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So I’ve done the inevitable London postmortem, and got the worst news out of the way (I will do a final piece tomorrow on turnout, which is the biggest fly in the Labour ointment). London is stuck with Boris for a while longer. But so is David Cameron, which is better news.
Boris continues to be extremely popular among the Conservative grass roots, but polling (which come with heavy caveats) suggests that Boris may be just a bit more “Marmite” than Cameron, and therefore not an overall vote winner.
But Cameron is deeply unpopular with his backbenchers, and not just the usual headbangers like Nadine Dorries. The Tory right have taken the opportunity of electoral battering to loudly promote a more traditionally Tory policy platform, and some indications show it may be working, as gay marriage and Lords reform seem set for the very long grass.
Of course, Cameron’s popularity doesn’t – for the moment – mean there will be an actual leadership challenge. There isn’t an obvious challenger, and because of this, Dorries is likely to fail in her mission to replace Dave. But that doesn’t mean that Cameron’s leadership won’t be challenged, regularly, loudly and increasingly angrily from many quarters of the Tory party and their supportive press. And this matters deeply to George Osborne, widely seen as the man behind Cameron’s modernisation strategy. The more the Tories are seen to fail politically, as his nearest rival Boris soars from strength to strength, the worse it gets for Osborne.
Last year’s election results were a mixed bag not because of the Labour performance, which in England and Wales was excellent, but because of the performance of Tories and the collapse in Scotland. This year neither of those things happened.
The Tories suffered at the worst end of their predictions and also failed to properly dampen Labour victory. Their expectation management prior to the elections were trying to push Labour as having to get 700 seats and that Glasgow and London were the ones to watch. In the end, Labour got well over 800 seats, an overall majority in Glasgow and increased our grip on the London Assembly, despite losing the Mayoralty. And no one is blaming Labour or Ed Miliband for a loss widely attributed to Ken.
This inability to understand the game of expectation management is just one symptom of a malaise that should be much more troubling to the Tories. It is becoming increasingly obvious that from around the time of the unravelling of the Veto that never was the Tory leadership significantly lost their ability to do politics well.
Forget the individually bad polices for a moment, forget even the meta-narratives building up that the Tories are both incompetent and out of touch, forget the omnishambles, forget Jeremy Hunt, forget all the individual difficulties that are assailing the Tories. The fact is, that if the Tories had decent political instincts, the individual mistakes and unpopular policies would not be allowed to build up into the narratives, and the narratives would not be allowed to be so sustained in the public imagination, until they are close to defining this government. But the Tory strategists, led by George Osborne, have been like rabbits caught in the headlights. They’ve had simply no understanding of how to manage a narrative in challenging times.
Perhaps they had it too easy for too long and got lazy, got complacent or got out of practice. From the 2010 election campaign onwards, I’ve often said that I thought David Cameron was lazy and either unwilling or unable to do the heavy lifting. But he has surrounded himself not by people who can fill the gaps, but by those who reflect his best and worst qualities back at him. He’s surrounded by people like him, who are not necessarily the people he needs to help him reach the whole of the country.
This matters to Osborne, who wants to be seen as Cameron’s natural successor. If he can’t turn the tide on the Tory omnishambles; if he can’t shift the blame for that narrative from his disastrous budget and the subsequent handling of it; if he can’t lose the narrative that the Tories biggest problem is that they are “out of touch” he will never lead his Party.
The next big narrative that is building up around the Government is based around the 2015 election. Ever since Alexander signed the Lib Dems up to committing to cuts in their next manifesto live on Newsnight talk of a potential electoral pact between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats has intensified. Cameron chucked a giant can of gasoline on that fire when in an interview for the Evening Standard last week he said of the 2015 election “When it comes to the next election, do you want a Conservative-led Government…”, indicating that he may not be planing to attempt an outright Conservative victory at the next election.
I never used to believe that the Lib Dems would go for either a coupon election or a permanent pact. I thought the worst they would go for would be to prop up a minority Tory Party using a deviation of their standard branch of twisted electoral math.
But I’m increasingly believing it will be possible. It explains Clegg’s continued relaxation about his failure to differentiate his Party from the Tories. It follows the Lib Dems ever-increasing willingness to trade nominal power for their few MPs for their local electoral base, for their principle and for the prospects of their long-tern survival.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the ways in which the Lib Dems were and weren’t proving that coalition works. If they allow themselves to be seduced into a coupon election or an electoral pact in 2015 for their short-term gain, they will regret it immensely in the long term. It will be the end of their democratic values. It will see them hemorrhage support in the North and it will ultimately prove to everyone watching once and for all, that coalition doesn’t work. That doesn’t seem like a price worth paying, but it is a price I can see Nick Clegg easily sacrificing. His Party can and must stop him for thier own good.
Labour had a good win on Thursday electorally. People with newly elected Labour representatives have people on their side against the Government, ready to do what they can to help. This is the main prize. But the exposure of the political weakness of the Tories, and the continuing exposure of the Lib Dems to the reality of their Faustian electoral pact is not to be dismissed.
