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Liberal Democrats

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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.

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

Liberal Democrats: Up and Down?

22 February, 2009

Liberal Democrats: Up and Down?

By Gwynne Dyer

Big crises like the current recession change a lot of things that once seemed to be a permanent part of the landscape. In Japan the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed the country for all but nine months of the past half-century, is about to go over a cliff.

Prime Minister Taro Aso’s approval rating has fallen to single digits, but having changed leader three times in the past three years, the LDP cannot decently do it again without calling an election. The election must be held by October in any case — and it is hard to believe that the LDP can win it.

For over half a century, Japan has effectively been run by the “iron triangle” of conservative LDP politicians, bureaucrats who had spent their entire careers under LDP governments, and the big industrial companies. It was very successful in fostering rapid economic growth between 1955 and 1990, so much so that by the late 1980s the United States was rife with paranoid fantasies in which the Japanese took over the world economy.

The “lost decade” of the 1990s, in which Japan’s economy barely grew at all, put paid to that notion, and the last decade has not been a lot better. The LDP’s highly effective patronage machine postponed the day of reckoning, but the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won control of the House of Councillors (the upper house of

parliament) in July, 2007 — and the recession virtually guarantees that it will also win control of the more powerful lower house later this year.

At that point, Japan’s post-war history finally changes course. The DPJ’s secretary-general, Yukio Hatoyama, says bluntly that as soon as his party takes power, it will fire any bureaucrat who does not whole-heartedly support its policies. That’s not a normal way to treat public servants when a government changes in a democracy, but this is a democracy where all the civil servants have served only one party all of their lives.

What is bringing fundamental change to Japan is the recession, of which it is the foremost victim: in the last quarter of 2008, the Japanese economy shrank at an annual rate of 12.7 percent. The LDP is finally losing power because the underlying weakness of the Japanese economy that made it so vulnerable in a recession cannot be blamed on anybody else.

Blame is what is driving things in Britain, too, although the Labour Party has only been in power for twelve years, not fifty-four.

Before Gordon Brown became prime minister less than two years ago, he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with overall responsibility for the British economy, for ten years. The British economy, though not falling as fast as the Japanese, is not doing well, and everybody knows who’s to blame. So the main opposition party, the Conservatives, are certain to win the next election, which must be held within fourteen months. But that’s not the point.

The point is that Labour might not even come second, for there is a Liberal Democratic Party in Britain too. It is the heir to the historic Liberal Party, which under that name or in its previous guise as the Whigs was one of the two great political parties in Britain for several centuries. But in the early 20th century it was overtaken by the new Labour Party and reduced to third-party status.

Two-party systems of the sort that predominate in the English-speaking countries are very unforgiving to third parties, and since the First World War the Liberals and their Liberal Democratic successors have never won an election or formed a government in Britain. Sometimes their policies had quite broad support , but too many people always calculated in the end that a vote for a third party was a wasted vote.

Until, perhaps, now.

Britain’s Lib Dems have had a good crisis so far, with their economic spokesman, Vince Cable, consistently demonstrating a firmer grasp of the situation than either the floundering Labour government or the Conservative opposition. The opinion polls still show Labour safely in second place, although far behind the Conservatives. But with at least a year to run until the election, and every month bringing more bad economic news that will be blamed on Labour, those numbers are going to move.

The main movement will be of Labour voters, who are far likelier to move to the Lib Dems. If enough of them move, then the seemingly impossible could actually happen: an election result that put the Lib Dems, however narrowly, ahead of Labour. The Conservatives would still be the government, of course, but the Lib Dems would become the official opposition.

The psychological impact would be huge. Suddenly, for the first time in almost a hundred years, the Liberal Democrats would be seen as the alternative government. And what happened to the Liberals almost a century ago would happen to Labour instead.

Is this probable? No. Is it possible? Yes. If the recession is big and bad enough to drive the Japanese Liberal Democrats from power at last, almost anything is possible. Although it is a hell of a price to pay.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 10. (“Prime…win it””; and

“Two…now”)

Don’t Mention the War

1 May 2005

Don’t Mention the War

By Gwynne Dyer

As sharks respond to blood in the water, so do journalists to panic among politicians — and there is the scent of panic in the air as the British election campaign enters the home stretch. It’s still hard to see how the Conservative opposition could win on 5 May, but there is suddenly a chance that the governing Labour Party could lose its majority in parliament over voter resentment at how Prime Minister Tony Blair dragged the country into war.

