09 May 2010

UK election: Strategic machinations

For political pundits, the negotiations between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and then no doubt Liberal Democrats and Labour are fascinating. However, what it is really about are two things:

- What team implements roughly a similar set of policies overall;
- Whether the economy or electoral reform becomes the priority.

So what are the pressures on the main parties? The tensions are between getting power, and alienating future voters or alienating their own grassroots of voters and members. All of the parties face very different pressures that limit their range of options, as follows...


As the party with the plurality of seats and votes, it has rightfully claimed the greater right to lead a government. Cameron has also appropriately set down some bottom lines, such as defence, Europe and immigration. It is highly unlikely that the Liberal Democrats would push any of these. There are areas of potential agreement, like lowering taxes on the low paid, abolishing ID cards and (unfortunately) the embrace of environmentalism. However, there is a difference of priorities. Cameron has made it very clear the priority must be the economy, in particular addressing the fiscal crisis of the budget deficit. In doing so he comes across as being statesmanlike, focusing on the issue that does have a significant number of his own supporters worried, and the public in general.

The contrast is with political reform, a wider term than "electoral reform" as discussed by the Liberal Democrats. Cameron has proposed a cross party inquiry. He knows this wont be enough for the Liberal Democrats, but he also knows it will appeal to Labour and to many in the general public. To his own party it looks like a good opportunity to dodge proportional representation, but it does give room to talk about a wider range of ideas than electoral reform.

For example, balancing the size of constituencies, reducing the number of MPs, reforming the local electoral system, electing the House of Lords. On electoral reform, several options can be considered, including Labour's preferential voting proposal. Cameron can present any of these for discussion, and can even consider a referendum for some of them. However, he also knows he can't offer a referendum on proportional representation without a major internal rebellion.

By prioritising the economy, Cameron is trying to portray any LibDem claim that electoral reform should be a priority as being the LibDems being self interested from a political perspective. As a result, if the reason the LibDems reject a coalition with Cameron, he can claim he was putting the national interest ahead of politics, but that the LibDems are less interested in governing, but more interested in politics. Cameron also knows that Nick Clegg is in a weaker position than he appears to be. The LibDems only increased their share of the vote by 1%, and lost seats. Clegg is not as popular as many thought, and personally must deliver to his party or he faces a serious challenge. However, Cameron also knows he offers some things to Clegg that Brown cannot:

1. Clegg campaigned on change, yet supporting Gordon Brown to remain PM will be contrary to this. He also doesn't have enough support to demand a new Labour leader;
2. Labour plus LibDems does not create a parliamentary majority. So the SNP and Plaid Cymru may be needed, adding to the complication, the compromise and the sense of it being a coalition of the losers.

However, if a coalition doesn't happen, because the LibDems wont get enough, a minority government could yet be formed. Yet, the LibDems would still want to extract a price for that, and that would have to include electoral reform.

As long as Cameron makes the economy a priority, he can state that he will lead a minority government only if a budget can be agreed that starts to cut the deficit. Other parties that interfere with that will only accelerate another election, an election none of them will want, given it is likely to only benefit the two major parties - as parties that can lead a government.

So Cameron knows he can either negotiate what he wants, or sit back, say that he wont compromise to fit minority special interests, and either sit in Opposition watching Labour have to confront the deficit, or wait for an election.

Cameron should not fear another election, as he can state that it would not be because of him. It would be because minor parties sought to gain more influence than he was prepared to submit to, and because Labour could not lead a stable government. Yet it would be a gamble he could play only once, for if the next election also fails to produce a majority, the pressure for electoral reform would multiply. Under the circumstances, the gamble is probably worth the risk.


Labour has lost, but nothing like as bad as had been anticipated. The strongest cards it can play are incumbency and the broader leftwing affiliation of most of the parties in the House of Commons. Incumbency has already been played though, and has been played too strong. It looks like a defeated Prime Minister believes he is entitled to stay in power. Labour will be aware of this, but also knows the other card is far more important.

