My guesses about the upcoming UK general election

Might look slightly different in a few weeks.

Brian Barder, a retired diplomat who has been Britain’s senior representative in five countries (as Ambassador in Ethiopia, Poland, and Benin, and High Commissioner in the Commonwealth nations of Nigeria and Australia,) maintains a blog on which he has recently been sharing his thoughts about the general election that will be held in the United Kingdom on the seventh of May.  A while ago, he gave his opinion that the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party (or SNP, as it is known) were likely to form an agreement after this election under which Labour would conduct a minority government with the SNP lending its support when needed to pass relatively controversial legislation.  In two posts (here and here,) Ambassador Barder* recommended that Labour and the SNP should negotiate the terms of this agreement before the election, ideally in public, so that the electorate would know what it was being offered.

I believe that such public negotiations would be unwise.  At election time, parties ask activists to volunteer a great deal of time, do a lot of hard work, and present themselves to the public at a considerable risk of rejection and abuse, all without monetary compensation.  Their motivation is their belief in their party’s destiny and the opposing parties’ wickedness,  Public negotiations based on the premise that Labour will not win a majority, but will do a deal with one of its fiercest opponents, would demoralize Labour’s activists and energize supporters of the other parties.  Here is the first comment I offered in response to one of Ambassador Barder’s posts on this topic:

Surely if substantive conversations are going on between Labour and SNP, we won’t know about them for many years. No political party would be well-advised to publicly concede, prior to an election, that it does not expect to win a majority and is planning to govern in concert with a party whose chief commitment is deeply at odds with its whole outlook and tradition.

“To empty chair” is indeed an awkward construction.** “To graveyard whistle” has at least the benefit of being intransitive, so it doesn’t drop a direct object thudding onto the end of the phrase. And I do suspect you are engaging in a bit of graveyard-whistling in this post. If Scootland (sic) does vote as overwhelmingly for SNP as now seems likely, and if as a result of that vote SNP becomes a powerbroker at Westminster, the Scottish branches of the other parties will likely go the way of their counterparts in Northern Ireland. A Scotland where politics is a contest between the SNP and two or three Scottish Unionist parties without formal affiliations south of the border may not lead to the breakup of the UK, but it’s hard to see how it doesn’t advance the ghettoization of Scotland in the same way that such a party system has contributed to the ghettoization of Northern Ireland.

Ambassador Barder responded to this as he customarily does, with unfailing promptness and consideration.  He enlarged on his idea that Britain has entered a period of “New Politics,” in which an honest admission that multiparty politics have come to stay is likelier to help a party than to hurt it.

I cannot say that I was convinced by this argument, admirably though Ambassador Barder stated it.  I did raise another concern in this followup comment:

“enough LibDems and some other fence-sitters might be tempted, or bribed, to vote for the status quo to rob Labour of its opportunity to take office.” Difficult as it is to predict first-past-the-post races where the polls show so many parties receiving 5-10% support, I can’t really imagine the LibDems winning enough seats this year to hold the balance of power. They have enough strongholds now that they are unlikely to be wiped out completely, but they look to be headed for disaster.

Be that as it may, my greater concern is not so much with the Westminster parliament beginning this year as with subsequent parliaments in Westminster and Holyrood. If SNP comes close to the level of success the polls are now predicting, it will be very difficult for any ambitious Unionist politician in Scotland to support Scotland’s current party system. A party that represents none but Scottish interests and that can point to a time when the UK government depended on its support for its continued existence will have a credibility that no local branch of an all-UK party will be able to claim. To compete with that kind of appeal, Scots Unionists will have to form their own party, matching the SNP’s independence from London and erasing divisions among the old parties. That would be a new politics, all right, but the experience of Northern Ireland shows that it would likely be a dead end that would leave the UK longing for the old politics.

I must also say that you seem to have made rather a damaging admission when you say that “there isn’t necessarily anything substantive” for Labour and the SNP to discuss. If all the agreement that’s needed is on the sort of points that can be settled with a smile and a nod, then what is the need for these Labour-SNP talks you keep proposing? As for the pig-in-a-poke argument, who doubts that if Labour and SNP combine for a majority of seats they will arrive at just such a confidence and supply arrangement as you propose? And if they don’t combine for a majority, well, who cares what the eventual losers planned to do had they won an election?

