the vaulted fool

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May 11
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306 + 57

Events overtook this post as it was written. 

I’m worried I’m a Tory and I haven’t been told. This weekend, a Labour-Liberal coalition looked off to me. It still looked iffy when Brown had sworn to go.

First, there’s the maths: 258 + 57 ≠ 323. To patch up their majority of all the talents, Labour and the Liberals will need not just the support of every member in either party on every vote, but the consent of sundry nationalists from the Celtic possessions.* Every vote, moreover, would test again the leftwing papers’ flip identification of the Liberal Democrats with Labour – their ‘progressive majority’, bound in bipartisan dislike of the Conservatives, for of course everyone on the left votes tactically and with exclusive concern for the qualification of not being Tory. Recognising though I do that the two parties have a sociable history that issues today in common instincts about policy, I doubt that such a consensus exists, and if it existed would doubt its resilience in unforgiving times. To operate in such a coalition, without even a leader to negotiate terms at first, would be to ordain its imminent demise. 

Everyone lost – yes – but the Tories lost least. The Tories won the popular vote. Coalition boosters’ questionable justification for overriding this least-bad loss with a worse and a worst one – namely that Labour and Liberal votes combined represent a functional unity, legitimate because democratic – is made more questionable by the implied method for deciding its leadership. Indeed we have a parliament and elect its members, by whom one of whom is appointed to primacy, but as Yglesias reminds us the executive in our constitution has greatly more power than the American President in his: forget climate, Reid’s Senate may not pass a financial regulation bill. Elites on the British left are letting tribalism, manifested as the hatred which I share of everything Tory, trump the claims of democracy and, in Labour’s case, of strategy.

I tried this weekend to reconcile myself to a Conservative-Liberal government and found it easier than I thought I would. Such a coalition would be democratically legitimate in excess of a Labour one, but that’s not the crux. The crux is my technocratic nature: a belief I hold in the soundness of Liberal policies as against Conservative ones. Till a month ago and for years of his opposition, all thought the transition to Cameron would be automatic: it had the inevitability of a glacier. That worried the left because it implied that plutocratic or ‘libertarian’ economics might scotch the recovery they had cultivated. (Recall that the Tories don’t believe in fiscal stimulus in the face of clear evidence of its success in America and Britain.) Considered in this light, the possibility that Cameronomics, especially as to the cuts which the deficit enjoins, might be tempered and improved by Liberal cooperation – they may have won 300 fewer seats, but their parliamentary support is now a necessary condition of Tory power, and Cable is more credible than Osborne – looks like a gift. 

If, rather than a tribal leftist, you’re a substantive liberal, the coalition can be welcomed. If you’re a strategic Liberal Democrat, however, it can be welcomed if and only if the Tories’ undertaking on electoral reform is at least as good as Labour’s (and we must entertain here the probability of enactment as well as the fulness of the offer as proposed). I don’t see a way the Liberal Democrat party – allied with Conservatives or with Labour – isn’t razed in the coming election. In strategic terms their first intention should be to pass electoral reform with despatch. And since Labour’s pledge (they are desperate) has been more generous, if the Tories don’t improve theirs I commend the Labour coalition to politically-minded, long-game Liberals – assuming I suppose that it will stay in place long enough to see the prize of reform seized.

One perplexity: if we accept the ‘progressive majority’ idea that legitimates the Labour coalition – Labour and the Lib Dems are all of a hand-holding piece – we undermine the fantasised coalition’s strategic rationale. For both strategic Labourite and for stategic ‘progressive’, if not the tribal lefty, this idea looks misguided. Over the last 24 hours, John Reid and David Blunkett have on this reading been corroborating their reputations as strategic Labourites of windswept experience. Instead of a period of renewal out of power as the Tory coalition passes a package of cuts which although fiscally vital and more sensible than it might have been under the right alone the electorate will avenge, Labour with its ‘rainbow’ coalition is proposing to sully its new leader with the taint of the harshest cuts – however judiciously enacted (and Reid argues that the nationalists will bargain to concentrate the cuts in England) – and saddle him or her with the immediate task of going to the country on that record, under virgin proportional rules. This rainbow arches the gateway to enduring Tory domination. Even if the Labour coalition timed and spread the cuts more reasonably in the near term, it would relinquish in so doing influence over policy far into the future. 

