Saturday, 8 May 2010

Bidding for Number Ten

Prime Political Objective: The door to No. 10 Downing Street, official residence of the UK Prime Minister.

SPARE A THOUGHT for poor Nick Clegg, the Liberal-Democrat party leader standing in the eye of the UK’s political hurricane. Only he commands the numbers necessary to resolve the parliamentary impasse served up by a frustrated and anxious UK electorate. Only he has the power to keep Labour’s Gordon Brown in office or hand over the keys to No.10 Downing Street to the Conservative Party’s David Cameron.

What will he do?

The smart money will be on Clegg deciding to throw in his lot with the Tories. This is certainly the decision the UK Establishment is hoping for.

A Tory-Lib-Dem accommodation is the only option which guarantees a clear parliamentary majority – something which the City of London, beset with deepening fears of financial collapse across the whole of the Eurozone, is desperate to secure in the shortest possible time.

In this they can count upon the wholesale support of the right-wing press, which will, no doubt, bombard the Liberal-Democrat leader with screaming headlines and trenchant editorials urging him to "do the right thing" by putting country ahead of party.

Away from all the cameras and tape-recorders, the UK’s "permanent government" of senior civil servants will be doing some bombarding of their own.

Clegg will be given confidential briefings on the looming financial crisis. He will be told how exposed the UK economy is to financial speculation and capital flight. He will be warned in no uncertain terms how extremely "destabilising" a ramshackle, cobbled-together, electorally battered Labour-Lib-Dem Government – supported by a motley collection of nationalist parties from the "Celtic fringe" – would be to the UK’s fragile economy.

Deploying their time-tested strategies of fawning flattery, high-minded exhortation and Machiavellian manoeuvring (all so brilliantly illustrated in the Yes Minister TV series) the "Men from Whitehall" will bend all their powers to trussing-up Clegg in the sticky webs of the UK state apparatus.

There will, of course, be all manner of threats and promises mixed in with the flattery and exhortation. The Good and the Great will subtly let him know how very generous the State can be to those who put "the wider interests of the country" before "petty, personal ambitions" at a time of "national crisis". He will also learn what long arms and sharp teeth the State possesses when it comes to settling scores with its enemies.

And, waiting in reserve, behind all the tinted glass and drawn curtains; the closed doors and smoke-free rooms; stands the ultimate appeal to duty and fealty – Her Britannic Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Few Englishmen possess the political fortitude to withstand a direct appeal from the Crown. And make no mistake, if the UK Establishment senses that Clegg is seriously considering throwing in his lot with the Centre-Left, then somehow it will find a way of bringing "the Palace" into the equation.

Men like Lord Ashcroft, who has poured millions into the far-Right’s quest for a Tory government, has a very substantial stake in the outcome of the horse-trading which the voters have forced upon his party and its allies. He knows that, by any dispassionate reckoning, the Liberal-Democrats have only one plausible bargaining strategy. They must secure the immediate introduction of proportional representation.

Without PR Clegg is doomed to repeat the experiences of his predecessors Jeremy Thorpe and Paddy Ashdown, and his party will be forced to wait for the best part of another generation before it again gets the chance to reform fundamentally the UK’s manifestly inadequate and anti-democratic electoral system.

But Ashcroft and his allies also know that if such a deal is done, then the UK Right will find it next-to-impossible to ever again win power. Between them Labour and the Lib-Dems represent a clear majority of the UK electorate. An electoral system that allocated parliamentary seats on the basis of the popular vote would condemn the Right to almost permanent opposition.

This, after all, was the fate to which FPP condemned the UK Centre-Left for the best part of a century. The splitting of the anti-Conservative vote between Labour and the Liberals kept the Tories in government for 56 of the 75 years between 1922 and 1997 – and this in spite of the fact that, in all that time, the Conservative Party only once (1931) succeeded in winning more than 50 percent of the popular vote.

The Conservative Party and its right-wing allies will do everything within their power to dissuade Clegg from doing the one and only thing likely to secure his own and his party’s political survival. Sadly, he does not come across as the sort of politician to withstand the pressures that will be applied to him. The odds are, therefore, very high that he will succumb to the blandishments of the UK Establishment.

