UK Coalition showdown over redistricting?

Deputy PM Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, has played one of the few cards he has against PM David Cameron and the Conservative Party. After admitting defeat due to Conservative backbench resistance and pulling the plug on the plans for House of Lords reform, he has now said that his party will renege on its prior consent to support reducing the size of the House of Commons by 50 seats. The resulting redistricting, according to most accounts, would hit the LibDems proportionately hardest, and might be the Conservatives’ best hope for a (manufactured) majority in 2015.

Never mind that the LibDems’ support for the reduction-and-redistricting was linked in the Coalition Agreement not to Lords reform but to the referendum on the Alternative Vote. The referendum went ahead, albeit with Cameron leading the charge against the proposed change, and its going down to ignominious defeat.

There just are not many good cards left in Clegg’s hand. It is hard to see how he had any other choice than to do this. Labour is also opposed to the redistricting and presumably will vote with the LibDems on this one out of party interest. So he can inflict a defeat on the Conservatives on this issue and thereby has leverage.

Selected news accounts:

8 thoughts on “UK Coalition showdown over redistricting?

  1. “The coalition is still politics for slow learners. he vilification of the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, by his party for “breaking” various election promises is absurd. It flatly contradicts a Lib Dem belief in proportional representation and its handmaid, compromise. Coalition means not getting what you want, let alone what in a rash moment you promised. It means finding a line of least resistance through the mess of an indecisive assembly. It means making the alliances all centre parties must make if they are to enjoy power…”

    – Simon Jenkins, “In coalition poker, broken promises are small change: It’s absurd for Lib Dems to berate Clegg on tuition fees. If you want the smooth of PR, you take the rough of compromise,” guardian.co.uk (Tuesday 16 November 2010), http://tinyurl.com/3a4rlry

    I would only add that single-party majorities can also mean “not getting what you want”, if by “you” you mean a living, breathing person (“Margaret Thatcher”) rather than an artificial entity (“the Conservative Party”).

  2. Actually, I’ll defend Clegg. The parliamentary arithmetic pointed to a coalition with the Conservatives. Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined didn’t have a majority, and would have had to rely on a grab bag of fringe and regional parties.

    You can add to that the lack of seriousness with which Labour approached the coalition negotiations, plus the Liberal Democrats would have been seen as propping up an unpopular and exhausted government. They arguably are now, but in the alternative scenario this would have happened two years earlier.

    Incidentally, Labour actually has one less seat in parliament than in 2010. Almost all the by elections have been in Labour held seats. Unless Brown or whoever was the Labour PM could have engineered an amazing economic turnaround, a “rainbow coalition” wouldn’t have lasted this long because it would have lost its slender majority through by-election attrition. We would be looking at an election in 2011 or 2012, probably resulting in a Tory landslide.

    Its amazing how many people thing they can comment meaningfully on politics without doing basic arithmetic.

    There is a lot of focus on how the Liberal Democrats are playing a weak hand. The last time the Tories got a majority in Parliament, or over 40% of the vote, was twenty years ago. If this government collapses, they have pretty much screwed up their chance to show that they can run a responsible and moderate government, and will also find it harder to form minority or coalition governments in the future. The Liberal Democrats just go back to being what they have been since the 1930s.

    Incidentally, a Labour government in the 1960s engineered a bankbench revolt to sabotage a boundary commission review that they thought was unfavorable to them, so this sort of controversy is not exactly new.

  3. Ed, I’m not sure what against what charges you’re defending Clegg.

    If the charge is “forming a coalition with the Tories in 2010,” then I guess your defence is justified, although I disagree that Labour didn’t take coalition negotiations seriously. My recall is that they never really had a chance to negotiate, since Clegg basically started the discussion by indicating that Cameron was essentially the victor of the election, thereby following FPTP logic and not PR logic (viz. Jenkins, quoted above).

    I thought at the time that this was a poor negotiation strategy, but I think it also accorded with the national mood. It’s hard to believe that a Labour prime minister (even if not Brown) would have been perceived as a legitimate electoral result. Had the LibDems done a little better, perhaps gaining the 100 seats some optimistic commentators had predicted, then possibly “Prime Minister Clegg supported by the routed Labour Party” would have been acceptable, but I don’t see how that could have been pulled off with the actual result, and I doubt whether Labour was that desperate anyway.

    So that left Clegg with two options: formal coalition and Deputy Prime Ministership, or an agreement to allow the Tories to govern on their own. Basic arithmetic does not provide any guideline to choose between these two, as far as I can see, and it is quite possible to argue in hindsight that the choice Clegg made did not, in fact, result in any significant value as measured by LibDem goals. (Which is not to say that the other choice would have, either, but it might have resulted in a different public perception of Clegg’s party.)

