Friday, July 20, 2012

Does history show that junior coalition partners are doomed?

I wrote this post several months ago in response to an article on the Daily Telegraph website. I never quite got round to finishing and publishing it before going on a longer than anticipated hiatus. But, still, I might as well post rather than delete it, and the general issue it addresses is still relevant.

Peter Oborne has written that the coalition won't see out 2013 and agrees with Mark Oaten's view that

coalitions are always disastrous for the smaller party. It gets swallowed up, blamed for the failures and only rarely credited with the successes, and then not nearly enough. 

This is by no means the first time I've heard such a view expressed. Indeed shortly after the last general election, I attended a seminar where the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor predicted a grim future for the Lib Dems as a result of their participation in coalition. It seems to me that the view that junior coalition partners are necessarily doomed has become almost a received wisdom, an assertion one hears people make in political conversation with an air of authority.

My purpose is not to come over all Panglossian about how the Liberal Democrats will perform at the next election, but rather to challenge how far history offers us a guide to the electoral prospects of a junior coalition partner. It seems to me that since the formalisation of party organisations in the nineteenth century, there has been no equivalent of what we have now: a peacetime coalition of two parties who continue to compete against one another in elections.

The main examples of peacetime coalitions in Britain have involved not an independent junior partner but a schism from an established party (usually the Liberals) which then entered into an electoral pact with the Conservatives. In the case of the Liberal Unionists (junior coalition partners from 1895-1905) and the Liberal Nationals (from 1931 onwards) this new alliance proved permanent. In the case of the Lloyd George coalition, it fell apart and both sides returned to their previous affiliations.

In each of these cases there remained an independent Liberal party outside the coalition (other than the brief participation of the Samuelite Liberals in the National Government between 1931 and 1932). Both the Liberal Unionists and the National Liberals were indeed swallowed up, but each clearly had an impact on their Conservative partners. Each helped broaden the Conservative party's appeal and they did receive credit for this from their new allies. And while the Lloyd George coalition ended in tears, the Conservatives clearly understood Lloyd George's usefulness to them while it lasted (and they ditched him when he became a liability). The key thing, though, is that in none of these cases was the coalition partner truly independent of its larger ally - indeed it was dependent on an electoral alliance for its very existence in parliament.

History does perhaps suggest that holding the balance of power, while at one level the Liberals' dream, has meant bad news for the party at the subsequent election. It's almost inevitable that this will be the case. If Liberals put Labour in then their centre-right supporters will be angry and if they back the Tories then this will antagonise its centre-left voters. So when the Liberals installed a Labour government after the 1923 general election delivered a hung parliament, it lost support to the Conservatives at the 1924 election. After1929 when the Liberals again backed a Labour government, the party split, and had the subsequent election in 1931 been fought on conventional party lines, the Liberals would doubtless have done very badly.

Yet in neither case was the party in coalition. And in the 1920s the Liberals party was atrophying at constituency level so arguably holding the balance of power merely hastened rather than caused its decline. A better comparison with today's situation would be the Lib-Lab pact in the 1970s where the Liberals sustained in power an unpopular and discredited Labour government. But by this stage the party had reversed its long-term decline, particularly at local level, and had developed a community politics strategy that (sometimes) went hand in hand with winning parliamentary seats by promoting Liberal MPs as local heroes. As a result, although the Liberals lost ground in 1979, its parliamentary representation fell only marginally, from 13 to 11, compared with the previous election. If the Lib Dems lost 15% of their MPs at the next election it will still leave the party in a much stronger position then it was before 1997.

Another argument that junior coalition partners always fare badly comes from Ireland. The fate of the Progressive Democrats, who lost most of their seats in the 2007 general election and then went out of existence following a coalition with Fianna Fail, is often cited. Yet the history of the PDs is rather more complex. The party actually twice increased its Dail representation after periods in coalition: at the 1992 and 2002 elections. For a while it developed a reputation for keeping Fianna Fail honest and in many ways had an impact on policy beyond its slim electoral support base. By contrast, its representation fell dramatically each time it was in opposition. The final disaster was probably more to do with bad tactics - appearing too close to Fianna Fail, picking the wrong fights when it sought to differentiate itself, and obvious friction among its leaders - than with the fact of being in coalition.

Similarly the electoral performance of the Irish Labour party in government does not justify a wholly pessimistic reading of the fate of junior coalition partners. In 1977 and 1987 it lost proportionately fewer seats than its larger coalition partner, Fine Gael. It did suffer a disastrous result in 1997, but that was after it had first sustained in power an unpopular Fianna Fail party, then switched horses midway through the parliament and gone into coalition with Fine Gael and others. It was punished for inconsistency and opportunism rather than the fact of going into coalition.