The Liberal Democrats used to be a blend of those who believed in small government, with those who thought the Labour Party had gone too far to the left. The small government Liberal Democrats could work with the Conservatives, but they have been overwhelmed by those who came from the SDP, ex. Labour members who had fled a party with a Marxist manifesto. Now, they are to the left of Labour, and so would be less than impressed if Clegg went with the Conservatives, particularly if there is no solid guarantee to hold a referendum on proportional representation. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition would see many LibDem voters swinging to Labour at the next election.

So Labour does have a strong card to play. It knows that maybe a majority of LibDem voters would prefer Labour over the Conservatives. The seats the LibDems lost went to the Conservatives, indicating that the bulk of the remaining LibDem vote are Labour supporters who either voted strategically or were choosing a "safe" alternative to punish Labour. That does not mean they would want a Conservative led government.

However, Labour also knows its weaknesses. The obvious one is that Labour + the Lib Dems does not make a majority. Yet that may not be a major problem. Both the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru are highly unlikely to support the Conservatives, and both are even more unlikely to want another election, so they have little alternative but to grant confidence and supply to a Labour-Lib Dem government, even if it means offering referenda on independence for their nations. Referenda that Labour knows would be lost by the nationalists.

On policies, there aren't any serious difficulties, given that the differences between the parties are not intractable. Labour can concede more than the Conservatives. Most importantly, Gordon Brown has already offered a better deal on electoral reform. Such a deal would include legislation to ensure the next election was under a different system. One compromise that the LibDems might accept is for an elected House of Lords with a form of proportional representation. In short, Labour can offer more on electoral reform than the Conservatives, and this is critical for the Lib Dems.

Yet there does remain a weakness. Gordon Brown. Nick Clegg will be aware that Brown is unpopular, and that one clear verdict of the electorate is that a vast majority of voters do not want a government led by Gordon Brown. However, the Labour Party is too battered by the loss of the election to engage in the coup needed to remove Brown and select a new leader.

Still, if Clegg picks Cameron Labour should not be too upset, for it offers Labour one and potentially two major political gifts.

Firstly, a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition will upset many Lib Dem members and voters, and potentially one or two MPs. This will be particularly if it is achieved without a solid commitment to electoral reform. Labour can sit back and watch that support look for a home. Given the reasonable chance such a coalition would not last a full term, it gives Labour a platform to build upon. Labour can simply say a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for a Conservative led government.

Secondly, if such a coalition embarks on a serious austerity drive, Labour can oppose and seek the votes of the disgruntled.

So, Labour knows the Lib Dems wont want another election that soon, and also that there will be pressure to not support the Conservatives. If the Lib Dems support the Conservatives, then with the exception of Gordon Brown (who will almost certainly face a leadership coup), Labour wont be shedding too many tears, especially if that government faces the political price of reducing the budget deficit.

Liberal Democrats

It's fairly simple. The LibDems have lost seats, and gained only a tiny increase in the proportion of the vote. However, as a party it knows that while it can pick the government, it isn't in a strong position to bargain having lost seats. The only thing that unites the party is a commitment to electoral reform, and it must get the best deal for such reform, otherwise the chance the election has offered will have been wasted. As much as Clegg will want to talk of stable government and the national interest, he knows his party is split between those preferring Labour and those preferring the Conservatives, with the former in a clear majority. What matters the most is ensuring that this position of power delivers the party enough of a chance for electoral reform that it can at least get a referendum it can back to deliver a form of proportional representation. So that deal will be what matters.

Beyond that, Clegg personally would prefer Cameron over Brown. However, a deal with Cameron will upset many in the LibDems, so if it is to happen it better last, be stable, delay an election as long as possible. So he will want it to work, to be able to show policy gains, and then deliver electoral reform.

The same applies to Labour, although he knows that would be more comfortable with the party rank and file. So any such deal would need to be stable, and last.