To Murdoch headlines screaming "We agree with Nick", Clegg will hand the keys of No.10 to Cameron and become indelibly stained by the brutal retrenchment the Tories he has helped into power are bound to unleash. Very much sooner than he might wish, he will find himself enjoying a comfortable and well-remunerated retirement – and his party will be reduced to a smouldering political ruin.

But if Clegg doesn’t buckle, if he stands firm? Well, that'll be the moment UK politics gets really interesting!


Victor said...

An interesting and perceptive piece. As a former member of the UK Liberal Party, my heart and sense of history tell me you're right. But, as to my head, I'm not entirely sure.

As far as electoral reform is concerned, what Brown is offering is rather short of true proportional representation.

Moreover, from the Lib Dem point of view, there's not all that much to be gained from PR at this precise stage, if the price you pay is seeing your share of the popular vote decline at the next election to(say)15% or even 10%, as a result of backing a highly unpopular PM, who is viewed as hanging onto power illegitimately.

The counter argument is, of course, that too close an association with the Tories will implicate the Lib Dems in what is likely to be a highly unpopular spate of public service cuts.

If he is able to, Nick may therefore be best advised to go for the loosest possible supply and confidence arrangements with the Tories. Either way, he is on the horns of a huge dilemma and has my sympathy.

One condition he could seek might be a referendum on PR, with the Tories free to campaign against it. Another might be lower income group tax cuts to partially compensate for cuts to statutory services.

However, I can't see Cameron giving ground on either of these, unless Nick is prepared to hard ball, which might not be part of the skill set learned at the College d'Europe in Bruges.

Some Lib Dems will, of course, see little to choose between the Tories and the party of Bliar and Brown, with the likes of Milliband waiting in the wings.

'Don't mention the War' has been one of the motifs of this election, despite the hundreds of thousands needlessly slain in a conflict supported by both the two larger parties.

At the same time, inequalities of wealth have mushroomed even more under Nu Labour than under Thatcher. I see no reason to think this pattern would be reversed if Brown was able to hold onto power, although, clearly, things would be even worse under the Tories.

That's a big difference between now and previous occasions when the Liberals have held the balance of power and when both they and Labour could claim, with varying degrees of credibility, to be spear-carriers for that prickly, conscience-ridden beast, English Radicalism.

It's all pretty dismal and the only good news from the UK at the moment is that Spurs are through to the Champions League.

Jake Q said...

Great post Chris!

Anonymous said...

You can't be serious, Chris. Britian is creaking and floundering under 13 years of Labour rule. The electorate have strongly rejected Brown and Labour, they have taken a huge dressing-down. If Clegg does a deal with Brown then that would be against the nature of democracy and a slap in the face to ordinary, voting, trusting Britons. Come on, call it as it is, call a spade a bloody shovel.


Chris Trotter said...

The "bloody shovel", Anonymous, is that more than half of the active British electorate voted against the Tories.

The only democratic solution involves one or t'other of the major parties "cutting a deal" with one or more of the minor parties.

A party with 36.1 percent of the popular vote has no moral mandate to govern the UK.

The "most votes" does not equal "the majority of votes".

The Government will be formed by the party or parties who can win a Vote of Confidence on the floor of the House of Commons. That is the British constitution - and all the huffing and puffing of the Tories and their friends can't alter the fact.

peterquixote said...

Nonsense Chris, you are banned from writing about politic.
UK Government will be Tory.
Gordon Brown made the fatal Obama mistake of printing money to pay banks.
With the new UK Tory PM will be an floating alliance with poofter weakling Lib Democrat and more importantly 8 seats from solid Irish Unionist votes .
Also Welsh unionism Plaid is cosnsidering its position.

Chris Trotter said...

Ummm, if the UK government includes the "poofter weakling Lib Democrats" it won't be "Tory" will it, Peter?

Oh, and BTW, the votes of the DUP and the Welsh nationalists aren't enough, on their own, to give the Tories a majority.

The very first thing you have to learn in politics, Peter, is how to count.

Victor said...


