After the vote – resilient strategies

Yesterday, I indulged in some late night speculation, wondering whether the only ‘impossible’ election outcome – the Queen being forced to send parties back to the country – might now have an outside chance of popping out of the pack.

Why consider such an outlandish possibility?

It’s important to do so, I think, because that’s the only way to make good decisions under conditions of radical uncertainty.

Look at how David Cameron’s team is said by the Telegraph to have acted even before polls closed last week:

By shortly after 7pm on Thursday, Jeremy Heywood, the Permanent Secretary at 10, Downing Street, received an extraordinary telephone call.

On the line was one of David Cameron’s closest aides, so confident of a Conservative majority that he spent the next five minutes dictating the names of every minister in the new Cameron government and the names of the civil servants who would be sacked the next day.

Even in the midst of the most unpredictable election in a generation, I suspect the Conservatives were far too committed to their preferred outcome to be well prepared for the labyrinth of choices that would soon confront them.

Similarly, I don’t believe Nick Clegg had really gamed out the dilemma his push for electoral reform would place all leaders in, as they became exposed to the unpredictable and shifting preferences of their own and each others’ backbenchers; and – through a referendum – to those of the public.

I wonder too whether Labour ‘strategists’ (most of whom are actually dyed-in-the-wool tacticians) saw credible routes to power if Gordon Brown resigned. Or was this merely a Hail Mary pass disguised as a game-changing moment?

(My first thoughts when Brown used his decision to stand aside as a negotiating ploy were: (i) Which of the leadership candidates were involved in the decision? And (ii) Will this later be seen in the same light as McCain’s surprise announcement that an unknown Alaskan governor was joining him on the Presidential ticket?)

In conditions of uncertainty, parties need what I think of as resilient strategies – ones that are not easily shifted from long-term goals, but blend this with a sensitivity to unpredictable outcomes, and which look beyond preferred outcomes to encompass a ‘plan b’ (c, d, e…) for failure.

So here’s a question for parties. Which of them has a ‘red team’ that has been isolated from the negotiations and has been asked to think simply about how the party should react to a ‘no deal’?

During the negotiations, the Tories have made major policy shifts, which they are going to find hard to reconcile with their core platform. Labour has initiated what is likely to be a long and acrimonious leadership campaign, which is going to turn it inwards at a time of national crisis. And the Liberal Democrats have sacrificed their reputation as standing for something other than the ‘same old politics’.

Each of them – in different ways – now stands on unstable ground. Unless their strategies are resilient to changed circumstances, they could find their support eroding very fast indeed.

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

After the vote – what if we’re snookered?

A week ago, when I tried to map the outcomes that would follow a close UK general election, I found it hard to find any easy path to the Lib Dems getting their primary goal – electoral reform with full PR.

In all scenarios, I suggested you should:

  • Expect an extended period of political instability at a time when the government will face a highly challenging domestic and international agenda.
  • Give at least reasonable odds for the whole enterprise ending in ignominious failure.

A referendum would de-stabilise any government, I argued. LibCon because ruling partners would campaign on opposite sides. LibLab because there’d be an obvious risk of losing the public vote, especially if the electorate was mostly motivated by a wish to punish the government.

And if a referendum on electoral reform was won, then the Lib Dems would of course want an election as soon as possible. If it was lost, the party would lose its main reason for staying in a coalition.

The fear of these outcomes, meanwhile, would make it harder to form a government in the first place. Why would any party form a deal if it couldn’t be sure what it was going to get for it?

Now we are deep into precisely this mess. The problem has been compounded by the failure of leaders to recognise the first rule of coalition-building: negotiate first with your base.

As I wrote yesterday:

[Cameron] is making a big mistake if he gets out too far in front of his party. He’s going to need every single of his MPs to back his first Queen’s Speech. And he’ll then be vulnerable to any subsequent rebellion turning into a confidence issue.

And what about Labour? […] Assume Brown goes, I simply cannot see how a new leader will have any legitimacy to lead a Lib-Lab coalition and take power as PM. For a start, there’d be a messy and lengthy succession process. After that the new leader would be damaged goods from the get-go – tarred with the ‘unelected’ brush that so damaged his (or her?) predecessor.

Sure enough, Conservative backbench support looks even more shaky now that leaders have suddenly offered the Lib Dems a referendum on electoral reform.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s shock resignation (planned by a small clique) was hailed as a game changer, but a LibLab pact is already facing attack from within his own party (mutual assured destruction for both parties, according to John Reid).

