Monday, 20 February 2012

2014 election? Maybe, maybe not.

Over on the LSE blog an article has been posted, positing that a 2014 election is all but inevitable. It's my opinion that while Professor Patrick Dunleavy may possibly end up being correct, it may have been easier to reach the same conclusion by drawing years from a hat. It certainly would have had the same amount of logical reasoning.

I fisk it below...

The term of this Parliament has passed an invisible but magically potent half-way mark. We now have two years to go to the start of the UK’s next general election campaign in May or June 2014. I am now 90 per cent sure that Britain will go the polls again fully a year ahead of the ‘official’ date for Conservative and Liberal Democrat co-operation to wrap up (supposedly May 2015).

It doesn't bode well when, even by his own standards, his statement of this parliament passing a "half-way" mark is not true. A May 2014 election would mean the halfway mark would be just short of May 2012. Following the expected lifespan the true half way mark in law would be November 2012. Maybe this article has been published too early.

Forecasting the future in political life is a mugs game at the best of times. The opportunities for falling flat on your face are legion, and the chances of actually being prophetic are tiny.

I can't remember where it was right now (damn) but a nice little flow chart detailed that people take the stance of "predict doom" because in game theory is has the best overall outcome for the person doing the predicting. On a personal level if they're wrong then the "good thing" will happen, they won't feel bad. If it does happen, well.."I told you so". More so than this it's that predicting that things will go as planned doesn't get you remembered.

So most social scientists consequently eschew anything that smacks of ‘futurology’. Yet the timing of the next general election is an important matter. Billions of pounds may hang on it for the City of London’s financial markets. And in the second half of a Parliament it behoves all MPs, government departments, party activists and citizens to calibrate their behaviours with an accurate view of when the next election will happen. So a half-time assessment could be useful, however risky.

The fixed term parliament bill was created for a multitude of reasons. First of all it is a democratic move, since the form stance is to have a single person decide when an election happens. This law changes that to say that a super-majority of the representatives of the people must also want that election. It has devolved power to our representatives, and thus more power to the people. Further from this, there is also an element, as Professor Dunleavy will go in to, of "coalition securing".

However the purpose of helping the coalition stay together isn't out of some kind of love for hung parliaments and proving it exists for the very reason that Professor Dunleavy details right here; Fixed term parliaments are to provide the City of London with a very strong promise that this country is not going to destabalise politically.

The fact that he looks at the potential for panic by the financial sector in this country as a reason to look at the possibility for a scenario, a scenario that would exist in direct opposition of decisions made to quell such fear, is quite frankly bizarre.

Liberal Democrats are convinced that this particular stable door [of uncertain election dates] is firmly locked, and that there is now no way that the Tories can ‘cut and run’ – whether through David Cameron ‘betraying’ his commitments to Clegg in order to seize a poll advantage, or because of a putsch or demarche by the Tory right forcing the Prime Minister’s hand. They believe that Clegg has accomplished a fundamental constitutional change, achieving a cast iron guarantee of remaining Deputy PM until the spring of 2015. And, ironically, if the current government was single party majority government, the five year rule really would indeed be binding.

I don't know if any of this is actually quoted from any Lib Dem, in fact I'm sure it isn't. I'd like to meet a single person that would describe a fixed parliament law, that both allows 50%+1 of the parliament to "no confidence" a government, forcing a new government to form, and allows two thirds of Parliament to straight out force an early election, as a "cast iron guarantee" of Clegg and the Liberal Democrats being in government until 2015.

So, we've not even got into the substance of this exercise in "futurology" an hyperbole has already set in...

Yet the incontestable evidence of all coalition theory is that every coalition (without exceptions) tends to unzip from the end. If two actors A and B are in coalition and co-operating, but they know that the coalition is going to end at time T, then it makes sense for one actor (say A) to defect from co-operation in the time period just before the designated end, that is, at time T minus 1.