You are right about the constitution. But, on my wholly unscientific reading of the situation
(surfing the web, chats with friends in the UK) there seems to be a broadly-based perception emerging that the Tories have more or less won. Perception has a tendency to become reality.

They have certainly done well for themselves, picking up nearly a hundred seats (mainly from Labour). They are also the majority party in England by a country mile.

I therefore think the Lib Dems had an obligation to talk to the Tories first. If they hadn't, they would have been seen by many to be frustrating the workings of Democracy and to be keeping the personally unpopular Brown in power illegitimately. The result could have been a wipe-out at the next election (which could be just a few months away).

Nick Clegg is in the unfortunate position of having to do some sort of deal (however loose) with somebody.

David Cameron, meanwhile, has to do his utmost to form a government if he is not to be replaced by someone more to the liking of Lord Tebbit. He may actually be counting on the Lib Dems to act as a balance to his own wholly ghastly right wing, many of whom seem to prefer going it alone as a minority government.

Only Labour has the luxury of being able to lose, distance itself from the disasterous Bliar/Brown legacy and escape the obloquy of the austerity measures to come. That might be its best bet in the current circumstances.

The alternative would be a multi-party arrangement,including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP, the Alliance and the newly-elected Green member as well as Labour and the Lib Dems.

Seeing that 'Celtic Fringe' parties aren't, by convention, meant to vote on English domestic issues any more, this wouldn't be a very effective coalition. And it certainly wouldn't be very stable either.

If Labour is able to purge itself in opposition, it might actually be a worthwhile ally for the Lib Dems in a genuine 'Progressive Coalition'. And, then, the hopeful scenarios of which you write, may be realised. But we're not there yet.

Meanwhile, Labour will have to come up with a better electoral system than AV, if it wants to remove the dead hand of Tory-dominated duopoly that has plagued Britain since the 1920s.

Chris Trotter said...

All very useful observations, Victor, but the hard fact remains. If the Lib-Dems agree to prop up a Tory government (and that is what they will be seen to be doing - even if the Tories try to go it alone) they will be punished electorally.

Constitutionally, if Brown does not resign, and neither the Tories nor Labour can strike a deal with Clegg, the Lib-Dems will have to either abstain, or vote down, the Queen's Speech - thereby freeing the Queen to call upon Mr Cameron to form a government.

The Queen's Speech must be presented to Parliament no later than 18 May.

Carol said...

Victor, maybe it depends on who your friends are in the UK. Mine see the election result as a left victory over the Tories: ie Lib Dem plus Labour are the block with the biggest amount of votes.

I know people on the left who are fed up with Labour, but the Tories are seen as the greater evil. So they had difficult choices to make. Some held their noses and voted Labour even though they would have preferred to vote for a smaller left-wing party. And I have seen stats that show 1 in 4 people in Britain voted for a party other than the Tories or Labour.

Many people don't vote because of the limited choices on offer. When a third party was thrown into the potential governing mix, more people voted, the electorate was energised.

The fact is that, this is the government the Tories "should" have won, given the disaffection with Labour, and the great support they had from the mainstream media. That they couldn't win an outright majority in these circumstances, shows they really don't have a mandate to govern. In effect they lost.

The Tories also have NO mandate to govern in Scotland or Wales. They were resoundly beaten there.

This is a country, or 'federation' of countries, crying out for a fairer electoral system and government that will more accurately represent the preferences of the majority of people.

As Chris so eleoquently shows, there are powerful interests at work, manipulating the system so that this undemocratic elite continues to rule. Meanwhile large sections of the population are continually frustrated by the way they lack real representation in government.

Victor said...

Yes Chris

I agree. Holding the balance of power in the current situation is a pyrrhic victory for the Lib Dems.

One way or another, they are going to shed support, probably ending their latest revival.

The question, from the Lib Dem point of view, is therefore which path is the lesser of the two evils. In terms of electoral consequences, it's probable that confidence and supply for a Tory administration would be the least bad choice.

Of course, their ranks contain a legion of Don Quixotes, which is why you can't yet rule out a revolt against this dismal prospect.

