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: 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