William Wallace writes: The chaos of single-party government

Conservative HQ has briefed the media that it plans to attack other parties in the next election campaign for offering ‘a coalition of chaos’ instead of the ‘strong and stable’ single-party government the UK has benefitted from since 2015.  Liberal Democrats should be rubbishing this fantasy.

In the past seven years we have suffered two early elections and three prime ministers – with a fourth now coming into office.  We have had four Chancellors of the Exchequer, five foreign and business secretaries, and six cabinet ministers for education – seven if we include Michele Donovan’s two-day term.  Junior ministers have turned over at an even faster rate, many moving on after less than a year without time to learn their jobs.  Rapid shifts of policy, inconsistent announcements on priorities, officials having to start again briefing new ministers often arriving without any relevant expertise about their responsibilities: chaotic government by any definition.

We can expect another round of ministerial churn in the coming week.  In 2019, what’s more, 21 MPs were suspended from the Parliamentary Party.  Only 10 had the whip restored; two former chancellors and two other former cabinet ministers were among those expelled from the party.  Ken Clarke remarked that the party that expelled him was no longer Conservative; ‘it’s the Brexit Party, rebadged.’

At a Liberal Democrat Business Network gathering last week people were telling me how they longed for the stability that a coalition government might offer after the twists and turns, factional plotting, and inconsistent ministerial directives they have suffered since 2015.  We are likely to face more infighting after the embittered leadership contest we have seen this summer, which will make it even harder for the Conservatives to present themselves as a model of stability at the next election, and easier for us to make the case for institutional change to give Britain better government.

We will need to have a short-list of immediate political and constitutional changes to present to whoever emerges as the largest party.  A reduction in the number of government posts would alter the balance of the House of Commons;140 MPs now hold government appointments that require them to toe the line on every vote.  Statutory status for political regulators would limit patronage and corrupt practices – Liz Truss has said she doesn’t need an Adviser of Ministerial Interests, and the Elections Act has crippled the independence of the Electoral Commission. Revival of local democracy, with real devolution of powers to local authorities, and a transformation of the Lords into a chamber representative or the nations and regions of the UK, would take longer – but could be launched by any new government.  And a change in the parliamentary voting system, to give voters more choice in who represents them and make MPs less dependent on central party whips.

Two recent developments have made it more difficult to dismiss the case for electoral change.  The special Congressional election in Alaska last week took place on a ‘ranked choice’ system, in which several candidates from both parties competed and the winner emerged with a majority of votes.  Even in the USA, First-Past-The-Post is cracking.  At Westminster, the Conservatives have just changed one part of our voting system through legislation – removing the supplementary vote for elected mayors, since second preferences have tended to go to non-Conservative candidates too often.  If they can bend our voting rules as easily as that, it will be harder for them to demand a referendum before any further changes.  There’s no need to lose ourselves in nerdish arguments about different systems.  The Scots and Irish systems are in operation, are easy to understand, and work well.

Of course, it’s still likely that the Labour leadership will resist any such change.  They have watched social democratic parties on the continent fall apart as voters’ interests and expectations change.  Both our divided establishment parties are held together by FPTP; both would splinter if the voting system were more open.  The question of how we persuade Labour to take the creation of a more open democracy seriously, rather than hope to exclude others when public disillusion outbalances the inbuilt advantages it gives the Conservatives, is one that I have no answer to so far.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • William, “We will need to have a short-list of immediate political and constitutional changes to present to whoever emerges as the largest party”.

    For near on sixty years, William, I have had the very greatest respect for you, but I’m afraid I can’t accept that any proposals should necessarily be put to whoever emerges as the largest party elected under a FPTP system (the defects of which you so clearly describe) next time.

    This dire Conservative Government might, just might, emerge as the largest party yet again under FPTP, especially given the situation in Scotland. For me, any arrangement with this dire lot of Tories is a NO NO ……. and I well remember what happened to the Lib Dems after going into Coalition with the Tories last time.

  • Does that include LD single party councils?

  • It is interesting to note the argument that Labour and Conservatives are held together by FPTP but would splinter otherwise. I am not convinced as we see that in counties with PR type systems, political parties often have to work together in electoral alliances to get elected, and certainly have to form coalitions afterwards to form governing majorities. In other words, adopting PR may split Labour into separate socialist and non socialist parties, but the two separate entities may still form an electoral alliance to benefit from whatever electoral system replaces FPTP, and join in coalitions after. Of course, there may be the hope that the non socialist part may choose to work with the Liberal Democrats, but that may depend on whether the Lib Dems were also seeking to work with the soft Tory grouping that may emerge if the Tories also split.

  • But one of those early elections (in 2019) you complain about was actively encouraged by our party leadership.

  • Tristan Ward 3rd Sep '22 - 10:30am

    William is absolutely right to say we should plan for this line of attack, and I totally agree that pointing to Tory chaos since 2015 is part of the response.