Labour, meanwhile, could change the game by making a thorough commitment to genuine PR, irrespective of whether the Lib Dems support them. But I don't see that happening

Slogan of the day: "I'm glad I'm not Nick!"

Carol said...

I kind of agree with both Chris and Victor on the direction things might go. What makes it interesting to me, is that it seems that the UK is going through some kind of political, economic and maybe social upheaval. This maybe equivalent to shifts in the mid-70s, which ultimately delivered the shift to neoliberalism in the 80s and beyond. I have no real idea of where the current situation will lead.

I tend to agree that it would maybe be best for Nick Clegg to either do a minimal Confidence and Supply deal with Cameron, or stand back and let the Tories try to form a minority government. Then Labour could have a bit of time to re-form and, hopefully change direction, with another election before too long.

However, at heart, I want the Lib Dems & Labour, plus some minor parties, to make agreements that allow a Labour-led government. This would require Brown saying he will step down in the near future, and making a REAL commitment to establish Proportional Representation. Though it looks to me that Brown and some of the senior Labour MPs will not be flexible enough to allow this.

I also think there's a chance of unrest in the streets if many people in the population feel the chance of a change has been stifled. Meanwhile the economic problems in Europe could also fuel unrest.
Chris, do you think the situation in the UK shows that FPP is now too out of step with British society, and that there will be electoral disorder now until the system is changed? Is it a similar situation to when NZ switched to MMP? (I wasn’t in NZ then). And do you think there any significance in the fact that the mainstream media was unable to deliver a decisive Tory majority? i.e., their influence isn’t as strong as in the past?

Chris Trotter said...

From this distance, Carol, it's difficult to predict exactly how things will go.

What is very clear, however, is that conventional politics have become, as you say, "disordered".

This may not last, but if it continues history suggests that normally solid institutional and political boundaries will begin to dissolve.

When that happens it can, indeed, lead to rioting in the streets - and very quickly.

At that point, all bets are off.

Anonymous said...

Why can Lefties never admid defeat? The Conservatives trumped Labour, it's just the FPP electoral system that hides this. Britian will go right, though, or is forever doomed to crime and poverty.

Righter, is my name

Victor said...


You are entirely wrong. FPP magnifies rather than diminishes the share of seats going to the party with most votes. That's why we got rid of it in New Zealand


I obviously agree with you that what you learn from friends about attitudes in the UK depends on who your friends are.

I would, however, add that I wasn't asking my mates for their views on who they would like to have won (I knew that already)but on how they read the public pulse.

I also agree with you that the Tories did badly in comparison with expectations prior to the first TV debate. But they picked up thereafter, though not well enough to recover all the ground they had lost.

I have no doubt that, without Nick Clegg's superb performance in the first debate, David Cameron would now be forming a majority government.

By the time the second debate came along, Brown and Cameron had both focussed their minds on the Lib Dems' vulnerabilities and exploited them reasonably effectively.

Nick didn't do as well second and third time around. Moreover the Tory press was busy doing what it normally does but, this time round, with the Lib Dems as co-equal targets with Labour.

And so the classic British electoral fear factor set in. The tribes went back to their traditional loyalties and 'Third Party Squeeze' took over, albeit rather belatedly.

Both you and Chris seem to see this election as a game-changer. In one obvious sense it is. Britain has a hung parliament.

It's also certainly a game-changer in that it's almost bound to end in a change of government.

But I don't think it's a game-changer in the bigger sense of destroying the Tory-Labour duopoly.

This is firstly because there's nothing new about approximately one in four Brits voting for a third party.

The Lib Dems alone got 17.8 percent of the popular vote as far back as 1992 and have been edging up ever since, reaching 22.1 percent in 2005. The surprise was that they didn't do a lot better this time.

Secondly, the public, for the first time ever in the television age, had ample opportunity to learn about Lib Dem policies and (painful though it is for me to admit this) did not seem to like what they heard.

Lib Dem views on immigration, defence and European integration are are all broadly consistent with Liberal policies from the 1950s and 1960s and are part of the party's essence. But they run directly counter to the sentiments of the majority of voters.

So OK, Murdoch et al have had a role in creating and fanning these sentiments. But that doesn't alter the fact that Lib Dem policies are inherently unpopular, however much voters might like young Nick.

