• Good Government Matters

    Government over recent times has got itself a bad name. Politicians are of course always regarded as fair game, particularly by media whose proprietors often see themselves as competitors for power, but the critics’ task was of course made immeasurably easier by the expenses scandal. The damage suffered as a consequence of that self-inflicted wound has cleared the way for a renewed assault – by right-wing politicians and media alike – on the whole concept of government.

    The notion that government is the problem, not the solution, is of course not new, and was famously and explicitly asserted by Ronald Reagan. It has never been strictly true of course that the right have disowned government as such; what they have wanted is government that serves the narrow interests of a privileged minority rather than a wider society. So, right-wing governments (including New Labour) have generally overseen an expansion of government in areas like security, law and order, defence, and – in economic policy – maintaining the value of assets and preserving the privileges of the wealthy.

    It is nevertheless a surprise that the new coalition government should feel so clearly mandated by what was at best a confused election result to commit to smaller government as the central element in its programme. The major task faced by the coalition after all is to lead the country out of a financial crisis that, having been created by the failures of the private sector, was only just averted by the government doing what only government could do – using its authority and legitimacy to underpin the banking system and guarantee the value of the currency.

    It is surely one of the miracles of the modern world that a private sector meltdown whose malign consequences are still with us, and against which the only defence proved to be the power of government, should have led to savage cuts in the role of government.

    It is to be expected of course that – in tough times – the powerful should try to shift the burden on to the less powerful whose diminished voice means that they are less able to complain. The speed with which the lessons of the crisis have been re-interpreted in favour of less government rather than more is testament to the ability of the powerful to defend their interests. What is a surprise, however, is the readiness of other elements – including the junior partners in the new coalition government – to abandon government as the major means of achieving economic recovery and re-asserting the need for social justice.

    A loss of faith in government seems now to have infected opinion across most parts of the political spectrum. Even on the left, there is a marked tendency to look for salvation anywhere but government. It is almost as though the left has concluded that – so disappointing was the experience of being in government – there is nothing more to be gained from that quarter. Nothing more clearly demonstrates how thoroughly New Labour let down its supporters.

    Much political activism on the left now takes the form of community-based initiatives of one kind or another – whether it is support for a local currency or various forms of collective self-help or the development of local power schemes. The common factor in all of these small-scale projects is their conviction that ordinary people should take responsibility for changing society, or at least their bit of it, and that government is just another part of the conventional power structure – along with the bastions of capitalism – that has to be overturned.

    There is much talk of the need to engage “civil society” as the essential element in changing society. Government, it seems, is to be by-passed as a snare and a delusion. There is an almost romantic sense that ordinary people possess an innate wisdom and goodness that are somehow sullied and rendered ineffectual by the formal and structured processes of democratic government.

    No one, of course, who wants to see a better and fairer society could object to the impulses that drive these initiatives. But it is distressing to see the efforts of earlier generations to achieve universal suffrage and democratic government so casually set aside. Our forebears saw the power and legitimacy of representative and elected government as the essential safeguard against the overwhelming power of the capitalist and boss, the one guarantor that the interests of everyone and not just the powerful would be properly protected and advanced.

    Community-based initiatives have their value but, as a means of changing society, they are too small-scale, fragmented and dispersed to make much impact. Nothing will better serve the status quo than the concession that government should be limited to protecting the interests of the powerful and that proponents of change should look elsewhere. A new Labour opposition leader can best confront the coalition and restore the faith of Labour supporters by re-asserting that good government matters.

    Bryan Gould

    22 August 2010

  • What Is The Point of a Coalition If Only One Voice Is Heard?

    Nick Clegg’s performance in the election campaign’s televised debates promised briefly to stand election projections on their head. The voters seemed to decide when the crunch came, however, that more was required than a pleasant demeanour and a winning smile.

    Election arithmetic, though, came to his aid and gave him and the Lib Dems another chance to show what they were really made of. Sadly, he seems on course to demonstrate for a second time that there is no substitute for substance.

