After the vote: electoral reform

I have been wondering how the road to reform of the British electoral system might play out. Assume Thursday’s vote gives the Liberal Democrats sufficient power to extract a pledge from one of the other parties to move this agenda forward, what might we expect to ensue?

An easy way to address this question is to assume the Lib Dems end up in the (perhaps unlikely) position of being given everything they ask for on the issue.

A bill would swiftly be pushed through Parliament to switch future elections to Single Transferable Vote in multi-member seats, right? After all, the party’s policy brief on political reform is unequivocal (if frustratingly lacking in detail) on the subject:

The Liberal Democrats will change politics forever and end safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs, and for the House of Lords.

Well, no, changing politics forever may not be nearly as simple as that.

The Lib Dems can hardly claim a mandate for a fundamental transformation of British democracy based on what Nick Clegg derides as a ‘clapped out’ and ‘potty’ electoral system.

After all, the party knows that polls suggest public ambivalence, at best, about PR. It would have to offer a ‘fair vote’ on a concrete reform proposal. To me, that means a referendum would be inevitable.

Lib Dems concur. The party’s manifesto describes STV as its ‘preferred’ system, but it also promises to ‘introduce a written constitution’:

We would give people the power to determine this constitution in a citizens’ convention, subject to final approval in a referendum.

So, in the Lib Dem ‘dream scenario’, a government would be expected to

  1. Set up a process that it wouldn’t fully control (and that’s not to criticise the need for inclusion and consultation).
  2. Through that process, agree a constitution that would contain a package of issues that went far beyond electoral reform.
  3. Put the whole package to an up-or-down vote and then live with the consequences.

All this would, presumably take time (creating new constituencies would then take even longer). In some ways, this would be good for the stability of a coalition. After all, the Lib Dems will have an enormous incentive to trigger a new election once PR is in place.

But there would be considerable political dangers as well. One can’t help being reminded of the tortuous process that led to the Lisbon Treaty. It also started life at a citizen’s convention and then floundered through a series of referenda.

Surely a Lib Dem-ish government would risk losing a vote on PR because the electorate objected to other parts of the proposed constitution; or was angry with the government for other reasons (highly likely, in an era of austerity) and used the referendum to punish it.

And if the referendum was rejected, wouldn’t the government fall as well? Either because the Lab Dems pulled support in a huff. Or because the government was simply discredited by losing such as important vote. Continue reading

After the vote: how would a coalition change policymaking in Whitehall?

In a post on Friday, I looked at the potential composition of a coalition government, and which Cabinet posts might be most attractive in negotiations between the two governing parties. But what would it all mean for public administration – for how business gets done in Whitehall?

First up, there’s the point that a coalition government would seem likely to lead to longer ministerial tenures. Cabinet reshuffles are politicised at the best of times, but in a carefully hammered out coalition government, they’re likely to look like the penultimate move in a drunken game of Jenga. So in order to avoid the coalition from collapsing, we can probably assume that ministers will be left where they are unless there are really compelling reasons to move them – e.g. a resignation offence. Given the sometimes absurd rapidity with which ministers have been moved about under Blair and Brown, this prospect should cheer us all.

There’s also a subsidiary uncertainty here, of whether Nick Clegg would demand and win the right to hire and fire the Lib Dem ministers in the Cabinet (or to make ‘recommendations’ to the PM). But even if he did, I still think the point about leaving ministers where they were, except in extremis, would hold: if one member of the coalition reshuffled its team while the other didn’t, it would look weak.

Second, we have some interesting uncertainties to savour over what would happen about junior ministers. Would Cabinet ministers have to work with junior ministers from other parties – and if so, would they really enjoy the confidence of their Secretary of State? Or would we be looking at entire departments becoming party fiefdoms – raising the delicious possibility of (say) a Lib Dem Foreign Office having to work with a Conservative DFID?

On a related note, I suspect a coalition government might well lead to a sharp rise in the number of Special Advisers, as the complexity of working through party political implications of policy suddenly increases by an order of magnitude.  In a scenario of junior ministers hailing from different parties to their Secretaries of State, it wil be interesting to se whether junior ministers get their own advisers – as is already informally the case in a few departments in Whitehall.

But in particular, coalition government would clearly lead to a seismic shift in cross-Whitehall co-ordination mechanisms – above all the Cabinet Office and the private office network (the all-important web of relationships between ministers’ Principal Private Secretaries in different departments). In one sense, of course, these mechanisms are extremely well-versed on brokering agreement between departments warring over policy. It’s what they do for a living. But on the other hand, a Whitehall turf war starts to look very different when two political parties are involved – risking, at worst, the sustainability of the coalition itself.

Maybe the Cabinet Office would rise to the challenge and prove itself able to bang heads together in coalition government as in other contexts.  The problem it faces, though, is the extent to which recent years have seen the Cabinet Office evolve towards being a de facto Prime Minister’s Department. Could it still be perceived as neutral if it were regarded as answering to the PM rather than (as traditionally) to the Cabinet as a whole – and hence to one member of the coalition more than the other?

Above all, there’s the question of where inter-ministerial discussions would actually happen. Would Cabinet – and its associated subcommittees – be the where the action takes place on inter-departmental (and hence inter-party) negotiations? Or would the real work shift towards back-room deals between party leaders and party machineries?

One might expect Her Majesty’s Civil Service to take a particularly lively interest in the answer to this question, and to do everything they can to nudge the answer towards the former. Sue Cameron‘s column this week demonstrates the acuteness of civil servants’ hopes and fears for a hung parliament…

The question is whether civil servants will be allowed much of a role in any negotiations. There are hopes that in a hung parliament they would be able to claw back some of the influence that they have lost to political advisers. This would be most welcome given that policy performance in recent years has so often been so poor. I fear it is far more likely that politicos in a hung parliament will insist on their personal aides/courtiers/spin doctors being in charge of all horsetrading.

