Opinion: Leaderless parties don’t make for good partners in hung Parliaments

Ed-Balls-and-Ed-Miliband-006The recent Twitter-flirtation between Nick Clegg and Ed Balls was in itself not hugely significant, even if it was a welcome burst of public banter taking the place of off-the-record briefings.

Politicians, after all, manage to be polite to each other far more often than Prime Minister’s Questions might suggest, and the ability to behave (occasionally) like a well-mannered, polite adult is part of what makes them politicians who get insulted in the comments on blogs rather than commenters who insult politicians  in the comments on blogs.

However it is symptomatic also of a lessons slowly growing on both parties about the problems that followed Gordon Brown’s decision to stand down as Labour Party leader shortly after the last general election. In many ways, it was the obvious move. What else should an unpopular Prime Minister, heavily defeated in the polls, do?

Yet although it was also a last desperate attempt to see if a Labour-Lib Dem deal could be worked out, it was in fact the death of any such super-slim chances. The Parliamentary arithmetic was already heavily against it, and it would have required a hyper-disciplined Labour Party to completely and loyally line up behind a deal for a deal to have any prospect of working. Yet without a leader, who was there to make such discipline happen?

Leaderless parties can’t make the sort of controversial decisions that a hung Parliament deal requires. And the time it take for party democracy to operate means a leaderless party cannot quickly become a led party unless it is a party so short of talent there is only one plausible leader, ready to be shooed in to place immediately.

In the circumstances of May 2010, whatever Gordon Brown did it would not have worked out well. But there’s a lesson there for 2015, when the circumstances may well make the lesson meaningful rather than academic.

If any party wants to make a deal with another but also insists on the leader of that other party going, they’ll have ended up defeating themselves – because without the other party having a leader, there won’t be a deal.

If you really want to oust another party’s leader, win an overall majority and then let the other party stew and do the deed do itself. But if it’s a hung Parliament, don’t try to oust another leader; deal with them.

 

* Mark Pack is a member of the Federal Board and editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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16 Comments

  • Surely the mistake was for the Lib Dems to demand (as we have been led to believe) that Brown stand down in 2010. Leadership should be a decision for the respective party only never used a negotiation tool. When it is, the party who made those demands may find that sour grapes may well extend to the next parliament.

  • Paul Pettinger 14th Jan '14 - 1:10pm

    Are you saying that Nick Clegg should be removed before the General Election or openly criticising Nick Clegg’s decision to call for Gordon Brown to step down?

  • Julian Tisi 14th Jan '14 - 2:44pm

    Yes, agree. It was a mistake back in 2010 to demand Brown’s resignation. I think I can understand why the demand was made, even if it was an error for the reasons Mark mentions. Back in 2010 we had the unenviable job of selling the whole concept of coalition government to a hugely sceptical public. Let’s remember that until a week before the election we were in the 30’s in the polls. Some polls had us in the lead. It all went south due to a frenzy of fear about what coalition might mean – weak government, unable to take hard decisions, at the mercy of the financial markets, giving people a government they hadn’t voted for. It was the last of these that led Nick Clegg (rightly I believe) to say that the party with the most votes and seats would have the first right to form a government – this was a deliberate plan to neutralise the suggestion that a coalition would be one of the LibDems propping up the losers. I think many voters would have understandably baulked at the idea of a Brown-led Labour-led government, held up by the Lib Dems in the teeth of what people had voted for. It’s why I think Nick suggested Gordon Brown would need to go, as a visible sign that things had changed. But in hindsight he should have asked for some huge concessions on policy, not people.

  • It was a mistake of Clegg’s to call for Brown’s head, as it made the thing personal, and set a precedent – if Clegg presides over a loss of support in 2015 similar (in relative terms) to Brown’s losses in 2010, then why shouldn’t Labour refuse to form a government with a ‘loser’?

    I also think his promise to negotiate with the party commanding the most votes was a mistake. Our loyalty should be to the people who voted for us, and ensuring that as many of the policies they voted for as possible can be included in any coalition agreement. And if we can’t deliver on that, then we should not enter government.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jan '14 - 4:48pm

    Will Mann

    I also think his promise to negotiate with the party commanding the most votes was a mistake. Our loyalty should be to the people who voted for us, and ensuring that as many of the policies they voted for as possible can be included in any coalition agreement.

