any final battles in politics. And – taking the most optimistic view – if a miracle is available, it may be best achieved when it is least expected.

    After the election, there must be a genuine contest for the leadership – no more coronations – and an acknowledgment and re-appraisal of the mistakes made in government. The goal should be a renewal of Labour, with a new programme that is true to Labour’s values but is also attuned to the aspirations of Labour supporters, both actual and potential. The “newness” in each of these senses should abjure the capital “N” that has now run its course.

    It may be too much to expect Labour MPs to take the long view when election defeat stares them in the face. But a frenetic obsession with the short-term will only make matters worse. Gordon Brown’s duty now is not to promise an improbable election victory, but to ensure that his troops face the coming battle as a disciplined and united force, so that they leave the battlefield – victorious or otherwise – in good order.

    Bryan Gould

    7 January 2010

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 7 January.