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Britian: A Marriage of Convenience

11 May 2010

Britian: A Marriage of Convenience

By Gwynne Dyer

There has not been a coalition government in Britain since the Second World War, but it may have to get used to them.

The election on May 6 left both major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, short of a majority, and put history’s also-rans, the Liberal Democratic Party, in the position of king-maker. It has used that position very cleverly, and Britain may be heading for a major constitutional change.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democratic leader, used the five days of hectic negotiations after the election to extract a high price from the Conservative Party for agreeing to enter a coalition with them. Policy differences on taxes or educational policy could be finessed fairly easily, but Clegg’s bottom line was electoral reform. That used to be a Conservative red line – but in the end they crossed it.

Electoral reform? Who cares about that except a few policy wonks? Well, no: the Liberal Democrats care passionately about it. It’s the only way they can ever fight their way back into the centre ring of politics.

The Lib Dems’ political ancestors are the Liberals and, before them, the Whigs. For more than two centuries that lineage provided one of the two great parties that alternated in power in Britain. Then in the 1920s, with the rise of the Labour Party, the Liberals came third in one election – and never found their way back to power.

The winner-take-all British electoral system (“first-past-the-post”) is cruelly unfair to third parties. In the election just past, the Lib Dems got almost a quarter of the votes – but less than a tenth of the seats in parliament. So many people saw a vote for them as a wasted vote, even if they liked their ideas.

It was a vicious circle, so for many decades now the most urgent tactical goal of the Lib Dems has been to change the voting system. Alternative vote, “alternative vote plus,” proportional representation – anything that gave them a fair chance of winning.

The two “major” parties, the beneficiaries of the existing system, naturally resisted any change in the electoral rules. The only way it could ever happen is if both of them had to beg for the support of the Lib Dems. Like now.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg would have preferred a coalition with Labour, since most Lib Dem voters are more or less on the left. But he rightly said he had to talk to the Conservatives first, since they had ended up with more seats than Labour after the election on May 6 – and he also knew Labour would be an even less trustworthy partner in power than the Conservatives.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown tried hard to make a deal with the Lib Dems that would keep the Labour Party in power, but his party, aware of the savage cuts any incoming government would have to make to deal with a runaway budget deficit, didn’t agree. Many of them thought this was a good election to lose – so Brown’s prospective coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, could not trust Labour to keep any deal he made.

A senior Liberal Democrat, discussing the parallel negotiations the Lib Dems conducted with Labour, explained that though the talks were amicable, “problems remain on deliverability and Labour cohesion.” In other words, some Labour members of parliament would rebel against the deal, probably sooner rather than later – and since a Lib-Lab coalition would have the slimmest of majorities, just a few rebels could bring the coalition down.

Prime Minister David Cameron, on the other hand, may come to rue the day when he agreed to the terms of the deal that finally put him in office.

Cameron was not well liked by large sectors of the Conservative Party he leads even before the election: he was a “modernizer,” and Conservatives are conservative. But he is more actively disliked now, because many senior members of the party (and probably most of the rank and file) blame him for failing to pull off a clear win against a Labour Party that was exhausted and partly discredited after 13 years in power.

They thought they were cruising smoothly to victory, and they wound up 20 seats short of a majority. They accepted the extortionate concessions the Liberal Democrats demanded for a coalition because after 13 years in the wilderness they were positively panting with eagerness to be in government again. But when the going gets rough, they will blame Cameron for those concessions too.

The biggest concession was, of course, a promise to the Lib Dems to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system. Labour made a similar promise, but in the assessment of the Lib Dems a coalition with Labour would not survive long enough to get the legislation through, so they ended the Lib-Lab talks.

The Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition, on the other hand, has a big enough majority in parliament that it cannot be brought down by just a few rebels from either party. It could actually last four years, which would be long enough to change the voting system (if the voters agree, and current opinion polls suggest they would).

That is the Lib Dem strategy.

If it succeeds, coalition governments will become the norm in Britain.


Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Netanyahu’s Fig-Leaf

28 March 2009

 Netanyahu’s Fig-Leaf

 By Gwynne Dyer

“I am not afraid of Bibi (Netanyahu). I will not be anybody’s fig-leaf,” said Ehud Barak, leader of Israel’s Labour Party, defending his decision to join the hard-right coalition government being formed by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. But off in the distance there was a curious whirring noise.