    Well, a great many of the people who voted for us feel utterly betrayed by our decision to go into coalition with the Tories. So I think you are completely wrong, Will. I say we should have made MORE not less of the idea that the way the people voted influences who we first consider as coalition partners – we need to throw back the blame to the people for the result. Otherwise, it ends up, as it has anyway, “The LibDems are just Tories in disguise, as shown by their decision to form a coalition with them – I’ll never vote LibDem again”.

    I’m not saying it should be the only factor, obviously in the (to my mind, unlikely) event of there being a viable coalition with either Labour or the Tories, we don’t want to have thrown our negotiating position away by insisting we would only ever consider a coalition with whichever was the larger. However, I think we need to get across the message much more clearly than we have managed that coalition follows from the idea of representative democracy – the people elect representatives, and the government that emerges is whatever is the compromise between those representatives that gets the most support. It’s not a “marriage” or “jumping into bed” or all those other ridiculous phrases that keep being used, and that hinder sensible discussion on the issue.

  • @Matthew Huntbach — I can’t speak with respect to the psychology of most voters, but it seems to me that if a party says “given a hung parliament, we will go into coalition with the party with the most seats” then I have really no incentive to vote for them (constituency-specific issues aside). Let’s imagine a situation where Labour appear to be leading, but will fall short of an absolute majority, yet the vote is close enough that a large swing to the Lib Dems from either party might change the outcome. If I’d prefer a colaition led by Labour, then I might as well vote for them, since I know that the Lib Dems will fall in anyway, and I’d be more concerned about the possibility that the Tories would get a plurality than that the Lib Dems would lose a few seats.. If I’d prefer a government led by the Tories, then I have a very strong *disincentive* to vote Lib Dem either way. If I’d like to see the Lib Dems maximise their influence over their coalition partner, I still have no particular reason to support them, since I know from their declaration that they’ve given up a major source of leverage and will end up, not just playing second fiddle, but not contributing anything to the music other than an echoic chorus or the occasional dissonant tinkle on a tiny triangle.

    On the other hand, if the Lib Dems don’t declare a negotiation strategy based on numbers, then I have a good reason to vote for the party based on the assumption that, with whomever they negotiate, they will do so with the purpose of maximising the influence of liberal principles on the government. (I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that Lib Dem leaders have a good grasp of what liberal principles are.) Voters could vote for the Lib Dems, secure in the knowledge that they will *not* tip the balance simply by taking votes away from their preferred party; it would be of no particular consequence whether Labour or the Tories are leading by X number of seats, because they could trust the party to do what is right. Then to disappointed voters, the Lib Dem leadership could say: “We entered this arrangement in order to secure a strong liberal voice in government, and if we are not satisfied, we can walk away.” This sounds, to me, a whole lot better than “we had no choice but to negotiate with the party with the most seats, and now that we’re in, we have no choice but to go along with the cabinet majority because we are outnumbered.”

  • @Will I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know that I think the answer to your question as to why Labour shouldn’t do that is the very answer I gave in the post on which you were commenting 🙂

  • David-1)s reflections ignore how FPTP works. If he wanted a Lib Lab coalition, how he votes would depend on which constituency he was voting in. The logic is to vote for whichever party has the best chance of defeating the Tory.

    If you believe some on the blogs their wish list order of preference for a government seems to have been 1. Labour, 2. Lib-Lab, 3. Tory, 4. Lib Dem, 5. Lib-Con. If so they could end up with some peculiar voting strategies.

    David-1 is correct to say that given a choice the final steps should depend on Liberal values, principles and policies, however the starting point does need to reflect voting intentions. In reality, as in 2010 it is more likely that there is no real choice, however in an event where there is a choice, I do note that the leadership did give itself some wiggle room in that the party with the most seats may not necessarily have the most votes. I would hope that the leadership would maintain some room for manoeuvre.

    That said, I cannot see what the Conservatives could offer Lib Dems a second time around; furthermore in such circumstances of a No Overall Control, the Conservatives might well be effectively leaderless (getting back to Mark Pack’s article).

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jan '14 - 11:25pm

    David-1

    @Matthew Huntbach — I can’t speak with respect to the psychology of most voters, but it seems to me that if a party says “given a hung parliament, we will go into coalition with the party with the most seats” then I have really no incentive to vote for them (constituency-specific issues aside).

    No, that’s not what I said.