    But I think the actual charges against Clegg (in the “Clegg must go now” vein) are more related to his not pulling the plug on the coalition earlier, or alternatively that he did not raise that possibility more forcefully in coalition negotiations. You probably could raise a defence there, too, but arithmetic seems to indicate that there were opportunities to defeat the government, and so the decision to not do so was based on non-arithmetic questions, like the (perceived) desire of the British public for early elections. Of course, another factor which Clegg would have had to consider was what the probable consequences to his party of a new election would be, regardless of the popularity of the election itself. And it is hard not to conclude that the consequences would (and will) be dire.

    The problem that Clegg now faces is that he is perceived as not having acted to defend the interests of workers/students/patients/… but that he is only acting now, when the question is about a parliamentary redistribution that might hurt his party. That doesn’t seem like a very good place to build the barricades, but I guess we’ll see.

  4. Ed is right that a LibDem-Labour coalition, backed by smaller parties, was not viable. It could have been cobbled together, but it would have been neither stable nor popularly acceptable–especially with Alex Salmond of the SNP crowing “fate has dealt us a mighty hand” at the prospect of such a government.

    However, as rici notes, a Conservative minority government, backed by LibDems on confidence and supply, was an alternative. There are always tradeoffs, and given that a minority government would have made it easier for Cameron to go back to the voters after two or three years, it is not obvious that Clegg made the wrong choice. (At the time, I thought a minority government made more sense, however.)

    My recollection of following the news at the time was that Labour did take the negotiations seriously, but that Clegg essentially used this as a threat to extract more from the Conservatives. In terms of cabinet seats, it worked.

    I think Cameron also had his own reasons for wanting a coalition–some of them having to do with the very sort of internal problems we have seen him have, some having to do with the perception (or even reality) of greater stability given the economic situation.

    Clegg’s accomplishments to date are not exactly big and obvious, but it must always be remembered that his bargaining position is weak: his party is by far smaller (in seats, which is all that really matters), and his tolerance for risking an early election is understandably rather low.

  5. There was also the option of allowing Cameron to form a minority government without any formal agreement. It’s easy to understand why Clegg might not want that, since it could reinforce fears that PR would result in unstable government. But who knows, maybe it would have worked out in the end.

  6. Right, Vasi. I should have said “with or without a confidence and supply agreement”. Naturally, going without such agreements is the norm in Canada when there is no majority. I just figure that was never something the LibDems were willing to do, and I doubt Cameron would have considered it a good outcome.

  7. My memory of the negotiations was that it was Cameron who wanted the coalition. The Tories knew that the economic climate was becoming increasingly unfavorable and wanted the Liberal Democrats in the cabinet to share the blame for a government that everyone knew would be unpopular at least in its early years. Possibly the unhealed divisions in the Conservative Party stemming from the Thatcher years were a factor, the Lib Dems make Cameron less dependent on the unreconstructed Thatcherites.

    I actually agree that the Lib Dems supporting a Tory government from the outside, Canadian style, would have made more sense for them and thought so at the time. But there will be a long term gain for the party for having seen to take part in actually governing the country instead of constantly sniping from below the gangway on the opposition benches. I’m in rare agreement with Tony Blair on this point, who made this argument in his memoirs.

  8. For anyone so desperate for entertainment that they want to relive the day after the 2010 election, I found this Guardian live blog which, I think, demonstrates that all of us remembered some part of the events, although it’s not sufficient to demonstrate whether or not Labour was negotiating in earnest. (And there’s lots more where that came from.)

    What’s clear from the beginning is the overall agreement:

    “I’ve also said that whichever party gets the most votes and the most seats, if not an absolute majority, has the first right to seek to govern,… And I stick to that view.” — Nick Clegg

    “The Conservatives’ strong showing entitled them to make the first moves in deal-making.” — The Guardian, May 8, 2010

    “I understand and completely respect the position of Mr Clegg in stating that he wishes to make contact with the leader of the Conservative party.” — Gordon Brown.

    “The idea that we would be governed by a coalition of losers led by someone who was not among the three leaders who paraded themselves on telly should have us reaching for our pitchforks.” — Benedict Brogan, Deputy Editor of the Telegraph.

    So, I agree that a Labour/LibDem/regionalist coalition was not going to work, regardless of whether or not Labour really tried. And I’m sure Labour knew that as well as anyone. Clearly, they had to go through the motions; a sitting government can hardly deny its interest in continuing to govern. (And, indeed, Gordon Brown did resign.) But (as several references in those old blog posts show) there was also a sense that the coming years would be difficult, and that Labour might well do better in Opposition (which is also probably true).

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