Blair almost got away with it. For most of the campaign, he avoided any serious debate on his decision to commit Britain to the invasion of Iraq alongside his friend George W. Bush, and on every other issue he was fireproof. The British economy is among Europe’s healthiest, unemployment is less than half that of France or Germany, and Blair’s government has been pouring money into health and education. Huge numbers of Labour voters felt deceived and betrayed by his Iraq policy, but so long as the war didn’t become a central issue, Labour would cruise safely back into a third term in office.

Then, on 24 April, came the first in a series of well-timed leaks about how Blair tricked his cabinet, his party and the country into believing that the war was legal. All week the media were full of the text of legal opinions previously suppressed by Blair in which his own officials had warned him about the doubtful legality of the war, and retired senior military officers revealed that they had been deeply worried about it, too. The anger that many Labour voters felt about Blair’s deceptions flared up again, and suddenly the election was a horse-race.

Disaffected Labour voters would never give their votes to the Conservatives, whose leader, Michael Howard, had eagerly supported the war — but they might well give them to the third-place Liberal Democrats, the only party that openly opposed the invasion of Iraq. That could turn significant numbers of marginal Labour seats into Lib Dem or even Conservative ones, depending on which opposition party was currently in second place locally. Panic: suddenly Blair was all over the media warning that “It’s Labour versus Tory (Conservative). Anything else is a Tory vote by the black door.”

Even in my own central London constituency, which has been a safe Labour seat since shortly after King Arthur’s time, a hastily printed one-page flyer was hand-delivered to our house on Sunday in which our local Labour MP, Frank Dobson, in effect begged us to ignore Blair and vote Labour anyway. “Many people in Holborn and St Pancras and across the UK think…it’s safe to have a protest vote. Or maybe you plan to vote Labour through gritted teeth. I understand that feeling.”

Stressing that he personally had voted against the invasion of Iraq, Dobson hammered home the message that “A Tory Government is the only alternative (to voting Labour).” Only that isn’t really true, and many habitual Labour voters have figured that out. The British papers are full of cut-out guides to how a tactical vote for the Lib Dems would affect the outcome in each individual constituency, together with the crucial information that almost no amount of anti-Blair tactical voting by Labour supporters could give the Conservatives a majority.

What tactical voting could do, on around a ten percent swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats, is to deprive Labour of its majority in parliament. Labour would still be the biggest party, and would be almost certain to form the next government, but it would have to be either a minority government with outside support from a (much bigger) Liberal Democratic contingent in parliament, or even a formal coalition with the Lib Dems.

In either case, it is very unlikely that Tony Blair — “the young war criminal,” as Alan Watkins, the doyen of British political columnists, calls him — would remain prime minister. His own party is full of people who loathe him, and only accept his leadership because he is allegedly a sure-fire election winner, but they would quickly turn and rend him if he stumbles. Besides, any arrangement for informal support or a formal coalition with the Lib Dems would probably require an early decision to dump Blair and pull British troops out of Iraq.

How likely is all this to happen? Not all that probable, really.

The Liberal Democratic leader, Charles Kennedy, has fought a lacklustre campaign, and the Conservatives have failed to stampede the electorate with a campaign that played up to fears of the immigrants and “asylum-seekers” who are allegedly inundating Britain. (“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” as a series of Tory campaign posters coyly put it.)

The Conservatives even imported Lynton Crosby, the Australian electoral guru who recently master-minded the return of Prime Minister John Howard for a third term in Canberra on a platform of thinly disguised racism and xenophobia, to run their campaign in Britain. It hasn’t worked, however, as Britain is a much more ethnically diverse country than Australia: Conservative leader Michael Howard is himself the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Ukraine. Tory support has scarcely shifted through the whole campaign.

The only thing that can shift the political landscape in Britain is Labour voters casting tactical votes for Liberal Democratic candidates, and while there will be enough of them to deliver a stinging rebuke to Blair for the war, they will probably not be numerous enough to deprive Labour of its majority.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The Liberal…whole campaign”)