Ambassador Barder added his reply to these concerns as a note within the original comment, saying that SNP would not actually have much power were it to enter a confidence and supply arrangement with Labour, since its supporters so hate the Tory Party (also known as the Conservatives) that they could not credibly threaten to throw their support to it.  This made me wonder why SNP would enter an arrangement that did not give them new power.  They are a political party, after all, power is their business.  But I did not want to drag the discussion out, so I left it there.

A few days ago, Ambassador Barder posted his reflections on the televised debate held last week among the leaders of the seven parties contesting multiple seats in Britain.***  Ambassador Barder indicated his overall assessment of the debate with the title “Ten Depressing Things About the Seven-Leader Election Debate Last Night.”  Several of the depressing things had to do with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s not-very aggressive approach to his Tory counterpart, British premier David Cameron; another had to do with Liberal Democratic Party leader Nicholas Clegg’s focus on deficit reduction.  The non-depressing things were to be found in the fine performances of the three women on stage, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, and Plaid Cymru (viz, Welsh nationalist) leader Leanne Wood.****

In the weeks since that earlier post, I’d thought more about the election, and Mr Miliband’s behavior in the debate, like Ms Sturgeon’s and Mr Clegg’s, seemed to be quite reasonable.  In a comment, I began to explain:

I’m beginning to suspect that the likeliest outcome is a grand coalition. I know that all the insiders keep saying that the SNP vote won’t be nearly as high on the night as the polls are suggesting, and they may be right, but there is still likely to be a parliament in which SNP, plus either Labour or the Tories, would have a majority. I can’t imagine Labour doing anything that would help SNP present itself to Scottish voters as a serious force in national politics, and Tory backbenchers are all going to be such in a cold sweat if the UKIP vote swings even a dozen seats from Conservative to Labour that any leader who wanted to make a deal with SNP would be ousted immediately. So that leaves a grand coalition as the only available outcome. Unless, of course, the SNP vote collapses more dramatically than anyone is predicting while UKIP surges more dramatically than anyone is predicting, in which case Labour may squeak in with a narrow majority,

So perhaps what we saw in the Miliband-Cameron exchanges was a phase in what you’ve been calling for, a semi-public discussion between potential coalition partners, and not a debate between opponents at all.

Ambassador Barder’s response to this was rather incredulous.  I quote it in full:

I don’t believe that a ‘grand coalition’ of the Conservatives with Labour is conceivable or desirable. I can’t imagine that Ed Miliband, brought up from infancy in the heart of the Labour party, would consider it for a second: I’m convinced that he would resign as leader without hesitation in the unlikely event that his party colleagues tried to steer him into it. It would split the party in a way that would make the defection of the Gang of Four seem like a minor disagreement among friends. The echoes of Ramsay MacDonald, the great betrayer, would be defeaning. A huge proportion of Labour party members (certainly including me!) would resign from the party in anger and disgust if the Labour leadership were to go into a partnership with the most reactionary, anti-social, inhumane, chauvinist and incompetent Conservative party of our lifetimes. Conflicting attitudes to Europe and to the welfare state alone make any such collaboration unthinkable. I guess that the Conservatives would be equally deeply split. It’s not as if the country faces the kind of existential threat that made an all-party national government essential in 1939-40: we face grave problems but there are clear remedies for most of them readily available — and almost no consensus between the two major parties about what the remedies should be. And, finally, it’s unnecessary. As experience in Scotland and continental Europe has demonstrated, a minority government can function quite satisfactorily in a multi-party parliament provided that it can forge temporary ad hoc alliances on specific issues at different times to enable it to win parliamentary support for at least some of its programme.

To which I responded:

The makeup of the next government all depends on what the state of parties is after the election, of course. If, let’s say, Labour win enough seats that they can put together a majority by agreement with either the LDP or SNP or a combination of other small parties, then there will be a chance of a government based on “temporary ad hoc alliances on specific issues at different times.” If, however, it turns out that Labour and the Tories are each separated from an overall majority by fewer seats than SNP hold, that will be impossible.