So while I don't dispute the self-evident truth that being a junior coalition partner is far from a bed of roses and the next general election a tough challenge for the Liberal Democrats, there is really no historical evidence from either Britain or Ireland to justify a conclusion that 'coalitions are always disastrous for the smaller party'.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

London Welsh should go up

London Welsh deserve congratulations for winning rugby union's championship (the second tier of club rugby) tonight. Given that in principle there is automatic promotion to the premiership for the champions, they should now be looking forward to a season in the top flight.

But in a sport presided over by the Rugby Football Union, things were never going to be quite that straightforward. In fact the situation is truly bizarre. London Welsh were only told last week that they don't meet the stadium eligibility criteria for joining the premiership. This is despite existing premiership sides being in exactly the same position that London Welsh propose for next season, ground sharing with football clubs, and at least one (Bath) not meeting other criteria. But they are given special dispensation because they were already in the premiership when the rules were set.

Indeed, only three of the championship clubs meet the ground eligibility criteria for promotion, meaning that the rest are playing only for pride. How did this state of affairs come about? When rugby union went professional in the mid-1990s, some clubs were quicker off the mark than others to adapt to the new situation. They then wanted to protect their investment (or pull up the ladder after them) by abolishing promotion and relegation from the new club premiership so that other clubs would not be able to follow in their footsteps.

But they were never quite able to force this through, so with the acquiescence of the Rugby Football Union, did the next best thing, namely to allow promotion and relegation, but to set criteria that made it as hard as possible for clubs not already in the premiership to get there. The key rules were about stadium capacity, and if a ground was shared with another sport, whether the club had 'primacy of tenure', in other words that they had first call on the ground if required to stage a match at a particular time to comply with TV schedules. (This latter rule has been slightly modified since then.)

Those who argued that unnecessary barriers should not be put in the way of clubs reaching the top tended to be dubbed 'romantics', as if the idea that success on the rugby field should determine a club's fortunes was a throwback to the sport's amateur days. In fact, what premiership clubs wanted, and have to some extent achieved, is special privileges that shield them from the harsh business and sporting realities.

Using the stadium criteria to do this is a neat way of avoiding exposure to competition. Until rugby union went professional, only a handful of rugby clubs had a proper stadium, as opposed to a pitch with a stand along one side. Those that were fortunate enough to have a football club nearby whose stadium they could share, or who were fortunate enough to have a ground that could be expanded without falling foul of the planning system, or who like Leicester or Gloucester already had a proper stadium, were sitting pretty.

But London Welsh, who are one of the great names in club rugby, have a rather picturesque ground in a historic park in the shadow of the pergola at Kew Gardens. They wouldn't be allowed to put up huge grandstands on the three undeveloped sides of the ground. Other championship clubs face other problems,for example Cornish Pirates and Bedford are pretty much tied by their name to a particular location but sadly lack a large enough soccer stadium nearby.

London Welsh now have to appeal to the RFU against the refusal of promotion and if unsuccessful take legal action to resolve which league they play in next season. And even if they do go up they will have hardly any time to recruit a premiership standard team, making relegation a virtual certainty.

It ought to be possible for all championship teams to be promoted to the premiership. Unlike soccer, rugby union does not require rival supporters to be segregated at stadiums, rugby supporters are a hardy bunch who can take a bit of wind and rain, and no club will want to have a stadium with a low capacity and poor facilities if they can find a better alternative. So, in my view, London Welsh should be able to play in the premiership at Old Deer Park if they wish, rather than having to ground share with Oxford United FC (and still apparently not meet the premiership criteria). Or perhaps clubs could be promoted provided they achieve premiership criteria within three years (these defined as having to match rather than exceed the stadium standards achieved by existing clubs).

If artificial barriers to promotion are removed, it might create a healthier sense of competition within club rugby, and less of a sense that being relegated to the championship (currently unsponsored and largely unreported by press and broadcasters) is like being cast into outer darkness, because at any given time it will contain a handful of big-name clubs.

I fear that the premiership clubs and RFU will do all they can to protect the cosy cartel and shut London Welsh out. But I hope they are unsuccessful, because if they win it really will make a laughing stock of a great sport - and deter other ambitious clubs from investing in the sport.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Arguing over Amritsar

London University's Institute of Historical Research, where I was until recently a seemingly perpetual student, runs the excellent Reviews in History resources on its website.