    Personality and personal relations do of course matter in politics; and it is certainly true that the personal chemistry- a shared social and educational background perhaps – between Clegg and Cameron seems to provide a glue that might hold the coalition together for a time. But, if the Lib Dems are to make a success of government, they need more than goodwill and a conviction that nice people will prevail. They need a searching analysis of the country’s problems and a hard-headed agenda for resolving them.

    That is especially important when they find themselves in bed with partners who are not only much bigger and nastier than they are but who have a positive surfeit of ideological conviction and a ruthless determination to make it count. Nick Clegg is simply ill-equipped to stand up to the George Osbornes of this world. He seems to have gone along with the basic strategy of cutting the deficit, come what may, without firing a shot.

    How else to explain the extraordinary spectacle of a supposedly left-of-centre party and its leader tamely endorsing a budget strategy that is positively perverse and that threatens a re-run of the global recession that similar neo-liberal doctrine produced less than two years ago? How is it that a financial crisis that failed to become a full-scale depression only because governments and therefore the taxpayers – and our government and our taxpayers in particular – bailed out the failed financial institutions has become the launching-pad for savage cuts in public spending and a punitive scaling back in the role of government?

    Why should anyone believe that throwing people out of work, and then cutting the support available to the unemployed, will somehow set the economy back on its feet? Why should anyone believe that the government’s finances – including an indebtedness massively increased by the billions spent on the bail-outs – can be restored by ensuring that tax revenues are depleted because economic activity is flattened?

    The government’s determination to give priority to cutting the deficit, at the cost of any other objective, makes sense only if economic policy is to be deliberately handed over to the perversely irrational. Our policy-makers seem to be running scared of the “bond vigilantes” – the very people whose irrationality created our problems in the first place – and to have a naïve faith on the other hand that the “confidence fairy” will work her magic. It will be interesting to see how long confidence remains in the face of this assault on common sense and economic reality.

    It is disappointing that this fairy-tale nonsense is swallowed whole by so many commentators, and that attempts to debunk it are portrayed as the ravings of the mindless and the angry. It is not – pace Guardian leader-writers – the duty of coalition ministers to close their ears to argument. There is of course a distinguished and long-standing intellectual pedigree – from Keynes to Krugman, Stiglitz to Skidelsky – for the view that government’s responsibility in our situation is to maintain the level of economic activity, so that its own finances as well as those of others are restored as soon as possible. And, those with a knowledge of economic history will know that George Osborne is all too faithfully following in the footsteps of those like Herbert Hoover who followed similar policies in 1932 and plunged us all into depression.

    That pedigree and that hard-won experience are not so easily dismissed. We might have hoped that someone who chose to lead his party into government might have been better equipped for the task. Nick Clegg is not, sadly, unique among politicians in seeming almost totally bereft of any understanding of economics but nevertheless convinced of his fitness to make major decisions about our economic future.

    The least we can expect of our senior politicians, surely, is that they will make sure they know enough to be able to reach their own conclusions on the major issues of the day. It is not enough that these issues should be debated in the columns of our best-informed journalists. They should be debated at the very heart of government. What is the point of a coalition if only one voice is heard?

    Bryan Gould

    5 July 2010

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 5 July.

  • The Election the Parties Lost But the Country Won

    The general election of 2010 was the most complex, fascinating and important British election of modern times. In one sense, it was the election that no one won. In another – and perhaps more significantly – it may have been the first election of a new twenty-first century era in which Britain has at last come to terms with the end of empire and abandoned the pretension to a world role.

    For Labour, it was undeniably a defeat, but a defeat on a smaller scale than might have been expected, and one that at least suggests that there is another day to live for. The result should certainly lead to a clear-out of a leadership that led the party down a cul-de-sac and wasted the greatest opportunity offered to a potentially reforming government since the end of the Second World War. The shocking invasion of Iraq, the obeisance to the excesses of the City, the tolerance of widening and damaging inequality in British society, the complicity in torture, were betrayals of principle that were not easily forgiven. A leadership that chose to identify itself by claiming “Newness” cannot complain if the passage of time exacts its toll. Nothing is now more past its sell-by date than “New” Labour.