Finally, the electoral map of Britain looks more or less as it did through most of the twentieth century.

Labour dominates London, the industrial North/Midlands, South Wales and most of lowland Scotland. Nationalists of one hue or another hover around the fringes. Liberals are thick on the ground in the South West and in various rogue boroughs, whilst the rest is Tory.

I continue to hope for a real game-changer election. But, despite the hopes raised a few weeks ago, this is not it.

And, until the real game changer occurs, the Lib Dems have to survive and influence policy as best they can. It's a genuinely tough call working out how best to achieve these goals given the weak hand they've been granted this time around.

Just remember, though, however much many of them dislike the Tories, they're not in politics to be Labour's lobby fodder either.

Gosman said...

"A party with 36.1 percent of the popular vote has no moral mandate to govern the UK."


Ummmmm.... Chris pray tell what was the share of the vote that the British Labour party got at the 2005 election?

I'll give you a little hint. It was less than 36.1 %

Did you make the same comment then in any opinion piece? I suspect not somehow.

Victor said...

And, this morning, all the 'isms' may be turning into 'wasms'. So let's see what happens.

Chris Trotter said...

To Gosman:

Had the 2005 election produced a hung parliament, as the one just past has done, I would have been just as loud in my condemnation of Labour - had it tried to claim the right to govern purely on the basis of having won more votes than anybody else - as I have been of the Tories.

Constitutionally, of course, Labour had every right to form a government in 2005, because in spite of having won just 35 percent of the vote, it commanded a clear majority of the seats.

The British people accepted that result without demur - something they're nowhere near as willing to do this time 'round.

The voting public are a strange lot.

Gosman said...

Then perhaps you should have stated originally 'A party with 36.1 percent of the popular vote AND where a hung parliament exists after an election, has no moral mandate to govern the UK'.

Then there would have been no misunderstanding on your exact meaning or thoughts that maybe your views on moral mandates were biased by your political leanings ;-)

Olwyn said...

Something I take heart from is that the Crosby Textor model seems to be wearing a little thin, and that the Murdoch press have shown themselves to have less control of the public narrative than they like to think. If the combination of money, PR and media noise had achieved all they set out to, Cameron would have gained a landslide victory against two broke parties, but instead finds himself brokering a deal with one of them.

Victor said...

Something else to take heart from is that, as long as the Lib Dems are in the government, Britain is unlikely to be a party of some reprise of the Iraq war (e.g. over Iran).

Carol said...

Thanks, Chris for your answer to my questions. I guess I was looking for some kind of certainty for the future... and some hope for the left.

Chris said:
"This may not last, but if it continues history suggests that normally solid institutional and political boundaries will begin to dissolve"

So, IMO it's now looking like the Lib Dem centre & right will get absorbed into the Tory Party, resulting in a more centre-right party.

Hopefully this will leave space open for Labour to re-claim the left and re-connect with the grass-roots - become more democratic than it became under Bliar, and more open to negotiating between various left factions. There clearly is a majority who favour a left government of some sort in the UK.

So far, Ed Miliband looks like the most promising left candidate for a new leader and a bit of a shift away from the Bliar camp. Hopefully there will be one or two more new faces surface as left contenders in the leadership contest.

Victor said...


You may well be right. I think that Cameron wants to occupy a more centre-right position (i.e. the same position the Tory mainstream held before its Thatcherite regression). To be fair to Old Etonians, they tend to be more liberal than the average run of Tory.

It's useful for him to have the Lib Dems in government to balance off the Thatcherite majority in his own party. He might also succeed in killing the Lib Dems (as a party) with kindness. In any event, he clearly intends to bestride the middle ground for many years ahead, ultimately reducing the Lib Dems to irrelevance.

The Lib Dems, however, are probably calculating that five years in office as a junior partner will turn them into a responsible party of government in the eyes of the voters. That formula worked for the SPD in Germany in the 1960s.

