With another opinion poll showing that the Tories are failing to make the sort of headway they need to secure an outright victory political folk are once again discussing how the British Constitution will handle the situation.
I have lived most of political life ‘in the balance’. Two of the three Councils on which I have served –Cheshire County Council and Sefton MBC have been held up as models of good practice for no overall councils. (We shall draw a veil over Congleton). I am at present involved in drawing up new conventions to cope with the ‘strong Leader ‘model that Labour has foisted on us.
Some of the lessons learnt ‘in the balance’ do now seem to be widely accepted by the party; chiefly the need for ruthless targeting of both policy and seats. I am one of those who think the policy matters much more than getting a position- no matter how grand the title. Clarity about what we want to achieve is the key to success.
I remember Grimond arguing that a lot can be achieved in opposition and if you look at how the Danish People Party have coped with the balance you can see that they have managed to call the ‘policy’ shots as well as making electoral advances.
I am also aware that some of the conventions that have been developed by local government are flawed . In our all party cabinet 'robust challenge' is arguably missing. If the Leader of Party X-or any cabinet member is useless how on earth can you sort that out if s/he responds to justifiable challenge by effectively bringing down the administration and causing chaos. A while back David Marquand published an essay in Political Quarterly defining some clear political traditions. One which he dated back to Militon and characterised it as having three great themes of English popular politics: republican self-respect as opposed to monarchical servility, engaged civic activity versus slothful private apathy, and government by challenge and discussion rather than deference or conformism. A Guardian editorial of the time asked 'Do we live up to those traditions today as well as we could or should? Wordsworth got it right: "Milton, thou should'st be living at this hour. England hath need of thee.' It is certainly an on going challenge to ensure that new conventions we develop to cope with 'balanced' parliaments allow the tradition of Militon to flourish!
Nevertheless I have become convinced that the rules by which we resolve a ‘balance’ situation are important as they colour the behaviour of the civil servants and are reflected in the media. The conventions that guide newly balanced authorities were drawn up in a time of single party government and reflect the underlying prejudice that a single party majority administration is the best option. New conventions need to be developed to cope with the new situation or the danger is that we will get the blame for what will be portrayed by the media –and our opponents-as a dogs breakfast.
So let us for a moment leave aside the political manoeuvring and look at the Constitutional conventions that govern the situation. Most of these conventions were arrived at with the implicit belief that minority government was weak and that coalitions are a nasty foreign idea. They place significant power in the hands of a Prime Minister of a minority Government who it is asserted is allowed to have a dissolution of parliament at a time which is tactically advantageous to him. Many of us remember Harold Wilson holding a second 1974 election and there being no pressure on him to negotiate.
It is not hard to imagine a series of weak minority governments limping on from dissolution to dissolution as happened between 1929-1931. These minority governments would do not command the support of the people. The Labour government of 1924 got 30.5% of the votes cast and a good deal less of the electorate as a whole. In 1929, and again in 1974 the minority Labour government got 37% of those who voted -roughly where Cameron is today
It will of course be argued that the Parliaments of 1924, 1929 and 1974 were 'one offs' and the British soon settled down the 18 years of glorious one party rule under Mrs Thatcher –as Southport's only Labour Councillor is wont to say (without any irony intended).
There is of course an alternative point of view; namely that we are in the midst of a transition from alternating single party rule to multi party politics.
Last night Michael Braham and I were discussing when it was the Liberal Party in Southport stopped declining. We agreed that the by election in the early 1950s was the low point and that after that we began to claw our way back gaining second place in 1959. Arguably the party's revival came a little later with the Hereford by election and on through Torrington and Orpington. The point is that at the time of the 1951 General Election well over 95% 0f the electorate voted Labour or Conservative. Since then the revival of the Liberal Party and the emergence of Nationalists and Green etc means that only 67% 0f those who vote support Lab/Con. The people have moved to multi party politics but the constitution frustrates their will through the electoral system and conventions which puts power in the hands on minority government incumbent Prime Ministers.
So let us briefly look at the constitutional conventions that exist to see how they re-enforce two party politics before we explore the changes needed for the constitution to catch up with the people. In the process it will become clear why the Queen might want to buy some ear muffs to cope with the anger and annoyance of some people who might find she frustrates their will .....not a happy place to be for a constitutional monarch.
A lot of this is predicated on how Lloyd George resigned in 1918, what Mr Byng did in Canada in 1926 and what George VI's private secretary wrote in a letter to the Times in 1950, let alone the circumstances surrounding Disreali's resignation in 1868 or the struggle between General Smuts and Prime Minister Hertzog in South Africa in 1939-such is the way the British Constitution is assembled.
They key document that encapsulates the position as it is understood today is the letter Sir Alan Lascelles wrote to The Times in May 1950. In is he laid out the circumstances where a Prime Minister could ask for a dissolution of parliament and the occasions when the monarch could say no. In brief he felt that monarch should say NO if:
Parliament was still able to do its job and was 'vital and viable'
a General Election would be detrimental to the national economy
s/he could find another Prime Minister who could gain and be reasonably certain to keep a majority in the Common.