Why? Because the last thing he wants is another election, an election when many LibDem voters would scurry back to the main parties.

So while he can choose between two suitors, he knows neither suitor will be too concerned if it does not last, because he will be the scapegoat, and another election will not scare them (although Gordon Brown almost certainly would not be permitted by his party to seek another term), but for Nick Clegg, he wont want another election.


Anonymous said...

for a concise run down on the issues of forming a coalition. Ian

Jeremy Harris said...

Can you please explain the following quote to me Liberty..?

"and (unfortunately) the embrace of environmentalism."

I mean do you completely discount the danger to our race posed by; over-fishing, climate change, peak oil, colony collapse disorder (bees), the great pacific garbage patch, ocean acidification and deforestation..?

What planet are you (or do you want to) live on..?

Libertyscott said...

Ian: Malcolm doesn't know much of what he is talking about, since he somehow thinks it is in the interest of a party pushing PR to join a coalition of at least 3 if not 5 other parties, which would be so unstable as to put the British public off of any electoral system that produces coalitions.

Jeremy: Yes, I should explain myself. There is a difference between being concerned about the environment, and the political movement that makes a religion about sacrificing humanity for the sake of everything else.

For example, over-fishing and pollution (air and water) can be addressed by applying property rights to oceans and atmospheres. NZ does this in kind with fishing quotas. Peak oil is not an environmental issue, is an issue of sourcing energy. The bee colony collapse issue is different again, but perhaps private property rights (addressing pesticides) could be applied to that. Deforestation would also be addressed by granting property rights, rather than the tragedy of the commons at the moment.

What I see are some environmentalists who lie about nuclear energy, lie about climate change, and exaggerate problems in many cases, and almost always apply solutions to these problems that attack property rights, demand bigger government and are a hidden agenda against capitalism. Funny how the highest CO2 emitting nations per capita (Persian Gulf states) are never the first target, but rather the old fashioned enemy of most of those embracing this agenda, the US. China, which saw two generations sacrificed to Maoism (supported by more than a few of those in the Green movement now), is now allowed to catch up and pollute as it wishes

Simplistic slogans that embrace ridiculously expensive "renewable" energy, curiously don't embrace hydro energy and are suspicious of nuclear energy, embrace greatly increased taxes and subsidies. Stupid proposals such as opposing larger trucks, a 3rd runway at Heathrow and a religious embrace of high speed railways speak volumes because none of those stand up to any serious scrutiny on environmental grounds.

So THAT is what I mean. I do not mean an understandable rational human concern about environmental issues that drives solutions that do not run roughshod over private property rights and individual freedoms, but use those as tools. I mean the quasi-religious leftwing motivated use of environmental concerns to implement an anti-capitalist, anti-technology, anti-Western agenda.

Jeremy Harris said...

As much as I admire your commitment to your beliefs Liberty, I really don't see how you can believe Libertarianism is the answer for problems such as pollution and global environmental problems... To me (someone who has been involved in law enforcement and the courts my entire adult life) the court system is largely closing the gate after the horse is bolted, people will pollute and infringe on others property rights and the court will enforce as best it can after the fact, only ever recovering a fraction of the damage done, while those who cause the damage will climb to the top as they do in our current system...

In the society you dream of, I see nothing but a swapped court system ever underfunded by voluntary contributions particularly lacking from the wealthiest who infringe on others property rights the most...

No, the left and the current democratic system are far from perfect but are the best hope we have of saving ourselves from our own excesses...

Libertyscott said...

Jeremy: To me there are two points. Firstly, localised environmental problems are resolved by private property rights because there are strong incentives not to destroy the value of what you own. Why kill off a fishery, for example? Why pollute to see a class action lawsuit with an injunction? Why shouldn't a road owner be strictly restricted from allowing emissions to rise above certain levels on neighbouring land, for example?

The state is ALWAYS about closing the gate after the horse is bolted, so I see little difference.

It is glib to claim those who cause the damage climb to the top, unless you are talking about countries where property rights don't exist and government is a tool of thieves and thugs, not protecting people from them.

