Thursday, 24 May 2007

Edinburgh and Cardiff today, Westminster tomorrow ?

It's been an interesting start to the day. Glorious sunshine here in east London and an ICM poll showing the Liberal Democrats at what now seem to be the sunny uplands of 21% (Conservatives on 34%, Labour on 32%). After poor YouGov and Populus polls since the local elections, this will steady the good ship "LibDem" a wee bit as we move into the politics of the Brown Premiership from the end of next month.

More disturbing, however, has been the news from Wales where the Liberal Democrats under Mike German have withdrawn from negotiations for a "rainbow" coalition with Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives. Basically, it seems Mike German could not sell the deal to the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Predictably, there has been the usual partisan bile from Labour, Plaid Cymru and Conservative activists but Mike had no choice. The Liberal Democrats are a member-led democratic party and decisions to enter a coalition or not have to be taken in a consultative environment.

Neither a Labour administration nor a "rainbow" coalition would have a majority of seats in the Senedd. However, if as seems likely the Liberal Democrat AMs abstain in the election for First Minister, the rainbow Coalition would win by a single vote so Ieuan Wyn Jones might still prevail. Whether this uneasy coalition, which seems united more by its common dislike for Labour than anything else, survives for four years remains to be seen.

As for Mike German, I suspect his position is now untenable. I think he did the right thing pursuing negotiations with Plaid and the Conservatives and I am disappointed but not surprised that the Welsh LD membership were unable to take the final step and join in. It may of course turn out to be a blessing. If the Rainbow Coalition is unable to deliver, the 2011 elections will probably see Labour regain ground and the Liberal Democrats COULD be beneficiaries but that's a huge gamble. Short-term ridicule is one thing, the long-term survival of the Liberal Democrats in Wales is quite another.

All of this shows that the politics of coalition are not for the faint-hearted. The purity of Opposition is fine but if the electorate don't "play ball", the politicians are forced to take difficult decisions. In Scotland, the Parliamentary election delivered the most complicated result possible. No two parties can quite command a majority but the two Green MSPs have indicated they would not oppose an SNP-led Government so an SNP-Conservative or SNP-Lib Dem coalition becomes possible. The former seems highly unlikely but the latter has plenty of supporters. The BIG stumbling block is the SNP call for a referendum on independence which Nicol Stephen, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, has refused to countenance.

Now, I'm not quite sure what Nicol's problem is on this. Referenda aren't a British (let alone Scottish) practice but have been used for major constitutional decisions such as the setting up of the Scottish Parliament itself in 1997. If SNP leader and First Minister Alex Salmond wants to call a referendum, that's fine by me. I'm happy for the Scots to have a free and fair debate on the subject of a negotiated separation from the rest of the United Kingdom. My feeling has always been that when push comes to shove, they won't vote for independence. Now, that's not to say that continuing and extending devolution isn't a bad idea and I think the Scottish Parliament has been hugely successful and much of the credit for that goes to former Scottish Lib Dem leader, Jim Wallace and the late and much-lamented Donald Dewar.

Of course, raising questions like that brings to mind the West Lothian Question (or WLQ) and the prospect of an English Parliament. Now, I don't support an English Parliament and never have. Devolution for England has to mean devolution to and for the regions of England rather than treating England as a single administrative entity. We do of course have in the network of County and Unitary Councils significant accountable local bodies. A process of reform in which meaningful powers and responsibilities are repatriated from Westminster to these bodies would be a useful first step to English devolution. There is no need for Regional Assemblies - most clusters of Counties and Boroughs already have informal or semi-formal liaison groups (I know the South-East Counties of Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, East and West Sussex have a number of joint forums).

I've argued here and elsewhere that the repatriation of powers from Westminster to County, Unitary and Borough Councils is a vital ingredient for the regeneration of local communities and democracies. The problem is that the Labour Party is instinctively authoritarian while the Conservatives don't trust or like local councils and would prefer to use voluntary groups which would be easier to control. Nick Hurd's Sustainable Communities Bill is a small step on the path but I look to David Cameron to see how committed he is to the repatriation of powers (and money) to local councils.

Politicians and members of political parties need to look beyond the partisan and the sectional. There comes a point when "playing" at politics is no longer an option. I have long believed that the Conservatives, for example, have no interest in forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats at Westminster. In the back of my mind, however, has always been the hope that David Cameron is smarter than he looks or seems and that he recognises the huge benefit that a four-year agreed programme of legislation between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could bring to the country. I hope that HE realises (and that Sir Menzies Campbell realises it too) that they are not in politics to be top party but to improve the governance of the country and similarly improve the quality of life for the people of the country.

The problem is that the Party memberships may not be mature or clever enough to recognise that opportunity and seize it. Regrettably, events last night in Llandrindod Wells do not augur well for the future.


Peter Pigeon said...

I agree with your conclusion

Guto said...

I strugglu to see how the Welsh Lib Dems can ever recover from the past week.

The only image they've portrayd to Welsh voters is that of a party scared of responsibility, unwilling to back it's own promises when given (two!) chances.

They have incurred the angry wrath of all other Welsh politicians, Labour included.

Yesterday's position lost the power, lost them the chance to implement Libs policy, lost them the chance to make good their promises, lost them the respect of all other parties, lost them cabinet seats where they could have influence over the running of Wales, lost them everything. It is pretty certain that it also lost them Swansea council and at least 3 of their 4 Welsh Westminster seats.

Absolutly bizzare, absolutly pathetic.

Jeremy Sanders said...

For once, I find myself in the position of agreeing with the Party Leader on something – albeit only the leader of the Scottish party. There are two very good reasons why we should absolutely reject any idea of an independence referendum in Scotland :

1 – The basis of representative government is that decisions are made by an elected parliament. Yes, there have been referenda in the past, but always on the basis of seeking popular endorsement for a proposal supported by a parliamentary majority. This would be a completely different situation – a referendum to introduce something to which the majority of elected MSPs were actively opposed. If a majority did back independence in a referendum, what would happen when the legislation comes to the Scottish Parliament? Given that the large majority of MSPs were specifically elected on a platform of rejecting independence, will they then be expected to vote against their political principles, and against the specific policies on which they were elected? More specifically, what would the Lib Dem group do?

2 – As the SNP knows perfectly well, by holding a referendum, the issue of independence suddenly becomes the central issue in Scottish politics. One of the interesting things about the polls in Scotland before the election was the fact that virtually no-one, even strong SNP supporters, rated “independence” as the most important issue in the election. The non-nationalist parties all largely campaigned on the basis that nationalism / independence was a distraction from the real issues facing Scotland. By agreeing to hold a referendum, we would be effectively be making the question of independence the main political issue in Scotland, which is exactly what the SNP have been trying (largely unsuccessfully) to do for years.

James Graham said...

What Jeremy said.

I really fail to understand why Nicol Stephen should be excoriated for respecting the views of the 2/3rds of Scots who not only say they oppose independence but voted against it as well. It was for Salmond to compromise, not the Lib Dems.