    If I’d like to see the Lib Dems maximise their influence over their coalition partner, I still have no particular reason to support them, since I know from their declaration that they’ve given up a major source of leverage

    Yes, that’s why I didn’t write what you seem to be suggesting I was writing. Indeed, I made that very same point when I wrote “we don’t want to have thrown our negotiating position away by insisting we would only ever consider a coalition with whichever was the larger. ”

    I think you illustrate how very difficult it is to have a sensible discussion on this issue when people jump to conclusions and make accusations which aren’t based on what has actually been said.

  • Matthew Huntbach said: “I say we should have made MORE not less of the idea that the way the people voted influences who we first consider as coalition partners – we need to throw back the blame to the people for the result.”

    Well, telling the people that they were at fault is not the most obvious way to win their loyalty. You say we should have told people that THEY saddled us with the Tories as colaition partners and that we were blameless. I beg to differ.

    Let’s suppose, hypothetically, that we could have chosen between two potential coalition partners, the BNP on 260 seats and the Tories on 250. Our 100-odd seats would have been enough to choose either as a partner in a colaition with a viable majority. So, would we have been bound by some iron law to choose the BNP?

    No, of course not. We are an independent party and we have free will. Clegg’s pledge to go with the lead party, which he could guess would be the Tories, was a deliberate repudiation of that free choice. It was his fault. To the extent we let him do it, it was our fault. It was not the public’s fault, and the public know that.

    Admittedly there is a somewhat stronger argument that, given the actual result in which one party was rather a long way ahead of the other, making the Labour option difficult in numerical terms, it is arguable that we had to reject that option. However, this doesn’t alter my previous argument. Had the figures been closer, we should never have bound ourselves to the first party come what may. It is something no previous LD leader ever did. It was done because Clegg wanted the alliance with the Tories. If Clegg stays, expect him to do all he can to repeat the trick.

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Jan '14 - 1:24am

    David Allen
    “Clegg’s pledge to go with the lead party, which he could guess would be the Tories, was a deliberate repudiation of that free choice. ”

    Except he didn’t, did he? He said that the biggest party had the right to have the first go at forming a government — which is, quite simply, the way it is formally done in many European countries. It doesn’t mean the third party is obliged to back them — only to listen seriously to what they’re offering. And in fact, the Lib Dems did negotiate with Labour, even though the parliamentary arithmetic was such that anything other than a Con-LD coalition or Con minority government was unachievable.

    I know you hate Clegg, and I’m not a fan of his either, but let’s not build yet another post-facto myth: Clegg did not say that he would automatically support the largest party in the event of a hung parliament and the Lib Dems did not automatically or unconditionally support the Tories when that was the outcome.

  • Let’s not forget, Gordon Brown’s decision also allowed the Tories to get away without any serious talking to Labour about how the country should run economically, or involvement in any possible joint administration. Let’s also remember that Brown was heavily involved in the economics of the world pulling through the financial crisis (“How I saved the World”), and his stock was high among international players. The least Cameron and Osborne should have done was to take into account the useful progress already made, and not just to rubbish Brown in the way they, and especially their media, did.

    As I have said to the point of tedium on here, it was Labour who were in recovery at the time of the election – the Lib Dems were the beaten party – following Cleggmania we had dropped like a stone in the polls going towards the point we had achieved prior to the first TV debate. This should have been acknowledged in the Lib Dem negotiating position, and together with our adoption of a significantly more “austerity – friendly” and left-unfriendly economic position after May 2010 has been the cause of both much more pain to the lower income two-thirds of our people, and the destruction of the Lib Dems as a major political force in Councils, and many areas across the country. I am not surprised Nick Clegg has been such a bete noire for so many people. This is almost entirely due to the Orange Bookers (I know I over-simplify) and their political manoeuvres over a decade or so.

  • PS We could have been a catalyst for a new politics, either in a minor government role, or as a constructive opposition to a Labour – Tory working arrangement. We chose to go with the politics of the status quo, and will, I think, live with that decision for years to come. It does not help that previous generations of Liberals have sometimes taken similar decisions because of timidity and a lack of deep radicalism in our ranks.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jan '14 - 1:41am

    David Allen

    Well, telling the people that they were at fault is not the most obvious way to win their loyalty. You say we should have told people that THEY saddled us with the Tories as colaition partners and that we were blameless.

