Friday 12 June 2009

The constitutional court of leader writers

I disagree with Tom Watson who is engaged in twitter debate with Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, when he challenges the Guardian's legitimacy to editorialise for or against the Prime Minister or government as it sees fit, however much he disagrees with their line, though it will now be for the Prime Minister and the Labour party to prove the Guardian wrong (how to do that here).

But the newspaper's argument for a change is weakened not so much by Labour at Westminster declining to take its advice as by an enormous and rather overlooked u-turn in The Guardian's argument about why and for what purpose there should have been a change of leader.

The Guardian, leading article, Wednesday 3rd June 2009:

Labour has a year left before an election; its current leader would waste it. It is time to cut him loose.

The Guardian, leading article, Monday 8th June 2009:

Whatever is decided about the leadership in the next few days, Labour will be testing the patience of the electorate if it postpones a national vote until next May.

Our leading liberal newspaper's most significant editorial intervention this year was clear both that Labour should change leaders and resist calls for an early election:

They could also argue that David Cameron needs to be tested properly. An election now would see Britain stumble into the future without any idea where it will lead.

A snap poll would also lose "the chance of a generation" on constitutional reform:

The case for a new leader has been made stronger by the expenses crisis. Labour needs to enter the next election having reformed parliament. But Mr Brown will never do it. The prime minister was absent from the start of the debate and cautious now he has joined it. His instinct is usually to hesitate, and to establish reviews and commissions. Meanwhile, the chance of a generation is being missed. Only a Labour government, working with the Liberal Democrats, will bring about serious reform. The likelihood, for all David Cameron's promises, is that the Conservatives will not be radical enough, especially on fair votes ... If reform is not to stall, someone else will have to lead it.

By the Monday, with the coup fizzling out, all of this had changed.

It was not only that a new leader would have to call an October election (so walking away from that "chance of a generation"). The leader writers were now ready to declare that the current Prime Minister could no longer use "the year which Labour has left" and govern to the end of the Parliamentary term either without "stretching the democratic elastic".

In theory the party can avoid an election, unless parliament passes a vote of no confidence. But stretching the democratic elastic would risk turning the Norwich North byelection ... into a mini-referendum on his right to rule. ... This paper argued last week that a different leader would be best placed to change perceptions of the party and put the opposition under pressure. The Tories' clean sweep of county councils hid a diminished share of the vote. A hung parliament is still possible in an October election, if Labour makes the case for change under someone else - accelerating parliamentary reform, backing down on the Royal Mail, ID cards and Trident, acting on youth unemployment and housing..

This is nonsense - even if it is nonsense propagated too by Peter Mandelson and goverrnment ministers offering the Samson strategy of pulling down the temple were there a move against the Prime Minister.

The idea that this government and Parliament have uniquely lost legitimacy is populist nonsense.

Opposition parties can call for general elections if they believe it is in their political interests to do so. But why should anybody should take the Conservative Party seriously when it does so?

After the Suez crisis, the Profumo crisis and the poll tax riots, the Conservatives did not dissolve Parliament - they simply changed the Prime Minister and carried on.

(Four of the six Tory PMs since 1955 did not come to power at an election. Only one - Eden in 1955 - called an election, rightly judging that it would be in his political interests to do so, before resigning in 18 months to be replaced without an election by Harold Macmillan).

The Conservatives did not - despite thinking about it - change Prime Ministers when their European policy collapsed under John Major. But, having lost their Parliamentary majority, they governed to the end of the Parliament (and lost), just as they did before 1992 (when they won).

By-election defeats such as that at mid-Staffordshire in 1990 were not accepted as a referendum on the right to govern by the Conservatives in power.

So what is going on?

Partly, there is a growing populist (and sometimes anti-political) challenge to the idea of representative democracy.

Partly, the Conservatives are acting opportunistically in their current political interests. That is what oppositions do.

This combination means that the Conservatives are adopting the tactics of the Gingrich-era Republicans under Bill Clinton - applying one set of rules to themselves in power and another to their opponents, because they never fully accept that their opponents have the legitimacy to govern.

What is stranger is that our leading liberal newspaper - usually a critic of excessive media aggrandisement - does seem to have come perilously close to the argument that the government would have legitimacy in power if it followed The Guardian's advice, but would not have the legitimacy to carrying on governing if it does not.

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