Granted Labour voters are deeply hostile to the Tories, and would hate a Grand Coalition almost as much in 2015 as they did when Ramsey Macdonald tried it in 1931. But that does not mean that a party split would be on the cards, as it was then, if Ed Miliband were to form such a coalition as a way of keeping SNP on the fringes of UK politics. Labour politicians may share some measure of their supporters’ antipathy to the Tories, but in the SNP they see a direct threat to their own personal ambitions. A Labour-SNP pact would risk putting the SNP in a position of dominance in Scotland in decades to come comparable to that which the Ulster Unionist Party held in Northern Ireland half a century ago, and no Labour politician can fail to see how dramatically that outcome would reduce his or her chances of ever being a senior figure in government. And if no Labour MPs bolt the party, there can be no party split, no matter how unhappy the rank-and-file may be.

An historical comparison that comes to mind is the aftermath of the February 1974 General Election. After his meeting with Ted Heath, Jeremy Thorpe announced to the press “He offered us nothing.” Well, of course Heath offered Thorpe nothing. Moderate, pro-Common Market, anti-Powellite Tory MPs- precisely that faction of his party who formed the core of Heath’s support- tended to represent moderate, pro-Common Market, anti-Powellite constituencies which were the most responsive to Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party, and so those MPs saw in the Liberals an immediate threat to their ability to hold their seats. By approving a deal that would have made the Liberals a serious party of government those MPs would have been signing their own political death warrants. Far better to let Harold Wilson form another government and to oppose that government than to make a bargain that involves the end of one’s own career.

Continuing with the scenario in which SNP could provide a majority to either Labour or the Tories, we can rather safely rule out the idea that one of the major parties might carry on for more than a few months as a minority government with a confidence and supply arrangement with the other. That arrangement would give the official opposition all the power and none of the responsibility in the policy-making process. Assuming neither Labour nor the Tories want to call a second election before the year is out, that means a Grand Coalition.

Again, that is only one possible scenario. I notice that 538 dot com is now***** predicting that the new parliament will be made up of 287 Tories, 271 Labour, 42 SNP, 27 LDP, 17 from the Northern Ireland parties, and 6 others. If that comes true, there would be almost as little prospect of a Labour government sustaining itself by the sort of shifting alliances you describe as there would be if (let’s say) Labour and the Tories tied at 287 with SNP holding 42 seats and a majority for either. Labour would need the SNP and virtually everyone else any time they faced Tory opposition, a situation that could well require the party not only to give up on Scotland but to write off seats wherever the LDP or Plaid Cymru were strong. Even if Ed Miliband’s upbringing had instilled in him a genuinely fanatical hatred of the Tories, he would have to match that hatred with an equal hatred of the Labour Party to try that course.

As for the Tories, under the 538 dot com scenario they too would be stuck with a Grand Coalition. As I mentioned in my first comment, UKIP doesn’t have to win a single seat to scare Tory backbenchers into demanding that their party turn further to the right. They just have to receive, in a handful of constituencies, more votes than separated the Tory candidate from the winning candidate. That will tell Tory backbenchers that if they do not appease UKIP voters they might lose their seats. So a Tory deal with SNP would not only be unpopular in Scotland, it would be a non-starter in the parliamentary Tory party. Likewise a renewed pact with the LDP, even if the LDP had the votes to give the Tories a majority. The only government the Tories could enter, on 538 dot com’s projection, would be a Grand Coalition, as indeed the only government Labour could enter on that projection would be a Grand Coalition.

When so many voters are leaning to minor parties, polls are particularly tricky to evaluate, so it is certainly possible that one of the major parties could emerge with a majority, or that LDP might bounce back and be in a position to give Labour a majority, or that multiple small parties will break through and it will become possible to have the a government by ad hoc, informal agreements. At the moment, however, the likeliest outcome of next month’s general election would seem to be a Grand Coalition. Mr Miliband’s debate performance, the aspects of it that puzzled you, might then be best understood as a stage in the negotiations to set that coalition in place. For that matter, both Ms Sturgeon’s glittering performance in the debate and the peculiar controversy that has sprung up about her since then might be evidence that she too expects such a coalition to emerge, and is taking advantage of the freedom it gives her to attack both Labour and the Tories as the tactical exigencies of the moment may require.

As this comment was already quite unreasonably long, I did not add that Mr Clegg’s focus in the unpromising topic of fiscal rectitude might make quite a bit of sense if he expected his party to be in opposition to a grand coalition in the next parliament.  Before they became a party of government by entering the present ruling coalition with the Tories, the Liberal Democrats tended to be something of a clean government lobby, hectoring whichever party was in power about administrative irregularities and, especially, about cloudy statements from the Treasury.  Perhaps Mr Clegg is preparing the Liberal Democrats for a return to this role.

