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. (more…)

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.]

Caveat elector

ConservativeHome and ConservativeIntelligence have just polled the 250 Tory candidates in the party’s most winnable seats.

The survey finds that in terms of personal priorities, cutting the deficit is top-of-the-league. Helping small businesses is priority two and reducing welfare bills is priority three. Interestingly, three issues associated with the modernising agenda (civil liberties, defending the NHS and fighting poverty) score above winning powers back from Europe and reducing the level of immigration.

At the bottom of the league table of personal priorities is a reduction in Britain’s carbon footprint. Just eight adopted candidates said it would be a top priority for them in the next parliament. It was the only policy goal that fell below 3.0 (the middle ranking). If the Tory leadership presses ahead with a decarbonisation strategy it will need to redouble Greg Clark’s tactic of emphasising the wider benefits of all green measures (eg in terms of energy security or household fuel bills). Candidates’ ‘green scepticism’ is shared by the Tory grassroots. 76% of Conservative members want Cameron to focus on energy bills above climate change.

Civilianise ESDP

Earlier in the week, Charlie talked about the Tories’ weakness on foreign and defense policy. In many ways, he gave voice to a view felt across the British foreign and defence community. That the Tories do not have a serious and detailed set of national security policies that can be turned into government action. The contrast to the Obama administration is stark. The Democratic President has been able to populate his administration with America’s finest foreign policy thinkers, all of whom have thought deeply about what a Democratic foreign policy should look like.

The Tories are not the only ones blame for the dearth of policy thinking. The British system of government militates against party-based subject-mater expertise. Parties are meant to develop the broad strokes of ideas, which will then be developed and implemented by officials if they enter government. It is therefore very difficult for the Opposition to attract experienced foreign policy thinkers. The pay is low and the rewards are not as attractive as in the U.S. The most a future British Prime Minister can offer is junior ministerial portfolio, working to a senior politician whose background may not be well-suited for a security-related job.

But one issue can be parked at the Tories’ door. Having canvassed a wide section of the London-based foreign policy community, the one issue that keeps coming up time and again is the Tories’ euro-scepticism. As one senior (and decidedly euro-sceptic) thinker told me: “The Tories are rowing back on the pragmatic NATO-EU policy that Malcolm Rifkind developed when he was Defence Secretary.” A widely-respected senior military commander told me only two days ago: “It’s as if a veil descends across their faces when Europe comes up. They don’t even want to engage. But this is not about a European army; it’s about being able to work with allies.”


The Conservative Party’s Achilles’ Heel: National Security and Defence

Once upon a time the Conservative Party was the natural home for national security policy. Not anymore. A combination of factors including the very necessary rebranding of the party; a focus on climate change, health and education has meant national security policy (in its broadest sense: defence, foreign affairs, and intelligence) is now, arguably, Cameron’s weakest policy area.

When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, he deliberately set out a different vision than that of his predecessors by focusing on policy areas such as health, education and climate change. This was both a reflection of a shift in strategy – to move the Tories away from its ‘nasty party’ image but also because some of the best minds in the Conservative Party were thinking progressively on these issues (health in particular).

During this process of change national security policies largely became second order issues for the new leader. Cameron delegated these policy areas to colleagues, safe in the knowledge, he assumed, that each would be managed by a safe pair of hands. But he underestimated two forces at play. First the decline in knowledge and experience among Conservative MPs (which is still more than the Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined) in these policy areas and second; a lack of fresh and innovative thinking on national security within the party.

Arguably David Cameron’s first mistake was to assume that experience comes with expertise and sound judgement. In a speech to the think tank IISS on terrorism and national security he was quick to make reference to the ‘wealth of experience’ he had, citing numerous Lords and Dames he had recruited. The message was clear: I’m young and fresh but I have experienced politicians and practitioners on tap. But I’m reminded of a brilliant quote by Chris Donnelly, the former special adviser at NATO – who’s now at Oxford University:

In a period of stability and slow evolution our greatest asset is our experience. But at times of revolution our experiences can be fatal baggage. We can no longer assume that, because something we did worked well in the past, it is likely to continue to do so in current circumstances. If we are to survive living in a revolution, we will need to make a correspondingly revolutionary shift in the way we think about both the risk and the response.