Sunday 8 February 2009

National governments are anti-democratic

Martin Kettle wrote on Friday that he would no longer (entirely) rule out the possibility of some sort of national government.

In six months' time, though, advocates of a genuine government of all the talents - an economic national emergency cabinet including Alistair Darling, Ken Clarke and Vince Cable - may suddenly find themselves with an audience.

But this is a very bad idea. There are two major democratic accountability problems.

First, because the major parties have a major difference on the economic response, Kettle cherry-picks individuals who might not. But this suggests a coalition on the Lloyd George 'GOAT' model, where the Prime Minister chooses individuals from all parties or none, who float free of their party allegiances. Parliamentary accountability can by weakened by such an approach.

Secondly, national governments are not the answer to political polarisation and a growing extremist threat. They often encourage and incentivise it, because there are few if any moderate routes for opposition. It then gets harder to form any non-grand coalition government, exacerbating the problem. That has been the story of Austrian politics. It was also a feature of the first German grand coalition in the 1960s, and is part of the reason for the rise of the Linkspartei know.

On both of these issues, such scenarios are fundamentally different from a proper party-based coalition government (such as the Katwala coalition plan). This involves a political negotiation to genuinely share power, and so would be a real coalition, whereas individual cross-party ministers can often be primarily decorative (beyond their potential issue specialisation).

Secondly, and most importantly, this sharpens the political choice on offer to the country, rather than denying it. What General Election do advocates of a Kettle-style National Government envisage taking place? They should be used only where the scale of emergency is such - as in the second world war - that it really is necessary to suspend the normal rules of democracy.

And that is also why I just can't see anything substantive at all in Luke Akehurst's comparison of my call for a coalition with the National Government of 1931. I don't recall advocating that Brown and Darling form a government with mostly Tory Ministers, plus Nick Clegg, to fight a campaign to back Tory candidates against most of the Labour Party. So what is comparable please?

Now, Luke is a nice guy and a clever one too. He certainly isn't usually into the old leftist kneejerk politics of shouting 'betrayal' and '1931' before engaging the brain, since he inherits the tradition of the loyalist and tribalist Labour right. This tradition managed to achieve much good, if often through its skill at stitching up deals in smoke-filled rooms. But political cultures change too, as our no longer top down party (work in progress) is seeking to demonstrate.

It is obviously pretty disappointing for me to hear that a newsletter called 'Liberal Demolition' is not signed up to a pluralist approach or a progressive realignment. (For some reason, I've never been on its mailing list). But, whether Liberal Demolition is aware of it or not, Luke knows enough history to be aware that Labour owed most of its presence in Parliament in 1906 to the (secret) Lab-Lib electoral pact of 1903.


Luke Akehurst said...


Your use of the 1903 Gladstone/MacDonald pact as an illustration undermines your argument.

The pact involved a larger party (the Liberals) giving a smaller party (Labour) a leg-up, which then turned on them and destroyed them.

The same could happen in reverse if we held the Lib Dems by allowing them into government when we don't have to.

A better strategy for the Liberals in 1903 would have been to strangle the infant Labour Party at birth.

These people (the LDs) are not our allies - they want to destroy and replace us.


Stuart White said...


you don't seem to have much confidence in Labour as a party that can retain popular support if the Lib Dems got a share of government. And if Labour did have to fight harder to retain popular support, why would that be a bad thing? Surely some of New Labour's right-wing excesses reflect an attitude that Labour can more or less do what it likes in government without alienating too much of its core progressive constituency as this constituency has nowhere else to go. If the Lib Dems did emerge as as an attractive progressive alternative - and they have been rowing in the opposite direction in some ways of late, e.g., on tax policy - that would put useful pressure on Labour to mend its ways.

More fundamentally, I am puzzled by the attitude of 'party fetishism' which your post seems to express. I belong to the Labour party because I think its the best vehicle there is for advancing progressive values. Thus, my loyalty lies not ultimately to the party, but to the broader progressive project. If closer relations with the Lib Dems advances that project, I'm all for it. What's good for progressive politics and what's good for the Labour party are related questions, but they are not identical.

Sunder Katwala said...


I was aware of that possible comeback in writing that. But I am unconvinced, and doubt your account of what happened in or after 1903 (whether or not there are then parallels from that, which I suspect there may well be, but in a different direction).

Firstly, I just don't think the Liberal Party had the ability to strangle the Labour Party at birth (How could they have done so?), built as it was from the emerging Labour movement, any more than Labour could 'strangle' the environmental movement and Green Party or the Liberal Democrats (despite your best efforts: little sign of success post-1974); or any more than the LibDems could conceivably "destroy and replace" the Labour Party in the next decade or two.

It seems rather more plausible to me to say that where the Liberal Party failed to recognise its own enlightened self-interest was in failing to do more to hug close the labour movement and perhaps Labour Party itself: had they been more able to select working-class candidates themselves, and/or been able to more forcefully develop the New Liberalism against some Gladstonian instincts, (or indeed kept the Fabian intellectuals interested: they broke with permeation only after the Liberal rejection of the 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law, even having helped form the Labour Party from 1900-06) then it may have been possible that Labour would have remained primarily a trade union pressure group within a broader progressive alliance.

Secondly, imagine the Liberals had been much more aggressive towards Labour, even if this might have proved unsuccessful. Not just they but we all might well perhaps have paid a very heavy price for that in the constitutional crisis of 1909-11: the two 1910 General Elections saw the Liberals lose their landslide, and they had parity with the Conservatives in the Commons. It was Labour and Irish Home Rule support which ensured the hereditary veto of the Lords was broken. (The Tories were not without ideas to win working-class support, on various grounds, including jingoism on dreadnoughts and all the rest of it).

Thirdly, the idea that Labour "turned on the Liberals" after 1903/1906 is a simplification of what happened. While historians can debate what would have happened otherwise, it was the Liberals who split in two after 1916, with Lloyd George and the Tories in alliance, before the three party politics of the 1920s saw Labour become a governing party for the first time.

While I understand the instinct to regard the strength of two party politics of 1950-51, or the broader 1945-70 period, as the natural order of things, there is as much or more reason to think that the type of more pluralist party system which has arisen since 1974 (despite the systemic barriers to it) is here to say and the idea that any 3+ party system is always a death match to find out which the two "real" parties will be is somewhat ahistoric and unlikely. We all know that the dominant party after universal suffrage were the Tories. Labour can build the cross-class governing coalitions it needs (1945, 1966, 1997) on its own but it is as likely to do so with some form of progressive alliance, as was tacitly the case (among the voters as much as the party strategists) in the 1997 campaign.

I don't think there is a simple 'progressive majority' - the divided left wasn't why we lost in 1983; a 2-party fight may have seen a 1931 style wipeout - but there is a latent progressive majority in a country where the right wins most of the elections.

The deal the rising Labour party tacitly struck with Baldwin and the British establishment in the 1920s - that we were happy to govern within a constitutional settlement which suited us as much as them - looks, in hindsight, a rather better one for the right than the left, especially once Thatcher showed that it can place many fewer constraints on right-wing than left-wing governments.