Can't deny this, there is always a point where differentiation needs to occur. Unless the Tories and Lib Dems forge an election pact to try and attain a second term as a joint governing force, something that might sound tempting to both Clegg and Cameron who can use the other as excuses for their discussion making to the Left and Right of their respective parties while avoiding the many head to head battles the two parties face, but in reality is unlikely to sit well with supporters of either party or the public at large.

The interesting question will not be whether the parties "split apart", as there is evidence every month that more and more is being done to seed evidence of differences between both parties without threatening the union, the interesting question will be if it is done in a respectful manner or in a petulant manner.

And so the logic of unzipping goes on. The only circumstances where co-operation in any coalition will continue is when the end is uncertain or unforeseeable.

Only then will both actors still hope to reap the gains to be had from co-operation, and fear to incur avoidable losses if they defect too early, getting punished for it by the other (betrayed) actor playing tit-for-tat. Explaining this to senior Liberal Democrats I see flutters of unease cross their faces, and sometimes get a reaction that perhaps the election might be two or three months early, but still it will surely be in 2015.

Or where election pacts are made between the two parties, as unlikely as that may be, but it's interesting that not all avenues are being explored here, lest they get in the way of the point that the Professor wishes to make, regardless of how he gets there. There is also still no talk, despite it starting this whole "thought experiment" off, of external factors in the co-operation of coalitions.

Traditionally coalitions exist in times of political shift in the people of a country, or as happened in 2010 an almost uncertainty as to whether changing from Tories to Labour or vice versa will really make any difference to the way the country is run.

While we exist in the latter scenario, it is only because of the idea of forging market stability that a coalition even exists. The Tories would have been perfectly within their rights to govern as a minority government with a confidence and supply agreement from others. It wouldn't have worked in this economic and political climate without Labour themselves providing that endorsement.

I think it is naive to not include the factor of stability, and the perception by the public, let alone the markets, of a move to weaken that stability in to how long a coalition may co-operate.

Writing on this blog recently, Mark Pack – an unbelievably smart and well-informed analyst of the Westminster and Liberal Democrat scene – did none the less concede that:

‘The ‘fixed’ part of the new rules is pretty fixed, but not completely set fast in legislative Araldite… there are caveats for cases where there is either wide cross-party agreement or no one can form a government.

Why is this being written as if he is uncovering some big secret here? The law was pretty clear from the get go, it's a fairly small and easy to follow piece of legislation. At the time there was controversy precisely because it was TOO easy for the caveats to take place and undermine the fixed term nature of the bill too easily. Again, if any politically minded person believes any fixed term parliament bill is a 100% guaranteed "this election date will not change" bill then I fail to understand why they are in politics.

[Mark Pack continues] Forget the idea that Cameron might face a politically bountiful time and try to cut and run for an early election – if the timing is good for the Conservatives, it would be bad for Labour, meaning Labour could and would block it’.

… An early election also happens if the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence in the government (by a simple majority) and then fails within fourteen days to pass a motion of confidence in a new government’.

Yet the Act is not the waterproof requirement that the Liberal Democrats believe it is. In fact, the scenario for a radically early general election in 2014 is the simple one in bold in the quotation above – the possibility that Pack dismisses as infeasible, where the Conservatives want to call an early general election to reap a polling advantage while they can. Labour will block that for sure he says.

There are good reasons why Mark Pack is right, and it comes down to simple polling and the extension of Professor Dunleavy's theory on political parties cutting and running when it is most opportune for them to do so, the same behavior that has compelled prime ministers for decades to choose or not choose their election dates.

But will it? Imagine that in January/February 2014 David Cameron takes a look at the polls, and talks to George Osborne about the economic prospects and the budget. With press speculation already beginning to build, he privately resolves to step down as Prime Minister in May that year. Accordingly the budget is loaded up with immediate tax cuts and other goodies for voters. The unveiling of the Chancellor’s budget in March 2014 of course gives the game away.