    We can also justifiably say that the 2010-15 government was (to coin a phrase) strong and stable. It lasted the full 5 years and delivered (more or less) its programme for government. Coalition government works – as long as the Lib Dems are in it.

    My experience is that the soft Tory voters who we need to attract to win our target seats (many who voted Lib Dem in 2010) are impressed by this argument.

    (I know some disliked some of the policies delivered in coalition – but that’s not the point. If there is one lesson to learn – it’s don’t break a headline pledge)

    I also agree that our programme for government must be put to the Tories if they are the largest party after the next election (they are after all still the bookies’ favourites). And if unconditional PR for Westminster is not both promised and delivered as the first Act through the House of Commons – no deal.

  • Alex Macfie 3rd Sep '22 - 11:21am

    Ed has already ruled out any deal with the Tories following the next General Election, and to go back on that commitment would be the death of us. So what if they remain the largest party in Parliament? We could not be seen to be even negotiating with them to prop up a discredited Tory government that had lost its majority. Let them go begging to the DUP, or maybe to a revived Reform UK.

    I agree that a condition of any coalition or C&S deal would have to be electoral reform (without a referendum). Another one should be opening up negotiations with the EU to rejoin the CU+SM.

  • Chris Moore 3rd Sep '22 - 11:51am

    Yes, all deals with Tories already ruled out. No exceptions, please.

    @Alan Jelfs: our leadership in 2019 was dysfunctional organisationally and electorally and strategically naive.

  • David Evans 3rd Sep '22 - 12:03pm

    Robin Day, Are there any Lib Dem single party councils, except possibly a few parish councils where no-one else can be bothered?

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Sep '22 - 1:36pm

    @David Evans
    Kingston (on Thames) BC is practically one – 44 LD councillors, 3tories, 1 independant.

  • @ Tristan Ward “Coalition government works – as long as the Lib Dems are in it.”

    Try telling that to the people whose benefits were cut and had to resort to food banks. The austerity cuts between 2010-15, the student loans, the VAT rise, the cuts to local government budgets, the bedroom tax, the health service re-organisation and the cuts to criminal justice all shredded the Lib Dems’ reputation, Tristan.

    As a Lib Dem Cabinet member for Social Care I saw it, experienced it, and had to try to deal with the consequences…… and….. look at the election results in 2015.

  • Steve Trevethan 3rd Sep '22 - 2:42pm

    Might it be as simple as A B C?
    Anyone But Conservatives!
    Might we be facing a multi-part problem which is best addressed by removing the Conservatives first for without the achievement of this part we go nowhere?
    .P. S. Thé blog of Mr Richard Murphy, chartered accountant, whose idea this is, is well worth reading

  • Tristan Ward 3rd Sep '22 - 3:23pm

    @ Steve Trevethan (and others)

    Obviously if the Tories (or Labour) win a majority in the next Parliament all these discussions are futile. But William Wallace is right: we have to plan for getting the best out of a hung parliament if there is one.

    There are certainly ABC voters but aren’t our politics different? We are Lib Dems first and foremost, and not being something else is secondary .

    We also know that if we are lucky enough to have a hung parliament next time, the maths may well not make working with people other than than Tories more difficult. That after all is what happened in 2010. And the Tories remain favourites with the bookies to win the next election. Astonishing isn’t it?

    I also think that a coalition with Labour would be just as damaging to the Lib Dems as working with the Tories was in 2010-15. The smaller party in coalition always gets shafted.

    It follows that if we go into a coalition (or confidence and supply) we must get something for it; and the only thing that would make the subsequent damage worthwhile is unconditional PR. Policy matters more than people, and I don’t care whether we get PR with the support of the Tories, Labour or the Monster Raving Loonies.

  • Whatevr hap[pens we MUST NOT go into Coalition with anyone.

  • George Thomas 3rd Sep '22 - 6:25pm

    I said it on other discussions but I don’t’ think you can change voting systems and expect things to get instantly better. I think we need to recognise that over past decade there has been a lot of misinformation – which UK hasn’t especially been great at resisting – both from old and new media as well as certain politicians which means that our population has quite a low knowledge of politics and key issues, I include myself in this, before going to vote.

    There’s an awful lot of chaos to unpick and changing voting system is just one part of it.

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Sep '22 - 6:27pm

    “I said it on other discussions but I don’t’ think you can change voting systems and expect things to get instantly better.”
    Seconded. It’s just the first step in getting things better.

  • William Wallace 3rd Sep '22 - 6:54pm

    David Raw and others: I’m very sceptical that the Tories will recover enough to be the largest party after the next election. If they do, we will win fewer seats, so my questions about relations with other parties may be irrelevant. I’m struck that comments here don’t address how difficult it could be to have a coherent and positive conversation with Labour. Their current hope seems to be that 2024 will be another 1997, even without regaining many seats in Scotland, so they won’t have to consider other parties’ views; and they see themselves as fairly happy with our current political system.