    For the Conservatives, the result was bitter-sweet. David Cameron is in Downing Street and heads a government in which Tories hold the great offices of state. But the failure to win a majority was a fatal blow to any belief that Britain was about to return to its Conservative roots. If the Tories could not command a majority after thirteen years of a discredited Labour government headed by a deeply unpopular leader and off the back of the most severe recession in seventy-five years, it is hard to see the new Tory-led government as anything more than a default option.

    The election result suggests, in other words, that Conservative Britain is no more. Something less than a quarter of all those eligible to vote cast their vote for a Tory government. David Cameron cannot rely, as his predecessors have done for so long, on a substantial bedrock of conservative sentiment. Even the Sun and Lord Ashcroft’s millions could not swing it this time. We can no longer assume that Conservative government is the rule and other options are the exceptions.

    This is not to say that the outlook for the Conservatives is necessarily bleak. All depends now on Cameron’s ability to construct a new Tory support base, and he does at least – in addressing that task – have the advantage of being in government. Apart from all the other difficulties faced by his government, however, the one most likely to undermine his efforts to re-build Conservative support will be the refusal of his colleagues to understand their true situation. Too many of them will mistake the electorate’s impatience to dismiss a discredited Labour administration as an enthusiasm for the return of a Tory government, and will blame Cameron’s reforming moderation for failing to deliver a Tory majority. They will not understand that the constraints placed by the voters on the new government are a reflection of Tory weakness which only an acknowledgment of that weakness can hope to remedy.

    For the Liberal Democrats, though, these are heady days. They may not, however, last long. The euphoria following Nick Clegg’s revelatory contribution to the first leaders’ television debate was short-lived and did not translate into votes and even less into seats. The elevation of the Liberal leader to the role of kingmaker was a function of the failure of the two larger parties to secure a majority rather than of any sudden transformation of the Liberal Democrats’ electoral fortunes.
    A Difficult Hand for the Lib Dems to Play

    The Lib Dems, however, will prefer to look to the present and future, rather than to the immediate past. For once, the electoral system has worked to their advantage. They have been dealt an exciting but difficult hand. All will now depend on how well that hand is played.

    The dangers are all too apparent. The relationship in government between two parties which have on the face of it little in common and one of which is six times bigger than the other, at least in terms of seats, will always be difficult. For the smaller party, there is a tricky line to walk between on the one hand pushing for too much and being slapped down by the larger partner, and on the other being so subservient as to lose any separate identity.

    It is in the nature of the political struggle that both parties, however well-intentioned they may be at the outset of the coalition agreement, will have a careful eye on the end game. For the Conservatives, the aim will be to keep the Lib Dems on side for as long as possible, so that the new Tory-led government can establish a record of responsibility and achievement, before going to the country with the plea that the time has come to dispense with the exigencies and limitations of coalition politics and to provide the larger party with a full mandate.

    The Lib Dems on the other hand will want to support the coalition arrangement for long enough to demonstrate their fitness of government while at the same time maintaining a sufficiently separate identity as to allow them eventually to appeal to the electorate as a viable alternative to their erstwhile partners. Whatever his current and no doubt genuine commitment to the newly struck deal, Nick Clegg will inevitably be looking for issues on which to strike a different posture from that of the Tories – and perhaps even an issue on which he would be able to end the agreement and ask the voters to say that he was right to do so.

    The Lib Dems will not accept a future for themselves as permanently junior partners in a succession of coalition arrangements. They will inevitably aim to offer the principal progressive alternative to the Tories, even if the Tories succeed in presenting themselves as reformed and moderate. Their long-term game plan, in other words must be to supplant Labour as the main alternative to Conservatism. That is why a coalition with the Tories, quite apart from the fact that they had the most votes and seats, was a better option than doing a deal with Labour. It will be easier to establish a distinctive identity by breaking with the Tories than it would have been with Labour.

    These differing pressures will of course be played out in a context determined not just by the two party leaders but by their supporters as well. Those hinterlands are populated by many who are nastier and tougher – more committed party warriors perhaps – than they are. Both leaders, in other words, will have to face in opposite directions at the same time – towards their coalition partners and to their own party ideologues. That Janus-like stance is sure to become more difficult as time goes by.
    Policy Issues for the Coalition Government

    All this is to say nothing of the genuine differences of principle and policy that induced Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to join different political parties in the first place. The coalition deal required both parties to abandon at the outset policy objectives and prescriptions that had been regarded in both cases as central to their differing stances. While many both within the Lib Dems and outside will welcome Nick Clegg’s abandonment of the anachronistic commitment to joining the euro-zone, those differences – over Europe, immigration, economic policy, tax and public services – will still be there.