Amidst the uncertainty, too many pundits have tried to maintain the fiction that they know what is about to happen.

How many times have we been told absolute tosh about the negotiations between parties, by people who make it sound as if they have spent the day sitting on David Cameron’s knee, but are actually passing on ill-informed scuttlebutt, or simply making things up?

The truth is this election has left British politics snookered. Four days after the vote, we are still no nearer to knowing what is going to happen.

I’d guess there’s still a good chance that a deal of some sort will be cobbled together in the next few days, but even then, it could fail to make it through a Queen’s Speech (for LibCon a few defectors will have enormous power, while LibLab will need the support or acquiescence of other parties).

So, at the same time, I wonder whether the only ‘impossible outcome’ – the one commentators said could never happen – may now have an outside chance of popping out of the pack.

Maybe we will see no swift resolution, no outbreak of amity, no sudden agreement on what the ‘national interest’ means. Instead, perhaps a fresh election will be the only solution left standing, and not called later this year – but reluctantly – in the next few weeks.

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

After the vote: negotiate first with your base

One lesson I took from from the Northern Irish peace process was that, when building a complex agreement, trouble results if any party forgets this rule: the first negotiation is with your own base.

Republicans understood this well:

Sinn Féin has emphasised that it is involved in a double negotiation – with its political opponents on the one hand, and with its supporters on the other. ‘For the IRA’s position to have been released or made public without its grassroots having had the opportunity to engage … would have been a total disaster,’ Gerry Adams has argued.

But David Trimble failed to keep his base on side, leading to a long period where Unionists were unable to project a credible position at the negotiating table. Their leaders weren’t taken seriously, because no-one could be sure who they were really speaking for.

Back in 2003, the British government was terrified that stalemate was allowing Ian Paisley’s hard liners to grab power – expecting this to lead to a titanic (and fruitless) ‘battle of the bottom lines’. Their pessimism was misplaced. The DUP was able to advance the talks, precisely because it had a much firmer bond with its own supporters.

How does this lesson apply to today’s post-election shake out in the UK?

Nick Clegg has been forced to by his party’s constitution to keep in close contact with his party – he needs 75% of MPs and 75% of the federal executive to approve any deal. He also went out onto the streets to talk directly to demonstrators backing PR.

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Clegg may end up failing to take his party with him – but at least he seems to be trying to keep them on board.

David Cameron, however, seems much more isolated. The Guardian, of course, has an enormous incentive to sow dissent on Tory ranks (it badly wants a Lib-Lab pact that leads to PR), but its account of rebellion within the Conservative Party has a ring of truth about it.

Most damaging was that not all the dissent came from the backbench MPs (who are said to have heard little from their whips). One ‘senior frontbencher’ was prepared to dish the dirt (off the record, of course):

He ran his campaign from the back of his Jaguar with a smug, smarmy little clique – people like Osborne, [Oliver] Letwin and Michael Gove. He should get rid of all of them. The party will settle for nothing less.

For Cameron, there’s an enormous attraction in binding his enemies, the Lib Dems (or as Alex prefers, ‘the frenemy‘) into a formal coalition. He can dump unpopular policies foisted on him by the grass roots, implicate his coalition partners in all the hard decisions about spending, and leave the Lib Dems too unpopular to ever win the argument on PR.

But he is making a big mistake if he gets out too far in front of his party. He’s going to need every single of his MPs to back his first Queen’s Speech. And he’ll then be vulnerable to any subsequent rebellion turning into a confidence issue.

And what about Labour? I wonder if here, too, the interests of the ruling Brownite clan diverge from those of a (currently silent) faction in the party.

Assume Brown goes, I simply cannot see how a new leader will have any legitimacy to lead a Lib-Lab coalition and take power as PM. For a start, there’d be a messy and lengthy succession process. After that the new leader would be damaged goods from the get-go – tarred with the ‘unelected’ brush that so damaged his (or her?) predecessor.

Maybe, maybe, they might hope to wait out the storm that would accompany them taking office and wait for better economic times to heal the wounds – but they’d have a referendum on PR to fight, and that – as I argued last week – could well get ugly.

Surely better to head into opposition with a decent share of the seats and fight a government that – whether its Tory minority or LibCon – will struggle with some of the hardest political decisions of a generation.

But Gordon Brown has no incentive at all to see things that way – opening up a gulf between the leader and a party he still (just about) leads…

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

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