  • Martin Gray 4th Sep '22 - 4:54am

    Labour have a mountain to climb come the next GE …
    It’ll need to win back those red wall seats that voted heavily to leave + a significant number of conservative seats with majorities around the 10-15k number – it would need a collapse of the conservative vote …
    The last thing on its mind would be accommodating a fourth party with its pet subject of electoral reform ..
    A subject that would be lost amongst the devastation caused by cvd 19, energy prices …

  • Barry Lofty 4th Sep '22 - 9:13am

    In the short term anything other than another Conservative government led by the present incumbents would suit me fine, it could not get much worse ,can it?

  • Peter Watson 4th Sep '22 - 2:43pm

    @Leonardo “It is interesting to note the argument that Labour and Conservatives are held together by FPTP but would splinter otherwise … there may be the hope that the non socialist part may choose to work with the Liberal Democrats, but that may depend on whether the Lib Dems were also seeking to work with the soft Tory grouping that may emerge if the Tories also split”
    The Lib Dems often appear to be a coalition as well, with a soft Labour faction led by a soft Conservative one. Under PR, if the Labour and Conservative parties split, I am far from convinced that there would be a future for the Lib Dems as an entity and suspect that the centre ground could belong to two more obviously left- and right-leaning parties rather than one that is an ill-defined and flexible bit of both.

  • Alex Macfie 5th Sep '22 - 9:06am

    “…a coalition with Labour would be just as damaging to the Lib Dems as working with the Tories…” The Lab~LD coalitions in Scotland and Wales didn’t damage us at all. In Scotland we actually gained seats in the election that followed the first coalition. It all depends on how the party conducts itself in coalition. And the Westminster leadership in 2010 ignored all the advice from those in the party who had done it successfully.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Sep '22 - 9:50am

    “It all depends on how the party conducts itself in coalition. ”

    “And the Westminster leadership in 2010 ignored all the advice from those in the party who had done it successfully.”
    Demonstrates the need for leadership (in whatever field) to recognise that those maybe a long way down the organisation can tell them all the things they need to know as opposed to what they want to hear.

  • Do not go into a Coalition unless we are the majority party with the Prime Minister. As that will not happen avoid it at all costs.

  • Richard David Denton 5th Sep '22 - 11:07am

    As someone who has been politically active all his life and despaired at the destructive tribalism of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats and acutely aware of the poll predictions of a hung parliament I want to see a progressive non tory government in power. That is what every liberal democrat in the country should be focused on.

  • Barry Lofty 5th Sep '22 - 11:24am

    Yes some things could have and should been done differently by the Liberal Democrats whilst in Coalition with the Tories but as I will probably not see a Liberal Democrat hold a government position again in MY lifetime I have to say I took some pleasure in actually witnessing such a rare event and still do not think it was a wrong decision even though many think otherwise. Naive perhaps but heartfelt!!!

  • If I have learnt one thing in my life it is that I was wrong in wanting a Coalition for the Liberals, Liberal Alliance or Liberal Democrats to participate. In reality it does not work unless you are a majority partner and there is no chance that that will happen for us.

  • @Theakes. Throughout the 1990s Plan A was to get into power as part of a coalition, show that we were fit to govern, raise our profile and get a few of our policies enacted. If we’re not interested in that anymore, and we have no hope of being the largest party under FPTP, what, in heaven’s name, is our strategy and our future ? A centre left think tank promoting ideas that others can then take forward ?

  • Peter Hirst 5th Sep '22 - 2:02pm

    How worse does our democracy need to go for change to occur? A hung parliament might give us the leverage to enact change. If Labour wins an outright victory at the next ge we will depend on some statesmanship from its leader. Preventing the Conservatives winning again might be the carrot.

  • Martin always makes points of substance with which I usually agree, but the drop in support in 1979 was nothing like as catastrophic as that in 2015.

    In 1979 the Liberal Party won 11 seats (a drop of just 2) polling 13.8% compared to 18.3% in October 1974. The two lost seats were Jeremy Thorpe in North Devon and his loyal friend John Pardoe in neighbouring North Cornwall. The Thorpe judicial drama probably contributed just as much to the drop in Liberal support as any penalty from supporting Labour.

    The 1979 drop may have been mitigated by Liberal withdrawal from the Callaghan pact to resume independence several months before the General Election – something a less astute Leadership failed to do in 2015.

    Martin may also consider events in 1924 when the Liberals were rent asunder by their own disagreements, vagueness, incompetence and weak Leadership – often abstaining, supporting and opposing the first ever Labour Government all at the same time.

    Clear astute Leadership and clear popular policy are essential to any sort of Liberal success.

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