    They will have to be negotiated in a context that is as difficult as any faced by any post-war government. The over-riding priority has to be the recovery from recession and the re-structuring of a British economy in serious and long-term imbalance. The immediate policy issue to be resolved is the response to be made to the government deficit – itself, ironically, the consequence of the massive failures of the private sector.

    The Conservatives will regard the size of that deficit as anathema and its reduction as the most urgent priority of the new government. There will be many Lib Dems, but perhaps not including Nick Clegg, who will want a more Keynesian approach, recognising the deficit not only as the price to be paid for past errors but as providing the essential breathing space to allow for a recovery that will be all the stronger if based on building rather than cutting; and the stronger the recovery, the quicker the deficit will come down. And the pain suffered mainly by the most vulnerable as a result of unnecessarily and ideologically driven deep and immediate cuts will not ease the path of either coalition partner to electoral success at the next election.

    While building a stronger and fairer British economy may top the list, there is a second objective of scarcely less importance – the restoration of faith in democratic politics and of Britain’s reputation in the world. Riding shotgun to George Bush’s out-of-control sheriff did enormous damage to our standing. A return to something like Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy” is desperately needed, but is likely to commend itself more to the Lib Dems than to the Tories.
    Electoral Reform – Is It Really A Game-Breaker?

    Many Lib Dems, however, will be ready to accept almost anything as long as they secure delivery of their central goal – electoral reform, which they have persuaded themselves will transform their prospects. The commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote may not, though, deliver that to them. Quite apart from the need to secure the legislation for a referendum, the Alternative Vote is not the most obvious or effective form of proportional representation and there is no guarantee that the voters would support it. And even if PR is achieved, the consequences for the Lib Dems may not be quite what they expect.

    The experience of New Zealand, which changed from first-past-the-post to a proportional system fourteen years ago, is that voters have a surprising ability to maintain the fundamental choice between a left-of-centre government and a right-of-centre government, even under a proportional system. PR may, in other words, mean that every vote gained because the Lib Dems are newly seen as serious contenders for power might be matched by the loss of a Lib Dem vote that had previously been cast as a form of protest. Fortunately for democracy, we know little about what determines the way people vote.

    This is not to say that there is not a good case for electoral reform. The New Zealand experience is again informative. The real significance of abandoning single-party government is the change that it brings to the process of government. The New Zealand experience of minority-led government has been that Ministers are constantly engaged in a process of negotiation; each piece of legislation, each major policy decision, has to be preceded by discussions to ensure that a parliamentary majority exists to support that particular measure.

    Curiously, this does not seem to have meant that the government’s programme is hopelessly delayed or frustrated. It has meant, at times of course, that legislation cannot be introduced until the necessary deals have been done, but the corollary is that the passage of more thoroughly prepared and carefully drafted legislation – once introduced – is smoother and takes less time. An even bigger plus is that the legislation – appealing as it must to a wider constituency than that represented by just one party – is often more soundly based and widely supported, with more of its contentious rough edges rounded off.

    The psychological change is also important. There is less of Quintin Hogg’s “elective dictatorship”. There is less obsession with doing down the opposition parties at every opportunity, since their support might be needed on the next item in the government’s programme. Governments are not only freer, but are required, to think more about broad-based positions than about the immediate party battle. There is a greater understanding of the value of broad public support and keeping in touch with public opinion. And Parliament itself is more widely representative of the range of opinion, and its members have a greater interest in and understanding of the processes and responsibilities of government.
    Welcome to the Twenty-First Century

    Perhaps the most significant long-term consequence of the 2010 general election, however, is that it may herald the demise of a dominating aspect of British politics for 200 years or more, the sense that in electing a British government we are also electing an administration that will play a significant role in governing the world. The oft-repeated need for “strong” government is in many ways a hangover from an imperial past when British education, public service and government were directed at providing able administrators to run large parts of the globe. Certainty and authority in decision-making were everything.