This became known as the Lascelles Doctrine and if I were the monarch I would follow Queen Victoria's example and head to Balmoral or Sandringham and refuse to speak to anyone. Can you imagine the scene ( which could happen) where Gordon Brown manages to land up heading the biggest party in Westminster-even though he has less votes that the Tories- and he goes to the Queen and he says that he cannot get his business through and wants another election. The Queen is then meant to turn to him and say No -it would not be detrimental to the national economy to see the back of you.
Then imagine stage two. The Queen then calls on Cameron to form a government even though he heads the second biggest party. With all the smarmy swagger and PR gloss he can muster off he goes to the Commons and gets defeated on an amendment to the Queen's speech. Does the Queen then grant the dissolution to Cameron she denied to Brown? (That is what happen to Mr Byng in Canada when the Progressive party's leader- they were the third party-wrote to the second party leader promising their support only to find his parliamentary party refusing to follow him. Shades of what might have happened to Heath and Thorpe)
But consider a third possibility that Brown hangs on a few months and fearing a putsch from Miliband-no make that Harman the story although fictional must be credible-goes to the Queen and asks for an election not in the interests of the national but to save his own neck.
But what if the Queen called for Harman, how would the electorate feel about another leader-after Major and Brown- that they had not voted for, being Prime Minister?
Bill le Bretton has written a posting over on Lib Dem Voice discussing the aftermath of 1974. I recall the time pressure. All the commentators were going on about the uncertainty that the result had created and although Thorpe's ill judged talks with Heath were fully justified in the constitutional sense-ie the incumbent PM had the right to try and form a government which could command support at a vote of confidence-nevertheless the media and the many politicians were all implying that it was taking too long.
In a time of multi party politics government will not be instantly formed and we need conventions to support that. In fact even under the present system the gap between one government falling and another being formed can be weeks. If my memory is right it was getting on for a couple of months between the Callaghan government losing the vote of confidence in 1979 and Thatcher taking over.
Peter Riddle writing in the Times rather confirms this point asserting that ambiguity over how to act in a time of 24 hour rolling news and ‘rapid capital movements shifting exchange rates’ is not acceptable.
Our key problem is that because the incumbent PM does pretty well have the right to call an election when s/he wants it adds to the instability. Consider the position in local government where-like it or not- we have a fixed term and have to get on with it, the Leader of the council in Sefton cannot have a dissolution of the council just because he thinks it is an auspicious time to hold an election. It is also clear that fixed term parliaments in Scotland and Wales have resulted in solutions being found and new conventions being developed.
In this context the role of the leader is significant. Anyone watching the Chilcott Inquiry will be aware how great the concentration of power is in the hands of the Prime Minister. No matter what we would ideally like for a parliamentary democracy the truth is that power does not lie in parliament or with the cabinet it lies with the PM. It is also clear that will not change under Cameron-one of the lessons he has taken from Blair is to establish a close knit group around him that are in control and who owe their position to his patronage and not the electorate.
Arguably the process began with Lloyd George’s WW1 government which certainly got its act together. Interestingly Lloyd George was the first PM to ask for dissolution of parliament when he went to the king in 1918, before that governments asked.
The public’s view of the Prime Minister has changed. He looks increasingly like an executive president. The electorate is affronted when someone other than the person who led the party in the election takes over the job. I think this will become more pronounced in the coming election when we have televised debates between the leaders. Will not the people feel even more alienated from the system if a cabal in parliament chooses the Prime Minster and it was someone other that the person who participated in the debates?
Looking back how would today’s voters view the 1922 backbench revolt against Lloyd George? For good or ill the country voted for a government led by the successful war time leader, what right had a bunch of disgruntled backwoodsmen to remove him from office and replace him with Andrew Bonar Law-the Unknown Prime Minister-without immediately seeking a fresh mandate. Once again we may want to say that we live in a parliamentary democracy but the reality is different.
The government, with the Tories acting as cheer leaders, have pushed the idea of executive Mayors onto Local Councils. Earlier this year we were forced to choose between a ‘strong’ leader and an elected Mayor. This is plain barking in a council like Sefton which has been ‘hung’ since the mid 1980s. We have developed new conventions to cope with the situation. Thanks in large part to the skills of the Leader Council Lib Dem Tony Robertson we manage to hang together in an all party cabinet with the positions distributed proportionately. The new system requires that the executive power is in the hands of the Leader. Now we have to face the West Wing question. Who takes over if the Leader is away? You will recall in an early series they had not sorted out the answer to that question and could have got themselves in a truly messy position. The recently deceased Gen Haig once memorably announced that he was in charge when Ronald Reagan was away from home. We are drawing up conventions in Sefton now to answer this question. The present strength of the parties on the council are:
Lib Dem 28
Tory 16 + one suspended
The convention we have at present is that the deputy Leaders of the council are the Lab and Tory Leaders. This is pretty meaningless at present as it conveys no executive authority but under the new system to political Leadership of the Council pass to the Labour Party if the Leader is ill disposed?
Anyway that is a battle for another day. The concern here is what happens if the electorate gets a leader other than the one they thought they were voting for?
Our political conventions need to keep pace with the changing realities. PR, fixed term parliaments and a recognition that there will need to been time taken to construct a government are clearly key ingredients. I wonder whether in addition we need to have conventions that put checks on the power of the Prime Minister and his key advisers. We could always elect the PM and make his cabinet subject to confirmation hearings….