Since when do the wealthiest infringe on others property rights the most?

I am willing to debate how transnational environmental issues are addressed, and I suggest that if people are convinced of the need for action, they will do so. They will assert their own rights as property owners and consumers, which includes consumer boycotts. Voluntary action, not involving the initiation of force.

By contrast, the left has done a fine job embracing environmentally damaging business (by supporting protectionism for sunset industries) for decades.

You say "saving ourselves from our own excesses". What are these?

Your rhetoric implies a rather cynical and negative view of anyone with wealth, as if it was unearned, or as if large businesses simply do negative. I have yet to be convinced that a small cabal of people in a capital city have ever known better how to allocate people's resources than the people who produce or own them do in the first place.

It would be a nice start if those who believe in the environment were capable of using reason, believed human beings have a fundamental right to not be subject to the initiation of force, and didn't see environmental issues as a justification to have a north-south political war.

Bjorn Lomborg once argued that it would be cheaper to live with global warming, and address real issues like clean water supplies, and availability of HIV drugs than to take the measures proposed by some to stop it. Environmentalists scorned him because he applied economic arguments to their religion.

Says it all really, you are either a Marxist pro-big government, high taxes, anti-capitalist, anti-US, pro-developing countries, anti-aviation, anti-fossil fuels, pro-wind power, pro-railway, anti-free trade, pro-"fair trade", anti-banking sector, pro-nationalised industry environmentalist, or you're the enemy.

For example, when the evidence against a high speed railway in the UK, on environmental grounds (it wont reduce emissions) is presented, it gets ignored and a new report is asked for to give the result wanted by the enthusiasts (which when assumptions are looked at shows the same result as previously assessed).

However, don't anyone dare suggest that the number of buses be cut in London, because many of them most of the time, don't take enough people out of cars to justify the pollution they emit. That would be contrary to the religious mantra that more public transport is good.

I tell you, I've had these debates in public policy and the blinkered approach to policy is frighteningly ignorant and uninterested in the outcomes, just the solutions.

Jeremy Harris said...

Well Liberty I think there is ample evidence that private ownership of land doesn't not automatically equal the best management, especially environmentally, there is a direct incentive for a chemical company to build a plant on land privately owned by them and produce valueable chemicals with the run off destroying the land privately owned the plant is built on... As long as the value of the chemicals produced over the life of the plant is much greater than the value paid for the land there is no reason not to destroy it and simply abandon said piece of land after the plant's useful life... Only regulation can stop such a situation arising...

The same with fisheries, emmissions etc, many humans think in terms of their own lifetimes and immeadite needs, self interest, the profit motive, whatever you want to call it, can and does lead to short term mismanagement for profit...

I think the example of Mark Hotchins here in NZ has shown quite clearly that some of the wealthiest in Auckland society have not respected other's money and are now hiding behind a court system you admit would not be improved upon in a Libertarian society and I contend would have much greater pressure applied on it in such a society as you propose without the resources to prop it up...

I don't begrudge wealthy people their wealth - if earned through honesty and hard work, my father is a property developer and have seen first hand how he has been at odds with the Council from time to time, I accept this as part of being in a society...

The excesses I speak of is our over-consumption of fossil fuels which is linked, directly and indirectly, to all the problems I listed earlier many of which on their own threaten our survival... It is ultimately why I reject your way of thinking, it is a mantra that economic growth is a moral imperative and the fact that economic growth is directly linked with energy use growth, i.e. fossil fuel use growth is troubling, if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change we have to learn to leave these fuels in the ground or consume them much, much more slowly... Your ideology has no answer for that, in fact says to do so would be immoral and that to me, to say hastening our own destruction is moral, equates to quackery...

Libertyscott said...