    Sorry, more people voted for the Conservative Party than for any other party. You are suggesting we totally ignore that fact and make out that we could have had any other sort of government, we just chose ourselves to have the one we have. A year later, the people of this country voted, by two-to-one, to say they were in AGREEMENT with the idea that whichever party got the most votes should have their representation twisted upwards so they could take complete control of the government even if they had well under half the actual votes.

    I’ sorry, but I think we need to get people to THINK about how they vote. I think that means saying “Look, you have what you voted for, if you don’t like it, don’t vote that way again”. Instead you see to be encouraging an irresponsible way of thinking whereby people vote for something and we encourage them to forget the consequences of that, as if what we have had nothing to do with the way they voted. If more people had voted Liberal Democrat we would have more Liberal Democrat MPs and hence a more Liberal Democrat government. It sees to me to absurd not to say such a thing. At the heart of the dilemma the party is in over the coalition is this strange idea that because some people voted Liberal Democrats, though only enough to give us less than one in 10 MPs, we ought to have been able to magic up an entirely Liberal Democrat government, and because we did not, we are bad people.

    I am not saying we should automatically and without question form a coalition with whichever of the two bigger parties has the most seats, and I resent the fact that despite my explicitly stating that I have twice been accused of it. All I am suggesting is that, as Malcolm Todd says is the norm in countries where coalitions are the norm, initial attempts to form a government should be led by the largest party. If there’s a strong difference between that party and the potential junior coalition partner, and a viable government which involves smaller parties and not the largest, then, yes, those initial attempts won’t last unless the biggest party makes big concessions. However, that was not the case in May 2010. Labour were the smaller party, they were seen as having lost the election, a coalition with them would not even have had a majority. If we had formed a coalition with Labour then, we would have been admitting that there were no circumstances ever where we would form any other coalition. That would be endangering our standing as an independent party.

    Just because the coalition has been handled badly by our leader ever since does not change the initial argument. One point that should have been made at the start was that it was a very unequal coalition because of the distortions of the electoral system. If the two parties in the coalition had shares of seats equal to their shares of votes there would be two LibDem MPs to every three Tory MPs, instead of one LibDem MP to every five Tory MPs, and that would have given us a very different sort of government to the one we have now. By making out with the Rose Garden love-in that we were in almost equal share of the coalition, we threw away that huge argument we could have used in our favour with people who don’t like this government. We should have said that one-sixth of the MPs in the government means it’s a Tory government with a little LibDem influence, and if you don’t like that, in future don’t vote Tory and don’t support the electoral system whose distortions gave you that.

    The reality is that a small party where there are two much bigger parties CAN’T act in the kingmaker role and enforce whatever it wants in a coalition. If you look at how it works in other countries*, and how it works in local government here, it never works that way. We should not have allowed the idea to grow that it would have been like that. The reality is that there is almost never public sympathy for such a party when it starts trying to throw its weight around by threatening to block things. Instead, the populace tends to see such a party as arrogant and impudent for trying to get force its way despite not being that popular in terms of votes, and sees it as downright irresponsible and dangerous if it really does get to the point that the country becomes ungovernable because anything either of the bigger parties proposes gets blocked. In fact we have ALREADY seen that where we are now, finding that when we hold out for things we find dear but the other parties don’t, we are mocked mercilessly for it, and have little public sympathy on our side – see the two big constitutional things we failed with – Lords reform and electoral reform. The reality is that a junior coalition partner can only get through aspects of its policy that have substantial support in the senior partner, weighing the balance to its side if the substantial is not overwhelming – gay marriage being an obvious example in this coalition.

    If we had been honest about this at the start, we wouldn’t have been so damaged by stupidly over-optimistic assumptions about what we could actually achieve. Stupidly over-optimistic assumptions that continue to be made every time some right-winger in our party goes “blah blah blah, oh now we’re IN GOVERNMENT blah blah blah”. We are NOT “in government” in the normally understood meaning of that term. We don’t control it, we have only a minor part in it. If people wanted a more Liberal Democrat government, then the way to have got it would have been for more of them to have voted Liberal Democrat. Why, David, do you think that is such a bad message to try and put across?

    * The exception to this rule is where the small party is a tribalist one, whose voters vote for it on that basis and will never desert it, and don’t care anyway for anything apart from narrow tribal issues. We’re the opposite of that.

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