This provides an opportunity for longer discussions of new history books than can be included even in specialist academic journals and also for the book's author to respond to the review.

Normally it is fairly well mannered stuff with measured reviews being met with grateful thanks for constructive comments on the book in question. But just occasionally it is handbags at dawn, as in the case of Kim Wagner's review of Nick Lloyd's recent The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day and Dr Lloyd's response.
 I haven't read the book, but it's fair to say in general I have little sympathy with the new strain of 'British empire was a good thing and much misunderstood' historical writing, of which the book would appear to be an example. At any rate it seems rather odd that Lloyd should take Wagner to task for having 'absolutely nothing to say about the violence directed against the Indian people by the successor state since 1947' when he was reviewing a book about the 1919 Amritsar massacre carried out by representatives of the British Raj.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Health bill supporters need to tell us what good they think it will do

I have never been a great fan of the Lib Dem Spring conference - it is always a long journey and by the time you have got into the swing of things it's time to go home again. So I am down here in Watford not up in Gateshead. This spares me the dilemma of how to vote in any debate on the health bill.

Although I should perhaps be reassured by the recent articles by Shirley Williams and David Boyle, for me their arguments for the bill highlight a problem. This is that the points made by Lib Dems in favour of the bill are couched in negative not positive terms. We are told that it is now much less bad than it was and a vindication of our participation in government - what wouldn't those horrid Tories have done left to their own devices? But given the importance of the NHS, in particular to Lib Dems, this on its own won't do. The bill's supporters need to explain why they think it will lead to a better NHS for patients, one that Liberals can be proud of. Making a bad bill less bad may be commendable of itself but that doesn't make it good. And if it is a good bill we need to hear exactly what is good about it.

Not being an expert on health policy myself I have no obvious way of getting beneath the rhetoric and deciding whether the bill is worthy of support or an outrageous sell out to the private sector. I could have a go at reasoning it out, as follows. In the past 20 years government of all stripes (Yes, Labour too) have introduced reforms that broadly embrace some sort of market principles and private sector involvement in NHS services. There may be many reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that a exclusive reliance on direct in-house service provision will inevitably lead either to high costs/inefficiency or to long waiting lists and poor service, or quite possibly all of these.

This is because the NHS is a huge organisation, providing a wide range of services, the demand for which is unlikely to be steady and predictable, and which is at the same time virtually limitless. If  it is maintained as a lean and efficient machine with no slack in the system then it is going to be unable to cope with any sudden increased demands on its services, leading to long waiting lists and times. And if provision is made to cope with all eventualities then there are likely to be long periods when services are not operating at full capacity, thus creating huge financial waste. Given the size of the NHS both things are likely to happen. So private sector provision is a way of adding flexibility and coping with the unexpected - all the more necessary if patients are to be treated as human beings not numbers on a waiting list.

So far so good, but beyond that I'm a bit stumped. I have no real way of calculating the precise level at which private sector involvement and competition among NHS providers ceases to be what is necessary for high quality services to patients and starts to be a surrender to greedy capitalists. Nor can I really say whether this is all best organised by the PCTs (as at present) or GP commissioning (as proposed).

I could simply make my mind up on the basis of who is on which side. If David Boyle and Shirley Williams support the bill then perhaps it is a good thing. I could let myself be swayed in favour of the bill by the obvious humbug of Labour's Andy Burnham, who was health secretary in a government which introduced market-orientated reforms and greater private sector involvement, but who now seems to be a born-again Clause 4 supporter.

The opposition of organisations representing NHS professionals isn't necessarily a reason to oppose the bill - professional bodies usually resist change and we should be guided by what is best for patients. At the same I am willing to believe that the level of ignorance that central government demonstrates about local government when introducing its various exciting reforms might well be replicated in its dealings with the NHS.

So I am relieved to be spared the ordeal of voting on this at conference. Even if Lib Dem delegates do vote against the government's proposals, even as amended, this won't necessarily kill the bill. But if Lib Dem ministers do wish to pass it, and not have every future problem that the NHS faces blamed on it, then they need to do more to explain what they believe are its merits and how it will benefit patients.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

In praise of Eugene McCabe

When I saw that the Slugger O'Toole blog contained a tribute to Eugene McCabe I assumed that the octogenerian Irish author must have died.

Happily this appears not to be the case and whatever has triggered it Andy Pollak's article draws welcome attention to McCabe's work.

