Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The fantasy of a minority Labour government

Over at LabourList, Brian Barder has been making the case for a minority Labour government in the event of a hung parliament 'regardless of the outcome in terms of votes or seats'.

Even if Labour came third in the popular vote - indeed, if I have understood him, even if Labour is behind the Tories in seats - Barder argues that Labour can and should assume the role of government under Gordon Brown. It should proceed to present a Queen's Speech and test the nerve of the other parties - in particular the Lib Dems - to vote it down.

Barder envisages Brown producing a Queen's speech with plenty of goodies - he refers to 'Lib Dem shibboleths' like civil liberties - to woo the Lib Dems.

Barder thinks the Lib Dems would draw back from voting Labour down. Why? Because if they did vote Labour down, the Tories would then get to form a minority government. They would probably offer the Lib Dems less. What would the Lib Dems then do? Vote this government down? Barder argues this would precipitate a fresh election in which the Tories would romp home with a nice majority, thank you very much. Indeed, he confidently predicts that the result of this fresh election would be a Lib Dem 'wipeout'.

Now if the Lib Dems rationally anticipate all of this, then of course they will stop at the first step: they will support Labour's Queen's speech.

As the saying goes, let's 'get real'. Any argument of this kind has to be based on a serious estimation of the costs and benefits to the various parties of various courses of action. What makes Barder's story fanciful in the extreme - aside from being so objectionable in democratic terms - is the way he selectively ignores some obvious and substantial costs while hugely exaggerating others.

First, and foremost, any attempt by Labour to hold onto office on its own in such circumstances (in particular being third in the popular vote and/or being the second party in terms of seats) would drain the party of credibility in the country. Labour is lower in the polls at the moment than it has been since the 1983 general election. But I dread to think how low the poll ratings would go if Labour attempted to cling on to office in the way that Barder describes.

Second, because we can anticipate that the attempt to cling to office will be so unpopular, we can also anticipate that it is likely to be strongly opposed from within Labour's ranks. Could the party's leader carry the party with him on such a journey?

Third, there is an obvious, huge cost to the Lib Dems of voting or allowing through a Labour Queen's Speech in these circumstances. They throw away their hard-earned credibility as the 'party of change'.

But what about the supposedly nightmare consequences to the Lib Dems of failing to support a Labour Queen's speech? Am I not ignoring these?

It is here that Barder's analysis switches from a convenient refusal to acknowledge costs of action to an implausible exaggeration of costs.

So let us imagine the Lib Dems do vote Labour down and a Tory minority government forms. Either they offer enough goodies to the Lib Dems to stop them voting them out, e.g., a referendum on PR, or they don't. If they don't, why won't the Lib Dems vote them out too? Barder's claim is that this would (a) precipitate a fresh election which (b) the Tories would win and (c) would see a Lib Dem 'wipeout'.

Every single one of these assertions is questionable. Assume, for the sake of argument, that elections do get called. Barder has no basis whatsoever for predicting that the Tories would comfortably win. If a Lib Dem - Tory deal fell through, why wouldn't that reflect badly on the Tories? Why wouldn't fresh elections, occurring against this sequence of events, produce a revulsion against both Labour and the Tories and a further Lib Dem surge?

If Labour fails to win a parliamentary majority at this election it had better respect the wish of the British people - something for which Barder apparently has very little respect - which would have spoken clearly against having a Labour government.

It could and should seek to go into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, not in order to 'cling to office', but on a basis of a genuine sharing of power and constructive cooperation on policy. In circumstances like those we have been assuming, Labour can reasonably stake a claim to be in the government; it cannot reasonably attempt to be the government.

Stuart White is a lecturer in Politics at Oxford University where he directs the Public Policy Unit. He writes at Next Left in a personal capacity and is not a spokesperson for the Fabian Society.

8 comments:

Francesco Petrarch said...

If Labour came 3rd in number of votes, but 1st in number of seats, it could produce such a public uproar that the Queen herself would have her long-term future at threat, due to the public's demand to finish the democratic revolution as soon as possible. People are voting for a hung parliament, they want to smash apart our shambolic "democracy" and see genuine republican democratic reforms. This election is going to be a corker, what ever happens.

Francesco Petrarch said...

Expect some anti-Ceausescu-eqsue style protests after this election.

ToryLordSnooty said...

Gordon Brown's greatest unintended achievement would be to hasten electoral reform, preferably to PR.

Which way Nick Clegg would lean in a hung parliament is the 64 Euro question and whether he trades the Libdem objective of PR is a critical conundrum.

Self-interest would dictate that he deals with whoever offers the best prospect for electoral reform.
He does have the national interest to consider as well as public opinion on 'what looks best'.