The sound was identified by Ophir Pines-Paz, a prominent Knesset member who is on the left of the Labour Party. “Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett (all former Labour prime ministers) are turning over in their graves,” Pines-Paz declared. In fact, they are spinning at high speed, for Ehud Barak has abandoned Labour’s traditional values in order to save its electoral prospects.

The coalition he is joining is committed to expanding the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and is led by a man who rejects the very idea of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu spent his entire first term as prime minister (1996-99) sabotaging the Oslo accords of 1993, which envisaged Palestinian statehood. As a result, the “peace process” had mostly run out of steam by the time he left office.

Barak got Netanyahu to say that he recognised Israel’s “diplomatic and international” obligations (which include the Oslo accords). But how likely is it that a man who cannot even bring himself to utter the phrase “Palestinian state” will negotiate a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians?

Ehud Barak’s other partners in the coalition will include the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, a Romanian immigrant who wants to demand oaths of loyalty to the “Jewish state” from Israeli Arabs, and strip those who refuse of their Israeli citizenship. So why did Barak do it?

The answer is simply: power. Not just personal power, although he will get the defence ministry himself and four other cabinet seats for Labour — not a bad result when Labour only holds thirteen seats in the Knesset. His main goal is to keep Labour in the domestic political game, because it is at risk of losing out permanently.

Labour dominated Israeli politics for three decades after independence, and continued to be one of the two big parties for another twenty years after that. But in the last election it dropped to fourth place, and if it refused to join the government it wouldn’t even be the official opposition party. Kadima, a centrist party, would fill that role, leaving Labour to get lost in the political undergrowth.

Barak was seeking some way to avoid that fate, and his opportunity arose because Netanyahu was looking for a fig-leaf. While the core of the coalition that Netanyahu has built consists of “national” (i.e. right-wing) parties that support the settlements and reject a Palestinian state, some seemingly more reasonable coalition member would soften his government’s image in the United States. It’s all about the optics of dealing with Obama.

Netanyahu spent several weeks trying to persuade Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party to fill that role, but when she refused him he turned to Ehud Barak — who leaped at the chance. It makes good tactical sense, even if it is a betrayal of Labour’s and Barak’s own past. And nothing important is being lost here.

From an international perspective, it hardly matters whether Ehud Barak sells out or not, because the “peace process” is long dead. The fiction that it is still alive is occasionally useful to Western and/or Arab governments, and the international media are as gullible as ever, but no serious person in Israel or among the Palestinians believes that this generation will see a “two-state solution,” with Israeli and Palestinian states dividing the land between the Jordan River and the sea along the

pre-1967 frontiers of Israel.

Such an outcome was perfectly possible until Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli fanatic in 1995. Binyamin Netanyahu had to work hard to sabotage the prospect of a land-for-peace deal when he was prime minister in 1996-99, and there was one last-chance attempt to revive it during Ehud Barak’s brief premiership in 1999-2000. But it has now been dead for almost a decade.

Netanyahu doesn’t really even need Barak as a fig-leaf, because he doesn’t have to lift a finger to prevent the two-state solution. He can just point out that there is no united Palestinian authority to negotiate with (and nobody will bring up the fact that Israel worked very hard to create the current split among the Palestinians by fostering the growth of Hamas).

The Obama administration in the United States is unlikely to put serious pressure on Netanyahu, because they must surely also know that the “peace process” is dead. It is politically impossible for Barack Obama to admit publicly that the whole thing is pointless and just walk away from the problem; he has to pretend to be engaged. But is he going to waste a lot of valuable political capital on it? One hopes not.

If you assume (as Ehud Barak almost certainly does) that all the above is true, then his decision to enter Netanyahu’s coalition is perfectly rational. None of the principles he is sacrificing stood the slightest chance of being turned into policy anyway, so why not do what needs to be done to save the Labour Party? Yes, you’ll get your hands dirty, but if you wanted clean hands, what are you doing in politics?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 11.

(“Barak…Palestinians”; “Netanyahu…here”; and “Such…decade”)

Lula and the Markets

5 October 2002

Lula and the Markets

By Gwynne Dyer

George Soros, the world’s leading currency speculator, told a Brazilian newspaper in August that the 170 million Brazilians simply wouldn’t be allowed to have Labour Party leader Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva as their president. The higher his standing rose in the opinion polls, the fiercer would be the speculative attacks on Brazil’s currency, the real. If he actually won the presidency, the markets’ reaction would be so negative that the country would have to declare a moratorium on its huge $260 billion foreign debt.