Jeremy: Well first the runoff cannot be allowed to trespass onto neighbouring land. The calculation needs to take into account the future value of the land as well. It isn't "destroyed", it still exists, but it has a far more limited range of uses for some period. Still, by and large people look after their own property far more effectively than they do for collective property - the Soviet Union was that writ large, council estates are that on a small scale.

Fisheries and emissions haven't been treated with property rights. I can't get my neighbour prosecuted for having an incinerator, though I should be able to, for example.

Hotchins used other people's money that they CHOSE to give him, and may have done so fraudulently. Caveat emptor if you let someone else invest your money for you. It pales into comparison with state run pension and health systems, which guarantee nothing, which operate on a PAYGO basis, give you no right to go to court if you don't get what was promised to you, and you have no choice.

However, the left embrace these appalling schemes as somehow caring? How caring is it to pay taxes (at wildly varying levels) throughout your life and find that, oh actually the state health care system puts you on a waiting list, or doesn't supply the drug that will prolong your life, even if you made no claim at all for decades. The state schemes can be enormous PONZI schemes with no accountability.

I don't believe our survival is threatened. I have seen where people's survival IS threatened, and it isn't because of the consumption of fossil fuels, it is because of a lack of rule of law, a lack of respect of individual rights, kleptomaniacs and foreign government that impose trade barriers.

Economic growth is the growth in human productivity and the means to improve people's standards of living. It does include growth in energy consumption, but then so what? That can come from many sources, but as long as it does not involve trespassing on the rights of others (that includes pollution), and isn't subsidised, the it doesn't matter. I notice how so little time is spent damning the many developing countries that subsidise fossil fuels, rather than let citizens keep their taxes to choose how they spend their money.

If you reject that, you either damn people with the status quo or you believe someone should steal from one group to give to another. It's as simple as that.

I don't believe climate change will be catastrophic, but if people are concerned then they should feel free to pay more for alternatives, but also please get out of the way of them as well. The childishness about nuclear energy for example, the appalling "food miles" excuse for protectionism which can exacerbate CO2 emissions.

I happily believe if people want to do what they think is best to reduce their CO2, they should do so. However, why is it that so many of those who believe that don't want to engage in rational debate on policy, why are their policies almost always about taxes, subsidies and regulations, rather than removing barriers and taxes on alternatives? Moreover, why are so many entirely stupid policies (e.g. Greens wanting to stop foreign ships from carrying cargo on their transit trips) promoted by the environmentalists, which are plainly ANTI-environment?

Pardon me if I don't simply see it as old fashioned state socialism with a new trendy cause attached to it. A fear exacerbated by the deliberate use of the vile term "denial" to equate those who question climate change with holocaust deniers. The motives of those on that side of the spectrum do not appear honest to me.

Jeremy Harris said...

I believe the left embraces "those schemes" because those in poverty get far more cover than they would otherwise...

You said, "Economic growth is the growth in human productivity and the means to improve people's standards of living. It does include growth in energy consumption, but then so what? That can come from many sources, but as long as it does not involve trespassing on the rights of others (that includes pollution), and isn't subsidised, the it doesn't matter." but it does matter, if the growth in human comsumption of fossil fuels is threatening our existence, I would be right in assuming that you believe as long as people understand the problem (and it's consequences) and are free to choose to emit or not, and then emit, that allowing that emission is the moral thing to do..? I view that emission as force initiated against me and my right to have a habitable healthy planet, the problems facing us environmentally are catastrophic and I believe you downplay them because for many of these problems the only answer is a government led change of mindset and expectations...

I also think your emotive language speaks volumes, tax is not theft in a democracy, the people organise a system of government and via their vote grant the powers of taxation and regulation of their lives to others they deem to share their world view... Tax is the way we pay for the things we individually want to see in our society but cannot pay for ourselves, in NZ via the Libertarianz, NZers can choose your model if they so desire but choose to be taxed, so labelling it theft, stealing etc is hardly accurate...

Denial isn't a vile term either, it is one of the processes of greiving, grief that is likely to occur when one realises that the party is over if one wants to have any ability to claim a moral life...