But what can Nick Clegg do now but grin and bear it? If he picks a fight, then Cameron can announce that he is stepping down because of irreconcilable differences. If Clegg stays quiet, the tax cuts happen, the pre-election boom builds, the press speculation escalates into overdrive, and in April Cameron announces that to end damaging uncertainty, the ‘National Interest’ requires him to resign. We must now give UK voters the chance, he will say, to elect a Conservative government with a secure majority, that alone can bring prosperity back to Britain.

Oh of course, "imagine" this, "if" that! A highly specific scenario without any real specifics. Give me a break.

If the Tories go for an early election they have to put it to parliament. This isn't the same as the old way of simply doing it and putting an X on a calendar. The 'easiest' way would be to have a no confidence vote in the government. The Tories would have to say they have no confidence in themselves, resigning as government. I'll go in to this later...

Alternatively they could try and force Labour and the Lib Dems to make that confidence vote, perhaps by offering the tax cuts Professor Dunleavy describes, and therefore services cuts that inevitably goes along with this, since we are going to be nowhere near out of out the woods with our borrowing situation. The Tories would have to start running things like the NHS and welfare truly in to the ground to keep the international markets from panicking.

The danger with this approach is that they would do it, and in the 14 days that the country is then "in turmoil" (note: May not include turmoil) Labour and the Lib Dems could come together and work with other interested parties for the remaining year to "steady the boat."

So in reality "no confidence" ways of destroying the 2015 election date don't work favourably for the Tories, they either have to be seen as sabotaging their own plans for political gain, or they have to allow the opposition the opportunity to take their coalition partners and create a "Well we can't leave this country in a mess like the Tories are leaving it" rhetoric.

Indeed, the only realistic option is working with Labour to gain a 2/3rds vote on calling an early election...

If the Conservatives are calling for an early general election in May 2014 then can Labour (ever) stand out against that? At all times Miliband must look as if he really wants a general election, and is raring to go at any moment.

Well, since you're not really going to look at any of the reasons why they probably would stand out against that, Professor, why don't we do the work for you?

First, where Labour stand on this, and conversely whether the Tories would risk an election coming early, depends on the polls. If Labour are leading in the polls, assuming there is no way for Scotland to be independent in time for the early election, then the Tories can kiss any hopes of a majority goodbye. They might be tempted to try the minority government route, but that isn't dictated right now by their desires as much as the general economy. In effect they would be shunning convenient and willing partners for a slight chance of abandoning them, while ultimately being very likely to need them again for another 5 years.

Not the greatest hand to play.

If the Tories are significantly leading in the polls, and unfortunately for them it does have to be significant still, then they could call the election...but why would Labour say yes? The public will be generally happy with the Tories in rule, albeit in coalition, happy enough to vote them in as a majority...what is Milliband gaining by showing that he's raring to go in to an election?

It's not like Ed saying "No, why don't we adhere to the principles of the law that you set out, to provide stability in this country, we're perfectly happy to fight you on the doorsteps when the law says, not when you say" is going to exactly push him severely down the ratings. Brown lost out because he was seen as playing with power, and also going against public wishes to give or take his mandate away...Ed, in opposition, by definition cannot suffer that same fate. Not unless the polls are vehemently against this government and he turns it down, but again... why would the Tories offer the opportunity to be severely punished by the electorate?

Outside of the polls there is also this issue, mentioned before, of the markets. It's not so much relevant as to whether the markets would be destabilised by an early election or not, as to the narrative that the Tories have built up about economic stability, and then the opportunity for not only Labour, but also the Lib Dems, to make strong arguments of hypocrisy and possibly even lying to the electorate.

"How can you threaten the stability of our economy by trying to gain politically, the public voted in 2010, and their voices said we ALL had to solve this mess?"