Who the Queen entertains on May 7th will be a test of her supposed left-leaning tendencies. Perhaps she will invite all 3 leaders for a private debate whereupon a government of national salvation will be formed.

Would David Cameron gamble on a second election if Labour ditch Brown?

The permutations are endless and probably the Libdem 'surge' will implode somewhat so that 'The Sun' can proclaim a clear victory for David Cameron & the natural order (Etonians on top) will be restored.

BrianB said...

I'm surprised that an Oxford politics lecturer should appear ignorant of, or else fail to acknowledge, the vital background to my blog post, before scolding me so scornfully for writing it. The Cabinet Secretary, on instructions from the prime minister and with the approval of the Justice Committee of the House of Commons, has produced new rules governing the procedures in the event of a hung parliament, including provision that it is not only the right but actually the duty of the incumbent prime minister in a hung parliament to remain in office, meet the new parliament, and submit his government's programme to it in a Queen's Speech, in order to establish whether he still commands the confidence of the House. Moreover, the incumbent prime minister *must not resign* until there is clear and agreed evidence that there is a successor available who would be able to form a government commanding majority support in the House. (This is to avert a situation in which the Queen is placed in the invidious position of having to try to negotiate with the party leaders to try to find a new prime minister.) It's all there in the published draft chapter 6 of the Cabinet Manual at http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/343763/election-rules-chapter6-draft.pdf -- still notionally a draft until formally approved, but already accepted as established doctrine. See also several articles and letters to the newspapers about this by Professor Robert Hazell, founder and head of the authoritative constitution unit at UCL.

There, I have given you enough material for your next several lectures. You may register your thanks and apologies by leaving a message on my own blog, at http://www.barder.com/ephems/, where you will find much fuller material about the important new rule book and other relevant constitutional conventions and principles.

So it's not me advocating that if there's a hung parliament Gordon Brown should "cling to office" right up to the vote on the Queen's Speech: it's the new constitutional rule drawn up by the Cabinet Secretary and approved by the party leaders and the Justice Committee of the House of Commons. Did you really not know anything about it?

Stuart White said...

Brian:

I agree that the PM has a right to stay in office until defeated substantively in a vote in the Commons.

The sense in which there is a 'duty' to stay in office, and whether that would allow for the kind of gamesmanship you propose, strikes me as altogether more disputable. The scenario you propose is so outrageously in violation of basic democratic norms that I frankly don't care a fig if it has the sanction of some senior civil servants and Robert Hazell.

You don't seem to have got the basic signifabnce of this selction: it is, in part, a revolt against the traditional party and political system. It is a moment of constitutional reconstruction, not constitutional normality, which is why your appeal to the official understanding has such an air of unreality - not to mention rank partisan opportunism.

The world is moving on, citizen, and not before time.

BrianB said...

PS: You might also enjoy, or at any rate benefit from, reading the following web pages that provide yet more information about hung parliament procedures (among other things disposing of the fantasy in an earlier comment here that the Queen is going to be inviting a party leader, or even leaders, to the Palace on 7 May to invite one of them to try to form a government -- which won't happen unless either one party wins the election with an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons, or else Gordon Brown resigns within 12 hours or so of the polls closing -- both pretty unlikely on current form):

http://www.democraticaudit.org/download/Hung_Parliament_final.pdf

http://www.barder.com/2495

http://www.barder.com/2485

and the informative comments on
http://www.barder.com/2514.

Happy browsing.

BrianB said...

Stuart,

I can't help admiring the chutzpah of your reply. If you seriously dispute the assertion that the incumbent prime minister in a hung parliament now has a duty, as well as a right, to remain in office until defeated on the floor of the House on a vote of confidence and in particular not to resign until there's "cast-iron" evidence that there's a successor available with a guarantee of majority support in the House, then I can only assume that you still haven't read the documents whose references I have generously given you. Let's hope that your students haven't read them either!

I hope you will continue this dialogue, if at all, by posting any further comments on http://www.barder.com/2514. I'm signing off here, with thanks for the hospitality of your site.

Stuart White said...

Oh, and Brian:

You don't address anywhere in your reply my points that the course of action you propose would be massively costly to the Labour party and would, amongst other things, therefore likely generate immediate opposition from within the party.

Do you mean seriously to suggest that Brown simply has to go down the route you describe regardless of how much support for it he has within the party?

I think it would become pretty clear in a matter of hours that he was incapable of commanding the confidence of the Commons and the course of action you propose would then be farcical. Brown himself would recognise this and might well resign....

And if he didn't? Well, aside from rebellion within his own party, there'd be protests on the streets. Do you really think he could and should carry on with the course of action you propose in these circumstances?

I may be in a Oxford ivory tower, but right now, Brian, I think even I am more in touch with reality than you are....