Sounds about right to me – though I’m much less of a standard-bearer for Northcote-Trevelyan than Sue is, and so view this prospect with more equanimity than she does.

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]

Coalition scenarios for the UK election

So with a week to go until polling day and the polls still suggesting the possibility of a hung Parliament as the result of the gripping election campaign currently underway in Britain, this is as good a moment as any to start thinking through how such a scenario might pan out – and what it will mean for Whitehall and foreign policy.

First, the obvious question of what colour coalition we might end up with. Many in Labour had assumed that the Lib Dems’ natural inclination would be to snuggle up with them, given their shared progressive tendencies. Rather a rude awakening for them, then, to see Nick Clegg distancing himself from Labour last weekend – prompting plaintive noises from David Miliband on Twitter, who complained that

“Clegg swerve to back Tories needs to be explained to all progressive minded voteras. Old politics not new.”

But according to a senior Tory I spoke to earlier this week, it’s straightforward political logic that the Conservatives would be the Lib Dems’ first choice as a coalition partner, given the political risks they’d run for the next election campaign if they were seen to have propped up “the fag end of an unpopular government”. Well, maybe, maybe not – Lib Dem activists and MPs, most of whem are well to the left of Nick Clegg, might have something to say about that.

More interestingly, though, this same Tory also suggested to me that David Cameron himself might secretly prefer a coalition with the Lib Dems – if the choice is between that and a wafer-thin outright majority.  Cameron’s own position as party leader would be secured by an outcome that puts him in Number 10, coalitions included. But the wafer thin majority scenario would face him with the horrendous possibility of his administration being John Major 2.0 – with Number 10 held to ransom by MPs well to the right of the Cameroons’ Tories.  (As polling of the Conservatives’ prospective parliamentary candidates shows, many of the likely new intake of Conservative MPs are not, shall we say, in the same place as Global Dashboard readers on issues like Europe or climate change).

A coalition government, on the other hand, might strengthen Cameron’s hand considerably – above all when it comes to making the tough calls needed on public spending cuts. A government with a tiny majority and less than a third of the popular vote has a de facto legitimacy problem in taking brutal decisions. A coalition with 60% of the popular vote, on the other hand, will find it much easier to claim a serious mandate – if it can agree a joint program.

But it’s also too soon to rule out the possibility of a Lib / Lab coalition. There’s a whiff of panic in the air, with even seasoned commentators questioning whether Labour could be obliterated as a political force. My old boss Matthew Taylor said two days ago that “if Labour trails in a bad third next week, a divided, demoralised and impoverished Party could easily go into a long term decline, becoming a Party whose highest realistic aspiration is to a be a minority partner in a future coalition”; Rachel Sylvester, too, asks whether we’re looking at “the end for Labour”. All this may make for fertile ground for a further-reaching coalition deal than the Tories would be willing to offer – and note that Nick Clegg followed his appearance on the Andrew Marr show with an interview with Patrick Wintour setting out his terms for a deal with Labour.

Whichever of the two big parties the Lib Dems get into bed with in a hung parliament scenario, a massive what-if will be whether The Deal is just a short term political pact – on that runs through to October 2011, say – or a proper continental-style Coalition, built to last for a four year term.  And that brings us to one of the biggest questions in all this: what would be the Lib Dems’ top negotiation priorities.

To the extent that the media are asking this question, their main assumption is that it will be electoral reform that sits at the top of Nick Clegg’s shopping list.  But while that certainly does matter for them, the other sine qua non will be as many seats in the Cabinet as possible. This is all about being seen to be a serious party, ready for government. Today, the Lib Dems have zero ministerial experience, and only two front benchers with national recognition (Clegg and Vince Cable). But if they secured – say – five Cabinet seats, and held on to them for four years, then that could shift how people see the party for good.

I agree with that analysis – and would only add that given the public spending context, there’ll be much more of a premium on some jobs than others. Of course, the obviously top jobs – PM, Chancellor, Foreign and Home Secretaries – will be desirable simply by dint of profile and prestige, even if (as in the case of Chancellor) they’ll be unpopular due to spending cuts. (Interesting to note, incidentally, that in his Paxman interview, David Cameron ruled out any possibility of Vince Cable being Chancellor in a Tory / Lib Dem coalition, saying he disagreed with his underlying analysis of the crisis. That would of course increase the chances of a Lib Dem foreign secretary, always a more politically straightforward job to give to a ‘frenemy’: c.f. David Miliband under Gordon Brown, Joschka Fischer under Gerhard Schroder).

As for the other posts in the Cabinet, I think they’ll fall into two camps. On one hand, there’ll be the big public spending departments: Children & Schools, Housing & Planning, Work & Pensions, Communities & Local Government, Transport, Defence, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Running any of these departments will, for the most part, involve a whole world of pain: unpopular cuts, furious public sector workers who will spend much of their either abusing you or on strike (or both), and a steady stream of bad news stories. I’d also include Health in this list, as I simply don’t believe that any party will be able to protect it a hundred per cent.

And on the other hand, those departments that are not primarily about spending money: Business & Innovation, International Development, Energy & Climate, Environment & Food, Culture (plus the Leaders of both Houses, and Chief Whip). Given the choice, wouldn’t you rather have one of these?  And what’s interesting from a Global Dashboard perspective is that suddenly it’s the departments for global issues that are the really interesting ones, rather than (as has traditionally been the case) the big spending departments.  Also interesting is that these are some of the issues the Lib Dems are most interested in.

So much for the political stripe of a coalition government and its ministerial composition.  Next question: how might it change the way policymaking works in Whitehall?

[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]