Ambassador Barder, in his reply to this, expressed admiration for my “ability to marshal such a weight of argument and evidence in support of such an inherently improbable proposition.”  He went on to defend his view that a grand coalition is still overwhelmingly unlikely to be the result of the election, pointing out that the manifestos of SNP, the Greens, and Plaid Cymru are so much closer to what Labour voters want than are the policies of Labour’s own leadership that Labour would be risking a massive revolt if it did not strive to make a deal with them.  He closed with “We shall see!,” a nice way of asking for respite.

My reply started with a pleasantry, to assure Ambassador Barder that I appreciated his time and efforts, and proceeded to another bland remark that I hoped would allow us to part in good spirits:

Thanks very much for your replies. You are not only consistently informative and thought-provoking, but may well be the most courteous blogger on the web.

Certainly, in view of Labour’s history, a grand coalition is an “inherently improbable proposition.” But the very thing that makes politics so fascinating is that yesterday’s inherently improbable proposition can occasionally become today’s sole viable alternative, and tomorrow’s tediously settled reality. Who knows, perhaps the next parliament will feature something even harder to imagine than a Labour-Tory coalition. Indeed, we shall see!

*Brian Barder would more properly be referred to as “Sir Brian,” since he is a Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.  Those sorts of titles strike me as impossibly silly, however.  Since he is an extremely polite person, I will not call him simply “Barder.”  So “Ambassador Barder” it is.

**In that same post, Ambassador Barder had complained about this ungainly neologism.

***Leaders of parties contesting seats only in Northern Ireland were not included, nor were leaders whose parties were not likely to keep their deposits in more than one constituency race.

****Nigel Farage of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) struck Ambassador Barder as “the most shameless,” an unsurprising assessment given Mr Farage’s low opinion of the institutions to which Ambassador Barder has devoted his life’s work.

*****That’s what 538 was predicting when I wrote that comment.  It’s adjusted the prediction a bit in the hours since.  Now, Labour are down to 270 and SNP are up to 43.

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5 Comments

  1. brianbarder

     /  April 19, 2015

    I’m impressed by the amount of time and space you’ve devoted to reproducing our exchanges on my own blog and I don’t think it would add anything to them for me to repeat here what I have written there. So please let me make just two brief points. 1. Your summaries of my views in this post are not always entirely accurate (although I’m sure you have not misrepresented me deliberately). Anyone who wants to read an accurate account of my views is welcome to read them in http://www.barder.com/4429 and the comments on it. 2. British ambassadors cease to be addressed as ‘Ambassador Snooks’ (or whatever) when they are no longer accredited ambassadors, unlike Americans who continue to claim that title for the rest of their lives (compare the continuing use of “President Clinton” and “Secretary Kissinger” long after either has occupied the relevant position). I stopped being “Ambassador Barder” when I left Warsaw in 1988 (!) to become the British high commissioner in Nigeria. I am perfectly happy to be referred to as Barder, Brian, Sir Brian (correct but rather formal), or ‘that tiresome blogger fellow’, according to taste. Anything goes, really.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment! You’re so unfailingly courteous that calling you “Barder” would seem like an insult and even “Brian” would be a bit of a cheat. As for “Sir Brian,” no can do. You no doubt recall the old joke about Knights Commander of Saints Michael and George, that KCMG really stands for “Kindly Call Me God”; a divine title would seem rather excessive, though at least it wouldn’t provoke the same giggle that “Sir Brian” would for one of my thoroughly republican sensibilities.

    At any rate, when I told my wife that I’d interacted with Brian Barder, she asked “Who’s that?” When I told her you’d been the British ambassador in Ethiopia during the famine of the mid-1980s, the light of recognition flashed on in her eyes. “You’ve actually communicated with him? I’d be so thrilled to meet him!” And she went on to talk about what an inspiration you were to her. She’s a Quaker lady, you see- East Africa is an important place to them, and world hunger issues are never far from their minds, so you’re well-situated to impress her.

    And of course I’m very sorry that in my haste I left misleading impressions as to your views. I’ll undertake to do better in the future!

  3. I’m greatly flattered by your wife’s reaction. Do please give her my warm good wishes.

  4. Her response: “Of course he’d get a warm reaction, he’s a hero! I’m not an idiot.”

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