Monday, May 10, 2010

Hung Parliament - a Scottish Liberal Democrat's perspective

If you had asked me to name things I never wanted to see my party doing, watching our MPs walk into coalition negotiations with the Conservatives would have been pretty high, if not top, of the list. I can't pretend to you that seeing that process under way, with THEM, is anything other than deeply painful. What is keeping me going is my faith in the leader and the participants of that process. I trust them to stand up for the principles of fairness across government that we have held close not just for the election but which are hardwired into our political DNA. I am really proud of the way Nick Clegg, the Party and the MPs have conducted themselves with dignity since Friday.

As an aside, it does amuse me that with rolling 24 hour news coverage and a gazillion journalists on their tail, that Clegg, Cameron and Brown have managed to have secret meetings. A triumph for their respective teams.

I'm starting to think that some sort of deal with the Tories is now almost inevitable, even if it's just them getting a Queen's Speech and a Budget through. I would much rather, as I said the other day, that we let them govern as a minority. That would give us much more influence over them than we would as a junior partner in a coalition. I think us being protectors of fairness, sitting independently in the Parliament would be a better way of fulfilling Nick Clegg's personal guarantee to the electorate.

Whatever comes out of the negotiations, I think it's essential that we don't jump to hasty conclusions. We need to look at the details and we need to give it a chance. None of us knows what's going on but there's much speculation that we'll give up on electoral reform. We shouldn't. I think that we should be free to introduce legislation ourselves on a free vote. That is the way of satisfying honour on both sides. In the end of the day, though, if we were able to secure concessions from the Tories such as fairer taxes, which would really make a difference to people, would that be enough? Truth is we won't know until we see it not just on paper but in action.

It makes me cross that the future of this country is being decided by a handful of white, middle aged men in a room. It was very depressing to see the all-male negotiating teams filing in and out of the Cabinet Office. I am not in any way trying to suggest that our team isn't good. It ticks almost all the boxes - Danny Alexander is not just Nick Clegg's chief of staff, he was once Work and Pensions spokesman and his knowledge of the system should help him to stand in the way of agreeing to the nastier parts of Tory "reform" to it. Andrew Stunell understands the importance and autonomy of local government and I think would be quite robust on electoral reform. Chris Huhne is there to make sure that the civil liberties side is sorted and David Laws is there I presume because he can talk Tory even if he isn't one. I just wish that we'd made up our negotiating team the same way as we had for the Scottish Parliament in 2003 and 2007 by choosing people from the Scottish Executive. The negotiating teams were much more diverse than our Holyrood parliamentary party.

Scotland rightly has a deep fear and loathing of the Conservatives, as we saw last week and this whole process is fraught with danger for our party. My heart sinks whenever I think about it - but what are the alternatives?

The numbers for a deal with Labour just don't add up without the Nationalists. Every decision the Government took would be dependent on Alex Salmond not ordering Angus Robertson to have a hissy fit. Labour also has a significant attitude problem at the moment - Eric Joyce is just one voice who thinks that we should just meekly line up behind Gordon Brown and carry on as usual. If we actually had PR, their would be more options for government - we'd have 160 ish MPs and there would be a realistic prospect of a viable, stable coalition with either the Tories or Labour.

It has been quite amusing to watch Labour people on Twitter urging us not to sell out on PR. It's such a pity that they've only just discovered their enthusiasm for electoral reform. Silly us, they seem to be thinking, we just never got round to introducing fair votes ourselves in that short 13 year period when we were in power. We'll do it now. Who knew that Labour had such aspirations while they were passing the most authoritarian assault on our civil liberties in a long time? Would you trust them? Me neither.

While we're on the subject, the irony of the Take Back Parliament lot, or at least one of their constituent grouops urging its supporters to ring up Cowley Street to lobby for PR when there are two other parties who've blocked reform at every turn is not lost on me.