"I put it to you that the Tories and Lib Dems conspired to create an impression of market instability to suit their political ends, to cut the amount of money disabled people get, to raise tuition fees, to carve up the NHS for private gain, when it suited they're proving this was all a lie by calling this election!"

I can't think of a single positive argument that can come out of the situation of the Tories successfully bring an early election about within the current political climate.

Labour certainly has no reason at all to look as if it wants to lend a politically toxic Nick Clegg any kind of hand.

It's hard to call Nick Clegg politically toxic without also highlighting everything that is toxic about British politics in turn. If Labour are to try and claim that they wouldn't do any deal with Clegg because of certain issues then they'd find it hard to justify their stance. NHS reforms too crazy? Sure, but then the plans are now just watered down versions of an even worse Tory marketisation of the NHS that Labour started in the first place. Students in higher debt? Shame that Labour have agreed to the principle of it then, except to do it in a way that makes it easier for rich graduates to pay less overall than poorer ones.

Toxic is only toxic if no-one else wants to go near it, and Labour aren't just going near to it, they're pulling their wellies on and jumping right in, where it comes to Lib Dem policy stances.

This all ignores another possible scenario which is that Nick Clegg steps down as leader amongst this "chaos" and allows a new bond to be forged between Labour and the Lib Dems with a hope of moving the coalition to a more left leaning alignment from 2015.

And while sitting in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street once again may seem immediately attractive, Miliband has very, very few incentives to agree to run a risky and lame duck minority government for ten months, with or without Liberal Democrat ministers.

Except to show supporters of things like the NHS that this is the best way to stop cuts to publicly loved services is to let Labour have control again, perhaps? To prove that Labour are actually ready to take the steering wheel and aren't just opposing for the sake of being in opposition?

And who says it has to be a minority government? Labour would only have to find 8 members outside of the Lib Dems to form a working coalition, or a coalition with confidence and supply for one year. With 15 socialist, liberal or generally anti-tory members to choose from it's less in the realm of fantasy than the Professor's prediction would lead you to believe.

So if the Conservatives want an election, and Labour wants an election, an election is absolutely certain to happen.

Yet if I try and push a positive end of a magnet against another positive end it's really hard to make them meet in the middle!

To bring it about it is only necessary for Cameron to resign as PM, forcing Labour to go through the motions of trying to form a maximum one-year administration with Liberal Democrat backing. For form’s sake, because the law requires it, and because it will give him endless TV coverage, Miliband will agree to negotiate for several days on some form of agreement (perhaps not with Clegg though). But then his team will say that it’s clearly impossible. The Liberal Democrats are untrustworthy and right wing, and there is no realistic agenda to get anything done. The ‘National Interest’ is calling Miliband too to go for a Labour government with a clear majority.

It is indeed that 'easy', No agreement for 14 days, an election must occur. But for this to happen this easily, you have to foster an environment where both the Tories are confident that Labour will either follow their lead, or will try and rule for a year and the same time Labour have to be blind to the possibility of being set up for failure, and have to have the same feeling on winning the election that the Tories do, despite there being only a singular issue dominating people's political minds...that of the economy and how it affects them...and plenty of public opinion data to state who is winning on that front.

So maybe not so easy? Take those magnets above, in theory it is easy to push them together, but in reality it's never that simple.

And with that, fixed term Parliaments are toast and a general election is called at the normal 4 year time, that could mean (indeed is almost certain to mean) maximum disaster for the Liberal Democrats.

Fixed parliaments aren't toast, they are still there, the date just changes. THIS fixed term parliament would be toast, sure.

But again, in the Professor's "I don't really do in-depth" way of analysis, what ways could this mean disaster for the Lib Dems? Let's try and define disaster for the Lib Dems. A big result would be remaining in a coalition, or being the "king makers" in a confidence and supply agreement. An average result would likely be going back to the position they were in pre 2010, a minority opposition party, with a better seat per vote share than they currently have. Disaster? Wipe out, reduction to only a handful of MPs that puts them on a level with other barely-there parties.