Eugene McCabe is not as well-known on this side of the Irish Sea as he ought to be, perhaps because he is hardly prolific, perhaps because he apparently lives a quiet life on his Monaghan farm and is not part of any literary media circuit.

Nonetheless he is one of the most powerful and insightful writers about Ulster's divided community. His one novel, 1992's Death and nightingales, which portrays the troubled relationship between a Protestant stepfather and his Catholic stepdaughter, is a masterpiece that works both as a story in itself and as political allegory.

Likewise the short stories collected in the volume Heaven lies about us highlight the complexities of a situation where members of both communities live side by side with historical hatreds never far from the surface.

Anyone looking for the great literature of the Northern Ireland troubles (as opposed to the self-serving literary productions of its politicians) should check out McCabe's work.

On Norman St John Stevas and Chelmsford

Norman St John Stevas, who died on Friday, represented Chelmsford in parliament, a constituency that for much of the 1970s and 80s was a top Liberal target seat. The Liberal candidate there was Stuart Mole, speechwriter to David Steel and one of the party's rising stars.

However much one wished for a Liberal victory there, I remember thinking it a pity that, of all the Tory MPs we might be glad to see the back of, we were trying to oust one of the few who seemed quite a good egg. When St John Stevas announced his retirement at the 1987 general election I assumed that his semi-celebrity status had helped the Tories retain the seat in the past and it would now fall into our hands.

Then someone who knew the constituency told me that whatever St John Stevas's positive qualities he was a less-than-assiduous constituency MP and that much of the Liberal momentum in the seat had come from pointing this out. Such a view seemed confirmed by the Conservative majority increasing in 1987 from three figures to more than 8,000.

Thereafter the Lib Dem challenge in Chelmsford faded, although one hopes that our improved result there in 2010 means that we may yet one day take the seat.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Rediscovering Al Stewart

With musical artists as with authors, there are some that one follows and buys their every work, others who one likes for a while before moving on to other things.

So while I loved Al Stewart's Year of the Cat album, its successor Time Passages wasn't nearly as good, and I didn't bother with any of his other releases. And while it seems rather shallow of me, back in the 80s, I was aware that it was a bit uncool to like an artist who mainly wrote and performed songs on historical themes. It had overtones of the then much derided Prog Rock.

But recently I found Stewart's most recent studio album Sparks of ancient light on eMusic and downloaded it out of curiosity, half expecting it to be an even paler imitation of Year of the Cat than Time Passages had been. In fact it is a little gem, reminding me of what made Stewart an interesting songwriter in the first place

Although his songs do often deal with historical subjects rather than the familiar confessional themes of singer-songwriters, he avoids the twin evils of Spinal Tap Stonehenge bombasm or Steeleye Span morris-dancing twee-ness. Instead he milks historical topics for their human angle. So Like William McKinley is not an ode to an American president but rather a meditation on lost love with a historical analogy somewhere in there. Anyway the link is to a live performance of my favourite song on the album 'Hanno the Navigator' - and the album title is also taken from the lyric of this track.

I may now even explore the rest of Stewart's oeuvre.

Jenny Tonge - a case of not being able to have it both ways

The late Conor Cruise O'Brien used to refer to the sense of liberation he felt once he was no longer involved in party politics. It enabled him express his views freely without being bound by any collective responsibility. On the issues that interested him, such as Northern Ireland and the Middle East conflict, his views were at odds with the political mainstream. As a party politician he was fettered by the need to express the predictable well-meaning banalities that are expected on such topics. As a writer free of party ties he was free to follow the logic of his own arguments even if his views caused offence.

Jenny Tonge is hardly a thinker in O'Brien's class (and he had rather different views on Israel), but similar considerations apply. The Israel/Palestine conflict is an issue on which mainstream politicians in the West watch their words and strive for balance because what they say reflects more widely on their party and even on their country. It is hard to combine holding public office as a respresentative of a political party with expressing controversial opinions on issues like this. So Baroness Tonge has had to choose between resigning the Lib Dem whip or apologising for comments which the party leadership found embarrassing and offensive.

Tonge's defenders will doubtless say that there is nothing terribly controversial about saying Israel won't 'last forever' because it is true of any political entity. But this won't quite do. In such matters context is all important. If a well-known politician were to say with reference to Scotland becoming independent that the United Kingdom may not last in its present form then it would be relatively uncontroversial. Every expectation is that if such an eventuality arises it will happen peacefully and by mutual consent. If they made a similar comment with regard to Northern Ireland, with its recent history of politial violence, it would immediately raise the spectre of a United Ireland and the hackles of the Ulster Unionists. In the case of Israel, the existence of which has been controversial from its inception, saying it will not last forever is clearly going to be read as a thinly-veiled threat.