They'd certainly have a hard enough job getting PR by many of their Scottish MPs, who have seen Labour's influence on local government and the Holyrood parliament broken up by fairer votes in Scotland. Westminster provides the last bastion of Labour hegemony in Scotland. 41 of them fighting over seats under STV scares the living daylights out of them - and if they actually understood the system, it might scare the living daylights out of them even more. Tom Harris makes an impassioned defence of first past the post.. He certainly did get more than 50% of the vote on his patch, but almost 40% of people didn't even bother to vote. The thing is, under FPTP, Tom is likely to have his seat until such times as he chooses to give it up. Is it right that any elected representative should have such security?

While Labour screams "Don't do it Nick" across the blogosphere, secretly they see their revival in being able to point and protest at a Lib Dem/Tory Government so they're actually desperate for it to happen. In Scotland, where they have 41/59 MPs, they set their sights on kicking Alex Salmond out of Bute House next May and salivate at the prospect of governing alone.

The challenge for the Liberal Democrats is to balance the risks. If people feel that we've made a difference, that our presence has taken the sting out of the Tories at Westminster the same way we took the sting out of Labour in Holyrood, then Labour may be laughing on the other side of their faces.

I think back 11 years to the first Holyrood coalition negotiations which I observed from a distance as we were still living in England then. It made me feel a bit icky to be talking to the big red devil and I knew the risks were high that we'd get completely shafted.

When the agreement was issued, containing what seemed for all the world like a giant pot of fudge on tuition fees, it took a lot to calm the instinctive rage that rose within me. Actually, to be honest, I probably only survived cos of the mellow pregnancy hormones which were flooding my system. Seriously, though, I remember writing on a Lib Dem internet forum at the time that I thought we should give the deal a chance. Four years on, Scottish students did not pay upfront tuition fees, making a huge difference to so many people.

Whatever emerges from the discussions over the next few days, I think we have to give it the same chance, however bad it might make us feel.


subrosa said...

I think the libdems are doing the right thing. Surely the past 13 years has shown how much disdain labour holds for them, or any party.

What is it with the Scots and the tories? The tories never destroyed the UK economy. True Thatcher got rid of the nationalised industries here but they were bleeding Scotland dry. We would have been bankrupt within 10 years and a far worse benefits culture would have resulted.

What angers me is labour did nothing to help when Thatcher dissolved the nationals. They could have ensured the skills were kept and passed on. These skills are still used in many countries in the world and we could have had a couple of generations who were highly trained and working all over the globe. What did we get? A couple of generations of folk on benefits. That's labour's style; keep people dependent on the state.

I live in an area which for tory for generations as you know. Just down the road is Dundee, a city which was controlled by labour for most of my lifetime. There is no comparison. Labour were responsible for destroying industry in Dundee with their militants being encouraged to strike for the slightest reason. I also come from a family who voted labour but they saw the destruction, the deviousness, the greed and the way labour squanders money eventually.

Give the tories a chance. Then, as it's now a couple of generations onwards, if they fall short we can criticise.

Whoever is in government is going to be holding a poisoned chalice. The books will be a complete nightmare but I trust the tories to sort things out far more than I do labour.

As for the voting reform, I've done a post for later about that. What's the point in reform if the system of voting is so corrupt?

Allan said...

I don't think it is Take Back Parliament that is blocking the Cowley Street phone lines I think it is Vote for a Change see

Take Back parliament involves a whole shed load of organisations including Vote for a Change see bottom of this page.

KL said...

Caron, I'm posting this with initials but think you'll realise who I am!

I'm kind of in the same predicament. On the one hand, the Tories are the devil incarnate, but on the other Labour neglect in my council area has left us in administration having to make cuts. It's going to be difficult to swallow any sort of deal with the Tories, and convince the voters in my shipyard area that a Lib Dem vote isn't a Tory one.

I thought the same too about the coalition deals in Scotland, even though I was living in England at the time, but our team at least had that diversity to it with the likes of Andy Myles et al, and there was a well-established relationship between Jim Wallace and Donald Dewar already. I'd liked to have seen at least one of our MPs elected before 2005 on the panel - someone like Ming Campbell or Malcolm Bruce - and also someone from the FE (Ros?)

Coalition without a PR deal would, for me, be a red line I wouldn't want to cross. Somehow I think we'll know more by teatime tonight.


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