So how would that happen? Simply put, the public support for the Lib Dems would bottom out...completely bottom out. Yet despite having already lost a lot of Left-leaning supporters with their entry to the coalition, this has probably had a very small effect on their electoral chances. The reality of FPTP Britain is that Lib Dems end up fighting the Tories much more than they do Labour, and where the Lib Dems are fighting the Tories they are still drawing the "anyone but a Tory" vote.

In the end, this Lib Dem disaster is also a disaster for the Tories. Lib Dems are spoilers, and while they would gain seats from their own marginal fights, there would be a bunch of seats that they only keep secure because of third party interference. of roughly 37 seats (if boundary changes go ahead as planned) only 6 are going to be head to heads with the Lib Dems. The rest are Labour, hot on their heels, with a better poll rating than in 2010 (if things remain similar on the polling front) with no Lib Dems stealing votes away from the second place party that at least a third, if not a half, of Lib Dem voters have jumped ship towards.

Perhaps this is another reason why all of this fantasising over Tories fantasising about a Lib Dem demolition at the ballots is just a bit too unreal.

Just as happened with the AV campaign in spring 2011, Liberal Democrat ministers in 2014 will be stunned by the virulence of the Conservative electioneering

Will they now? Having experience it at the last election, and the AV campaign, will they really be stunned that the Tories can be a bunch of pricks with a pot of money come the time to try to get the public on their side? Really?

by the opportunistic way in which they are pilloried by Tory ministers and the Conservative newspapers for every government failing; by the shamelessness with which all Tory bridges to future co-operation are apparently burned; by the extent to which rampant Euroscepticism and populist causes are exploited in Conservative campaigning; and, on election night, by the radical way in which the cohort of Liberal Democrat MPs in the Commons is eviscerated.

Nothing happens to counter this situation by the Lib Dems in Professor Dunleavy's world. There is no concerted effort by the Lib Dems to work with the more liberal media to win back votes that they have recently lost to Labour on the back of evidence of "tempering" the Tory machine? There is no traditional Lib Dem fight of appealing to "anyone but the Tories", again in the realm of evidencing the way they have declawed the nasty party to some degree? Nope, the Lib Dems in this imaginary scenario just sit and take it, and seemingly so do Labour, possibly by joining the Tories in bashing the Lib Dems and handing the conservatives an excuse for everything that hasn't gone smoothly.

What could still stop this ending?

Reality, mainly.

By early 2014, only an economic situation so poor and a Conservative poll rating so low that David Cameron cannot risk any election.

Remember that a poll rating "so low" is still as high as 35% if Labour are higher than them and Lib Dems aren't polling significantly less than 10%....

Instead he would be locked inDowning Streetto the bitter end, hoping against hope that some good news will turn up. With the PM probably facing a divided Tory party (like John Major in his final year before him), a 2015 election would be a train wreck alternative for the Liberal Democrats also.

Brilliant, so even if things stay politically much where they are now, with labour gaining (very) slowly in the polls, it's still a terrible situation for the Lib Dems? Even though every public opinion poll out there on domestic economic issues is aligned perfectly with the Lib Dem stance, they won't be able to profit from that whatsoever? No analysis at all of the potential for the Lib Dems to generate a new Labour/Lib Dem coalition from the ashes of what ends up being a marginally popular, but resented government? No investigation in to the idea that the Lib Dems could act both as saviours to the Tories and to the idea of coalition politics by gaining a stronger hand in negotiations a second time around?

This vision of doom from the Professor, if I were a more cynical man, I would suggest is less about accurate predictions and more about very personal political tastes.

I say all this not because I believe I know better. I don't. Who knows what political craziness could happen to force allegiances apart, or to forge new ones? But if you're going to try an analyse the future, to be "90%" certain, maybe you'd do as well to actually entertain more than a single track of thinking, and stop excluding the most pertinent catalysts for our current political environment from the equation.

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