A similar point can be made about Tonge's previous faux pas in saying that had she lived in Occupied Palestine she might have considered becoming a suicide bomber. At one level this is such a statement of the bleeding obvious as to be hardly worth saying. Similarly had I grown up in one of the world's major conflict zones rather than in Watford I might not have arrived at the warm cuddly Liberal opinions that I hold. Who knows what any of us might do if we lived somewhere that was beset by persistent violent conflict. So the purpose of Tonge's comments could only have been to express some kind of identification with Palestinian suicide bombers.

There are good reasons why blandness tends to prevail on such subjects from the mouths and pens of those holding public office. Apart from anything else, the British government might reasonably expect to play some sort of role in a future peace process and it doesn't really help if it (or the parties comprising it) are seen by one side as so partisan that they cannot play the role of honest broker.

So it is right that if Jenny Tonge wishes to continue making the sort of comments on Israel/Palestine that have become her trademark she does so from a position where she is clearly not a representative of the Liberal Democrats.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Left Liberalism's intellectual cringe towards Labour

It always irritates me when fellow Lib Dems bang on about conspiracies by 'the right' of the party, or accuse colleagues of being crpyto-Tories. To be consistent I should apply similar standards when uncomradely sentiments are expressed by those I agree with. So it is a rather over the top, if typically er... forthright for Dan Falchikov to accuse the members of ginger group Liberal Left of 'seeking to work their passage into the Labour party'.

Yet on the substance of the issue, Dan is surely right (and Jonathan Calder makes a similar critique of Liberal Left here). What frustrates me about the Lib Dem left is that it seems to me guilty of an intellecual cringe towards socialism/the Labour party and their unquestioning belief in the benificence of state action. Rather than define a clear Liberal worldview, it effectively allows Labour to define our attitude to public spending - we have to support (or promise to exceed) Labour's spending commitments unless we want to be thought right-wing. We may disagree with Labour about constitutional reform, civil liberties or overseas wars, but apparently not on the core of government business.

Back in my dim distant youth, I joined the Lib Dems precisely because I held caring/compassionate/centre-left/Guardian reading Liberal values but doubted whether greater state intervention was always the best means of putting such beliefs into practice. In my years of party activism one of the things I have found most frustrating is that way that whenever anyone seeks to explore and define the differences between Labour/socialist and Liberal values and policies, there will always be someone on the left of the party ready to label this right-wing.

I'm in print again

My research article 'The myth of New Liberalism: continuity and change in Liberal politics 1889-1914' appears in the latest volume of the Revue Francaise de Civilisation Britannique (my article is in English). It is part of a special edition of the journal on the British Liberal party 1906-1924. It includes contributions by Kenneth O. Morgan (on Asquith and Lloyd George), Paul Addison (on Churchill as a Liberal) and Martin Pugh (on Liberals and the role of women in politics).

As the title suggests, in my article I argue that the Asquith government's welfare reforms were less a product of a 'New Liberal' ideology and more a sign of the resilience and adaptability of 'Old' Liberalism. However, as the party supported, but was not defined by its commitment to welfare reforms, it was not well-prepared to fight the rise of the Labour party in the changed political circumstances after the first world war.

The key point I want to get across here is that you should

order a copy online and read the essays, including my own (you can do so using the link above). At 160-odd pages it is more like buying a book than a magazine; two-thirds of articles are in English, so it doesn't matter if you don't read French, although if you do and are interested in Liberal history it will be a real treat.

At 20 Euros (including postage) for the volume its value for money compares very well with buying historical monographs in English on Liberal history, which are often priced at over £50 for little more than 200 pages. And also in a small way it encourages study of Liberal history beyond the Anglophone world. So hurry, hurry while stocks last!

Return of Psychic Psmith

Until a few years ago the Sunday Telegraph was my preferred weekend reading. Among the reasons I stopped getting it was that a new editor ditched the Psychic Psmith spoof horoscope column, which was among the best thing in the newspaper.

I now find that Psychic can now be read online, although it appears I have missed several months of his predictions. I particularly liked his entry for 18 January

...your very own Psychic Psmith was the only astrologer working in the British media who predicted the upcoming Little Chef restaurant closures... other leading media star-gazers, such as Polly Toynbee at the Guardian, were nowhere near this story. Chalk another one up to the Psychster