    But today, Britain’s role is as a medium-sized country which needs to focus on creating an effective, inclusive and prosperous democracy at home, rather than on wasting resources and energy on pretensions to a world role that is now beyond us. Other comparable countries, in Europe and elsewhere, have done very well without our particular obsession with “strong” (for which read “tribal”) single-party government and a winner-takes-all electoral system. A sustained experience of coalition government and a more representative Parliament, with all that that means in terms of inclusiveness, responsiveness and taking the wider view, might help us to that realisation.

    Bryan Gould

    15 May 2010.
    This article was published on the Newnations website www.newnations.com on 18 May

  • The Real Story of the 2010 Election

    Let us make some entirely plausible assumptions about the outcome of the general election. Let us assume that the Conservatives attract the largest share of votes, but fall short of a majority either of votes or of seats. Let us assume that Labour comes second or third in terms of the number of votes but might actually win the greatest number of seats, though still well short of a parliamentary majority. And finally let us assume that the Liberal Democrats score well – and perhaps substantially better than was expected at the outset of the campaign – in both votes and seats and, as a necessary consequence, hold the balance of power.

    The first issue will be for the Queen and her advisers. In such circumstances, who does Her Majesty ask to form a government? Do her advisers stick to precedent and advise that Gordon Brown, as the incumbent and commanding the greatest number of seats, should get the nod? Or do they pay attention to the pre-election assertion by Nick Clegg that, as a proponent of proportional representation, he would support only the Party leader who had gained the biggest share of the vote?

    I suspect that the advisers would initially stick to precedent and that Gordon Brown would be asked to give it a try. I further suspect that, unless he were prepared to give a guarantee of a referendum on electoral reform, his attempt would founder on Clegg’s determination to stick to his guns. The failed attempt could, however, take some time before the failure became definitive.

    The Queen would then ask David Cameron to form a government. He would seem to have a better chance of success, being able to argue that he had won the greatest share of votes. Nick Clegg would again try to extract a major commitment on electoral reform, but Cameron would refuse to accommodate him. Clegg would, however, be compelled, for fear of being accused of irresponsibility and of forcing a second and unwanted election on the country, to do some sort of deal to allow Cameron to form a government.

    That deal would probably fall short of a formal coalition but might take the form of an undertaking to support the new government on issues of confidence and supply. It might be time-limited, but whether or not the deal included any such formal provision, the issues of how long it might last and of the circumstances in which it might be brought to an end would constitute the real story of the 2010 general election.

    The parties to the deal, both Cameron and Clegg, would have clear but conflicting strategic objectives. Both could imagine scenarios which would greatly advance their parties’ interests.

    Cameron would hope to emulate the experience of other leaders of minority governments who had used the prestige of government to underpin their electoral appeal and to push on in a second election to achieve an overall majority. Harold Wilson pulled this trick off twice.

    But it might not be so easy this time. Cameron has to grapple with urgent and desperate issues. He either begins to deal with them effectively and accepts the pain that will inevitably attend such an enterprise, or he ducks the issues and is easily attacked as failing to attack the country’s all too obvious problems. A year or two into a new Tory government, and the voters could be – one way or another – badly disappointed. The honeymoon this time might be a very short one.

    For Nick Clegg, the issues are almost equally daunting. His task will be to pull the plug on the new government at a time when he won’t be accused of irresponsibility and of plunging the country into further electoral turmoil. He will want an issue which will, from both a position of principle and of prospective electoral advantage, allow him to go to the country as the alternative government. He will argue that while he had played his part in providing stable government he could no longer support a Tory-led administration that was heading down the wrong path. But his long-term objective would rest on the assertion that the Lib Dems were now the only party that could both defeat the Tories and form a stable majority government.

    It is now 100 years since Labour began its push to supplant the Liberals as the alternative to the Tories. The Conservatives, like the poor, are always with us (and some would argue that there is a causal connection between the two propositions). The perennial question in British politics is as to who will constitute the alternative. Today’s Liberals have their sights on the real possibility of reversing 100 years of history.

    Bryan Gould

    4 May 2010

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 5 May.