Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A new kind of politics?

It must be old age but I don't believe there is anything new in human behaviour. Gadgets - yes, fads - yes, styles - yes; but not human behaviour. Politics reflects this and has always reflected it. Principled politicians stand up for the things they believe in whether or not it gives them ministerial office and whether or not they effect changes in the law to reflect their beliefs. We have had plenty of absolutely genuine extremists in Parliament. At the other end of the scale are the flip-floppers who have no fixed view of anything. In between lie the majority who have certain core values they wish to see enacted but accept they cannot necessarily get everything they want and are amenable to making a little progress towards their aim when the alternative is no progress at all.

Where the government has only a small minority in the Commons it is inevitable that those of hardened views will seek to gain the maximum movement towards their position because they know their vote will really count and a stubborn refusal to go along with a wishy-washy proposal can cause the government immense difficulties. We saw this towards the end of the last Conservative administration, particularly on the issue of the EU. A large majority allows the government to ignore the fringes of its party and still pass legislation, so the entrenched views of some gain little serious attention because no one has to keep them sweet.

The new coalition government will have a nominal Commons majority of 49 (306 Conservatives, 57 Lib Dems and 8 DUPs out of a total vote of 644 because the Speaker won't vote and the IRA won't take its 5 seats). That is enough to last a full term in normal circumstances. Mrs Batty, the new Deputy Prime Minister, made a rather pathetic speech about the coalition marking the start of "a new kind of politics". I cannot see that the arrangement is new at all.

All political parties are coalitions between people whose views generally coincide on most issues but can be radically different even on core subjects. They hold together when the members feel there is more to lose than to gain by placing their true beliefs above the compromise position the party holds on each policy. In my lifetime it has always been the case that the Cabinet and ministries have contained people with strongly opposing views about what should be done but they reach a compromise in order that they can all keep their perks. The Labour Governments from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1979 contained a rag bag of assorted naive lefties of greater or lesser intensity in their loathing of the little people. The Heath government from 1970 to 1974 contained what were called at the time "hard liners" and "moderates". The Thatcher and Major governments from 1979 to 1997 contained essentially the same mix although they were then known as "drys" and "wets". Even under the more autocratic Blair and Brown years a wide range of views was held by ministers. It would be absurd to believe that anything else could be the position.

A formal coalition between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems is no different. Some Conservatives MPs undoubtedly share more opinions with mainstream Lib Dems than with the mainstream of their own party and the same applies in reverse. Where there is a difference is that the Lib Dems also include some pretty extreme left-wingers for whom Labour is a natural ally and the Conservatives a natural opponent. But the Lib Dems only have 57 MPs and it would take dissent by almost half of them for important Bills to be defeated. That does not seem very likely, at least in the first year or so of the Parliament.

The idea that decisions will now be taken with a smile and a group hug over a cup of warm pureed tofu and that everyone will be happy is laughable. Decision making will be more difficult because there is no detailed Con-Lib manifesto providing the blueprint for the position on each main policy issue, but if they all want to keep their armoured cars and their faces on the telly they will just have to compromise and reach a decision by which they must all stand. Neither party can say "we are only doing this because the other lot insist", decisions will be joint decisions. If the situation ever arises in which the Conservatives simply refuse to give ground on something and the Lib Dems cannot agree with them the coalition itself will be at risk. Either Mrs Batty gets his people to back down or they must all stomp out in a hissy fit and risk being blamed for the arrangement collapsing. That is hardly the new kind of politics he can have in mind.

I find it rather difficult to see what's in it for the Lib Dems in the long run. There are insufficient of their policies being adopted for them to be able to point at successes and claim them for themselves, indeed they can't claim them for themselves because they are the junior partner and any decisions that prove successful will be made predominently by Conservatives and only to a small extent by Lib Dems. For very much the same reasons, if things go wrong they can hardly go to the electorate saying "it wasn't our fault" because at least in part it was, and whether or not it was their fault it was their responsibility.

At the next general election there will not be Con-Lib Coalition candidates, so the voters will be faced with separate candidates from the two parties who form the government. If it is a successful government I would expect the Conservatives to reap a greater reward than the Lib Dems. If it is a failure neither will earn any credit from the electorate.

Perhaps that is what he meant by a new kind of politics - a kind of politics in which his party will share blame but not be in a position to claim praise without that praise also reflecting on Mr Cameron's merry men.

Perhaps he meant that we will see a return to proper cabinet government in which matters are thrashed out between senior ministers rather than dictated from Downing Street. Although it would be a departure from the disastrous approach taken by Labour over the last thirteen years, it is nothing new; it was accepted as the only sensible way to operate for decades before autocracy and spin took over.

One new thing has happened. Mr Cameron said nice things about Gordon Brown. He will do so again when Parliament sits for the first time. Then the gloves will be off and the full panoply of Labour corruption and misjudgment should be exposed ruthlessly. Mrs Batty will join in the rubbishing of poor Gordon and his uncanny ability to have got every major decision wrong for more than a decade. There will be nothing new about that, it's been the way for generations because politics involves a constant fight for seats at the next election not the last one. The people involved always have the same range of abilities and characteristics as their predecessors and they will all have to fight for votes from now on just as they fought for them during the recent campaign. It's the same kind of politics and always will be.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Yup. I can't add much to that.

Anonymous said...

On your numbers, the government would have a majority of 98 - 371 seats in total, 98 seats more than all the rest added up (273). That's how it's usually calculated and expressed.

The Quizzical Observer said...

I was going to do a piece along these lines but couldn't possibly do better than this. I guess I'll fall back on Plan B and work on 'this is the same kind of politics - but what might a genuinely new kind of politics look like?'

Not like this, obviously.

Stan said...

There isn't a genuinely new kind of politics Quizzical Observer. There is no "third way" - just a right way and a wrong way.

james c said...

Fat Bigot,

I must say that it is incredible that David Cameron is proposing to increase CGT from 18 to 40%.