The problem with this approach will be all those Lib Dem voters who feel betrayed by what they see as a volte face. In addition, the Lib Dems aren't going to get anything more than AV from the Tories. Nor, I suspect, would they have got much more from Labour, at the end of the day. This means they're not going to break clear of 'Third Party Squeeze'

Labour now has the chance to reconstitute itself as a genuine radical party. That involves totally purging itself of the heritage of Blair and Brown, without regressing into either an extreme left-wing sect or the political wing of the Unions. A genuine left social democratic party, committed to both liberty and equality, would attract many disaffected Lib Dems.

Chris Trotter said...

Victor, I'm pretty sure your thinking of the Free Democrats - not the SPD (which is the Social Democratic Party).

And, what else would "a genuine left social democratic party" be - if not "the political wing of the Unions"? ;-)

Carol said...

In retrospect I’m not certain that the Tory press & media in England failed to totally manipulate the voters to deliver a decisive Tory party majority. Maybe the conservative media were a little uncertain about whether to totally support Cameron, or to cheerlead for give the ‘new’ boy (Clegg). Ultimately they may continue to get behind the new-look Tory-Lib Dem coalition at make it the new Tory party.

Victor, I agree with much of your analysis, however, on where the left goes from here & the union issue: In my personal memory of events, Thatcher’s attack on the left was a multi-pronged strategy whereby both the unions and Britain’s industrial sector were jointly undermined. Along with that came attacks on the grassroots left networks in metropolitan areas, like London, partly by disbanding the GLC. The “City” in London was promoted as a major financial sector, making this the driver of the British economy rather than industry, and the mainstream media was gradually shifted to largely become a cheerleader and indirect mouthpiece for Thatcher’s government – this through manoeuvring to get sympathetic editors and others in key media positions.

Bliar succeeded by largely buying into this system, and it seems to me this is what Labour now needs to cut itself loose from. It does have a sympathetic electoral majority, and the potential to re-connect with Labour party members and supporters who were appalled and frustrated with the authoritarian Bliarite turn.

But it surely would require a return to a “real” economy, based in industrial production (one now informed by environmental/green concerns). And with that would come a re-connect with union support. Thatcher knew well that a lot of the left’s political strength lay in its connections with the collective support generated by the unions. That is why she so determinedly set out to break them, and why the right-wing media continually tries to smear them in demonic terms. I have bitter memories of this, having actively participated in a long series of actions from the teacher’s union, only to see it frequently gain, little or no coverage in the press, in spite of widespread support from parents, and communities. The final frustration was when the union actions were disabled though a law that outlawed the teachers’ union actions.

Victor said...


I did mean the SPD. In the heightened anti-communist mood of West Germany in the 1950s, the SPD, with its only recently renounced Marxist heritage, was thought of as 'unsafe' by the establishment and many other Germans.

In the mid sixties, Willi Brandt took the party into the first Grand Coalition with the CDU/CSU, which had , of course, dominated political life since the birth of the Federal Republic. This helped the party establish its credential with a wider voting public and led to it becoming the main governing party by the end of the decade.

I'm not suggesting this would work for the Lib Dems. But they are probably calculating that being in government will make them more acceptable to soft-right voters, who currently think they're a bit flaky.

I think they're wrong and, as I argued earlier, they would have been better advised to offer Cameron confidence and supply. I think this would have alienated fewer of their supporters. As also argued earlier, they were faced with a Hobson's Choice and were bound to alienate someone.

As to what a left Social Democratic party is, it's one that pursues left Social Democratic policies, aimed at benefiting all of a country's citizens, whether or not they are unionised workers.

I suspect that what I call a left Social Democratic party would have been seen as a right Social Democratic party a few decades ago. But time moves on and , these days, Tony Blair has the occasional gall to call himself a Social Democrat or even a Socialist.

Victor said...


You have summarised the impact of Thatcherism with insight and precision.

I suspect that what divides us is whether you think the UK Labour Party's one-time faithful poodle relationship to the Unions helped or hindered it.

Like Barbara Castle, I think it hindered and kept Britain trailing behind the Social Democratic nations of northern Europe (in all of which,BTW,Union membership was strong).

Be that as it may, in the post-Thatcher world, making the revival of the democratic Left dependent on a revival of unionism might be to indefinitely postpone its future.