I want to vote Labour: I want Labour to reconstitute itself in a fallow period and to elect a leader who can advertise dissociation from its Blairite-Brownite errors. Labour is still where power on the left abides in Britain. This mooted coalition – not forgetting the attendant reform, a deal in which Labour must lose out – would be a strategic mistake. 

My preference for 306 + 57 hangs on the character of Liberal Democrat leadership, and especially of Clegg. If they have the weave and the duck to leverage their 57-seat quirk of power into influence that brings leftwing principles sceptically to bear on rightwing ideology, I can tolerate their course with the Conservatives. If they have the marbles to collaborate with Labour and force an election at the most awkward time for Cameron, I’ll support them with a lighter heart (see update). But if they behave like accessories, like passengers in self-interest on a Tory juggernaut, I’ll retract my vote

To found a Labour coalition would be to privilege tribal sentiment and New Labour expediency over the future of the British left. I could only recommend such a martyrdom-on-principle if a Libservative coalition were as rightwing as a Cameron majority government would be. So it’s uncertain. I myself don’t feel such horror of the Conservatives and so misesteem Nick Clegg that I believe a coalition between their parties, while less sure to deliver electoral reform, would be worse than a pan-progressive trouncing. 

Not ‘I, for one, welcome our Yellow Tory overlords’: I for one welcome Labour reformation.

Update: Andrew Sparrow:

The Tories have been briefing on details of the coalition. One of the most remarkable is that there will be a commitment to hold the next election on the first Thursday in May 2015 (that’s May 7). But it is not clear how this will work in practice. What if the government loses a confidence vote before then?

Given the cuts that must be made, this commitment is in the interest of both coalition partners. I’ll wait for details (there must be some way a premature election is triggered: the coalition if dissolved would leave a Conservative minority government, so has the Liberals’ fixed-term parliaments policy got muddled with the question of the coalition agreement’s span?) before I decide whether it’s too big a concession for Clegg to have made. But it’s a concession all right: with May’s arithmetic, this government had to be short-lived, and Clegg has conspired to freeze it unnaturally in time. He knew, I guess, (and as did Cameron) that he would have cratered if a further election had been forced within a year. But for the sake of five certain years of minimal power Clegg has injured the longer-term prospects of the left and of leftwing policy: now Cameron is surer to entrench his rightwing reforms (the Liberals will tack Tory as the coalition matures) and to fight the next election with a record he can actually cite. I’ll recast my prophecy, if I may: I don’t see how Cameron doesn’t leech credit for everything the Liberals give him, and if he wins a second term how he doesn’t win a majority off their bat. Freedland says:

the Lib Dems have already passed the peak of their power. They will never again have the leverage they have enjoyed this last week. Once they have signed on the dotted line, they will be at the mercy of their new Tory masters. They cannot threaten to walk away: if they do, despite the reported agreement on a fixed-term parliament, they risk triggering a general election at which the Lib Dems stand to be crushed. 

Like as not. And if this is the Liberal hope, I only ask: does ‘curbing Tory excess’ assume that a measure of Tory excess was condoned? And why would the public be so kind as rather to view the ‘role’ played as ‘defining’ than to view the ‘role’ played as – say – simperingly complicit? Toss. At least this means Cameron can’t bomb Europe on the drop of a hat. A boater, even. A top hat.

*A peculiar snippet from the Guardian: ‘Cabinet sources also dismissed suggestions that Brown would strike a deal with the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, accusing the SNP and Plaid Cymru of grandstanding by claiming they had a role, and insisting a half-stable coalition could instead be built from Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Unionists.’