Tuesday 11 May 2010

The Ashdown intervention

Paddy Ashdown deserves enormous credit for the strength of the Liberal Democrats. Few now recall the near death experience the party experienced after the 1988 merger and split with David Owen - polling 6% in the 1989 European elections, with the Greens on 15%, yet more than doubling the party's Parliamentary presence by 1997.

Having been left at the altar by Tony Blair in the sunshine of May 1997, it would be an extraordinary turnaround for the "progressive alliance" to be resurrected in government in May 2010.

There were three very important things about his Today programme interview this morning:

1. Despite his health warning that he would advise privately and loyally work for party unity whatever the decision, this was the strongest advocacy by anybody yet of the viability of a Lab-Lib coalition, relying on the poltical reality that the other progressive parties - including the Nats - could not combine with the Tories to turf a coalition out.

"It would be the first British government to have 51% of the people behind it ... I call that legitimacy" he said.

Very significant barriers remain to this Lab-Lib alliance, but Ashdown was immeasurably warmer to it than Labour grandees who considered it impossible on Newsnight last night.

2. Perhaps the most important statement from Ashdown was his clear statement that the LibDems will make a clear choice: that there will very likely be one coalition or the other - and that no LibDem MP thought that the best option was to sit on their hands.

At the outset, the most likely outcome seemed some weak form of supply and confidence of a Tory minority government, in which the LibDems could defend themselves against charges of betrayal from their left-leaning supporters by claiming the decision was not really theirs to make.

The course of events has shown that the decision is theirs to make. Ashdown's statement seemed clear that they will be fully engaged with whichever government they put in.

3. The LibDems will prize their unity and electoral survival in making their decision.

Ashdown often found he had a democratic party that was reluctant to be led - and he is certainly working enormously closely with his party leadership on all of his public advocacy. That makes his de facto advocacy of the Labour option more important - though this could still mean simply that the party needs to show internally that it explored both options fully, or was trying to change the terms with the Tories.

It is widely assumed that Nick Clegg wanted his party to make the coalition deal with the Conservatives, but found his MPs much more reluctant to accept the terms.

This morning's Ashdown intervention seemed to put us very much in 50-50 territory, and tilting leftwards at that. He would make a very effective Defence Secretary for a Lab-Lib coalition, or indeed a Tory-Lib one.

But if the LibDem deal was finally with Labour, it might well be seen as the final act of Paddy Ashdown's party leadership perhaps rather more than Nick Clegg's.


Mark Pack said...

I think you under-estimate the role of Labour MPs in all this. Clearly some of them are quite happy to sink any idea of a rainbow coalition if it involves significant electoral reform.

There's a strong onus on Labour to show that for all the talk about being progressive it can actually deliver the goods. If it can't show there is a plausible alternative, for all the angst that will no doubt be thrown at the Lib Dems by Labour members, smart Labour members will know the responsibility that their own party bears.

Red Rag said...

Brown has played his best political maneuver of his life as he is walking out the door.

In chess terms, he has just looked at Clegg and said "Check Mate".


DespairingLiberal said...

Hasn't Douglas Alexander already ruled out a coalition with the SNP? How pray would a Lib/Lab coalition work without SNP, Plaid and Caroline Lucas on board?

On that front, Caroline has also indicated this morning that she wouldn't regard it as a "progressive coalition" and that presumably means she would attempt to block a lot of things.

Plaid have a deep loathing of the LibDems, with whom they have had some fierce battles.

It just isn't workable - at the moment, Nick Clegg is doing enough public manouvering to demonstrate to his people that he tried with Labour.

Ashdown may have boosted his party, but that doesn't make him the fount of all knowledge on this. He has proven to be a very typical politician in the past, frequently shifting ground.

Sunder Katwala said...

- It is a fair point, well made.

- Though I can not see that AV without a referendum could be asked, offered or delivered.

- Certainly my view is that Labour should offer and advocate legislation and a referendum on AV+ and expect its MPs to back that as a confidence measure, and that the government and party leadership would advocate a yes (with a small number of rebels no doubt on the no side in the referendum itself). It depends if those arguing against the arrangement as the best course of action would then veto it as a matter of confidence. It is necessary to be very clear about that to make the deal. If the party disagrees with David Blunkett, I can't see him doing that myself.

I feel at least some of the Labour objections are particularly to the SNP being in the coalition itself, or having a veto over it.

- I think the Nats negotiating position is much weaker than many assume. It depends on the nuclear option of voting a Tory minority government in (and/or voting to call a general election).

- It is not only the Commons arithmetic that matters. The SNP runs a minority administration in Scotland. I would not want to be Alec Salmond running for re-election in Scotland, having voted in a Tory government in Westminster. You can make an argument that a Tory UK government may help the independence cause, but it would be toxic for the Nats themselves to bring it about.

- Ditto Caroline Lucas. Of couse, she could negotiate on her issues, and I would expect a Lab-Lib deal to contain some significant pro-green content. But she can not finally be a decisive vote in putting David Cameron in, and does not therefore have the nuclear button, though of course a progressive government should engage constructively and respectfully with her and the Green party more generally.