It is a truism that oppositions don’t win elections, Government’s lose them. I don’t believe this. Labour still have a lot of work to do, a fact rightly recognised by Ed Miliband. But the Tories are being exposed not just for the inept government, but for the increasingly obvious fact that they have little strategic ability, and less understanding of how to do politics in tough times. Long may that continue.
I absolutely applaud Harriet Harman’s brilliant response to the Queen’s speech, and the understanding that Labour cannot and must not oppose everything the new Government propose to do. We want to be an effective opposition, and to do so means supporting those measure we can see value in. So first of all, I applaud the moves to remove ID cards, an expensive and damaging misadventure and an issue Labour should close the book on once and for all by not opposing this bill. I applaud the linking of state pensions with earnings. This will make the lives of the elderly easier and reward them better for their service.
But effective opposition must be opposition. And there is plenty in the coalition document and the queen’s speech not just to oppose, but to counter.
Firstly David Cameron’s description of the new Government as “Liberal Conservative” is about right. Certainly they would have a hard time at the moment claiming the other word from the Lib Dems moniker, given current moves to gerrymander Parliament with the 55% rule, the stuffing of the House of Lords and The craven behaviour over Short money.
Let’s examine those issues one at a time.
55% Rule and Fixed Term Parliaments: I think fixed term Parliaments are – on balance – a good thing. I agree that a Prime Minister shouldn’t have the right to call an election at a time that is politically convenient to their party. There are of course problems with fixed term parliament, and we would move to a permanent campaign. It wouldn’t stop the problem of pre-general election spending by Government, just formalise the time-table. However, on balance I am in favour of putting into law a fixed four year term of office to bring a bit more stability to our electoral cycle.
However, the 55% rule is unnecessary and undemocratic. One of the main arguments employed for the forming of this coalition is that it provides “stable Government” in such a way that no other combination would have done. But it is only stable so long as the Lib Dems remain in the coalition. If they bail, the Government becomes a failing Government, limping on without the trust of Parliament because the vote percentages were stitched up to keep the Lib Dems from having the power to bring the Government down. If the 55% rule is brought in without a sunset clause, it will also be a rule for this Parliamentary circumstances that affects all Parliaments for years to come. That’s not good law making.
My modest proposal – thrashed out in my office (and not first proposed by me but by my Tory colleague) would be to bring in a law that stated a new Government has to stipulate by law on arrival in the Comons after every general election, the date of the next election which will be precisely 4 years hence (give or take the few days difference it would need to make it happen on the correct day or days). This only exception to this rule would be if a Government failed sooner than 4 years, and a dissolution of Parliament were voted on with a majority of 50% + 1 as now, a General Election would be held. However, the new Government would not be permitted to overrule the set date of the election, and could only govern between the interm General Election and that date. This would stop the benefit to bringing down an unpopular government of gaining the opposition parties a full Government term, but would also mean that a failed Government could be properly removed if that were the will of the people.
Gerrymandering the Lords: The Coalition Agreement has this to say about the House of Lords:
”We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election.”
This is complete Gerrymandering. The Lords are an important part of political scrutiny, and were essential in curbing some of Labour’s excesses (for example on 42 day detention). Labour were defeated in the Lords over 400 times. If the ConDems pack the Lords to “reflect the share of the vote” it will give them a massive majority, meaning far less scrutiny of Government legislation. That’s just not good for democracy. The other concern is that these new Peers will all be grandfathered through, stacking the upper chamber not just for this Parliament, but for years and years to come. I am 100% in favour of a fully elected House of Lords – and don’t want to see a place for the Lords Spiritual or the Law Lords in the legislature. But it must be a fair House of Lords, with all current peers abolished and those who wish to return running for election. Grandfathering should not be on the table, and neither should stacking the Lords in the coalition’s favour before any election is held. There were no Lords candidates on my ballot on May 6th.
Short Money: The Lib Dems trying to claim Short money is an utter, utter disgrace. Short money is there for parties in opposition to pay for the support they don’t get from the Civil Service. There are 21 Lib Dem Ministers in Government before we even begin to count PPSs’ and there are only 57 Lib Dem MPs altogether (in the interests of fairness, I should point out that 4 of the Lib Dem ministers are Lords). A huge proportion of the Lib Dem Party is now supported by the Civil Service. Far more so than – for example – the Tories who aren’t trying to claim Short Money, or Labour in 1997 who got no Short money either. An argument I have heard from Lib Dems is that you shouldn’t have to pay to go into power, but you aren’t. It’s a facetious argument. You are receiving a certain amount of support from the state, but in a different way. You also have power. All parties who go into Government lose this money. What make the Lib Dems different? Other than the vast imbalance between their representation and the civil service support they are getting through going into the coalition.
This coalition is going to have to learn it can’t have things both ways. It can’t have the benefits of being a coalition (power, the ability to junk the inconvenient bits of your manifesto etc) and none of the more difficult things that come with it. If they are even remotely serious about “new politics” they will have to rethink all these areas. If they aren’t and this is as silly a strap line as “New Labour” then I suspect it will become just as much of a millstone as that phrase did for the Labour Party – but perhaps far quicker.