“In the Roman empire, only the Romans voted,” Soros explained gently. “In modern global capitalism, only Americans vote. Not the Brazilians.” Brazilians were so outraged that even outgoing president Fernando Henrique Cardoso was forced to defend Lula publicly — but since the former steelworker and trade union leader started climbing in the polls, the real has dropped in value by about one percentage point for every point that he has risen. Since April, it has lost more than a third of its value.

This has happened despite the fact that Lula is now closer to moderate socialists like Britain’s Tony Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder than to Fidel Castro or Salvador Allende. He has promised to service Brazil’s international debt and to continue Cardoso’s successful fight against inflation. Asked why he abandoned his old radicalism, he simply replies: “I changed. Brazil changed. Trade unionism changed. Everyone is now more organised, more mature.” But the international money markets don’t believe him.

Most of the market traders know nothing of Lula and little about Brazil; he just seems to match their Identikit stereotype of a left-wing extremist, so they flee screaming. Even those who do their research cannot afford to act on their superior knowledge of the situation, because they know that the majority of their colleagues will react differently, and a successful trader is one who guesses which way the herd will run and gets there first.

In terms of his origins, Lula does have the classic left-wing activist’s background. He never went to school and only started learning to read when he was ten. Eventually he found work in the steel-mills of the industrial towns that surround Sao Paulo and became a union organiser. He founded the Labour Party in 1980, and led the strikes that brought down the military dictatorship in 1985. He is pure working class and proud of it — and that is precisely the problem.

A little story. Twenty-three years ago I spent some time in Brazil doing a radio series about the country — and on two successive days in Sao Paulo I interviewed the two most prominent figures of the Brazilian opposition to military rule: Fernando Enrique Cardoso, now completing eight years in the presidency, and Lula, who will have the job for at least the next four. They didn’t get much foreign attention in those days, so they each gave me a full afternoon. Their goals were similar, but the differences in style were huge.

Cardoso, who had spent years the harsh early years of the generals’ rule in exile in Cambridge and Paris, was every inch the Marxist intellectual: a sociologist of middle-class origins who lived in a book-lined apartment overlooking the city. He didn’t talk politics; he talked about ‘dependency theory’ and other then-fashionable Marxist concepts. He was a pleasant man, but it occurred to me as I left that he lived somewhere along an axis that had Lenin at one end and Jean-Paul Sartre at the other.

The next day I went all the way out to Sao Bernardo do Campo to see Lula, the up-and-coming union leader. He was your classic horny-handed son of toil, but it soon became clear that while he had picked up some Marxist vocabulary, he would feel perfectly at home among American or British trade unionists. It was only the extreme repression and inequality of Brazil at that time that had pushed him into a more radical position.

If you had asked me then, I would have said that Cardoso was far the greater threat to the interests of international capital in Brazil. In fact, neither man is a radical any more — but isn’t it interesting that the markets didn’t panic when Cardoso became president, whereas now that Lula has won they’re in a flat panic?

The answer is that Cardoso never LOOKED threatening. Lula was a sweaty, gritty working-class hero who looked like a menace to the status quo, and frightened the impressionable, untravelled young men (and a few women) who make the market. After all, only two G-8 countries (Germany and Canada) currently have working-class leaders, and a number of major countries — France, Japan, the United States– have never had one.

Cardoso did a good job as president — inflation is finally tamed, and important indices like infant mortality, education and housing are finally moving in the right direction despite sluggish growth — but he has used up his popularity. Lula could do good work too, if he is allowed, but he still scares the ignorant because he is an actual worker.

It makes no sense for currency speculators to bring down the world’s seventh-largest economy and trigger an international financial crisis, but most of them are ignorant of the world beyond their trading rooms, and even the better-informed ones seek to anticipate the herd’s instincts rather than to be right too soon and all alone. To punish Brazilians for electing Lula by destroying its currency and forcing Brazil into default serves nobody’s interests, but it could still happen. The only people who still believe capitalists are rational are the Marxists.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Most…problem”)

NOTE: This article is written on the assumption that Lula will win Sunday’s poll outright. If it goes through to a second round, substitute the following sentence at the end of paragraph 9: “…whereas now that Lula has won the first round of the election and is a sure thing to win the presidency in the second round of voting on 27 October, they are in a flat panic.”