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So, that coalition then

I could probably get a vote in tomorrow's special Lib Dem conference fairly easily; it has been called at such short notice that I doubt that all the voting reps of the Brussels branch of the party will be able to go, and substitutes will probably be welcome. I won't go, as I am not sufficiently active in the party these days and also have other plans. But if I were going, I think I would be going as a neutral leaning to yes vote.

It took me several days to come around. I wasn't especially shocked by the fact that the deal was with the Tories rather than Labour, as the arithmetic pointed that way; I have not been particularly surprised by the howls of outrage from Labour supporters who feel nobody else deserves to be in power. But I started as a coalition sceptic because the deal doesn't go far enough on electoral reform, and it seemed to me a catastrophic error to risk the Lib Dems' reputation without getting the most significant possible gain up front.

I came around partly as a result of reading the growing debate on the proposed 55% rule. First off, I'm amazed by the wrong-headedness of some of the commentary about this; if you want fixed term parliaments, you simply have to decouple votes of confidence from dissolutions in more or less this way. Of course there are going to be ways around it, as Helmut Kohl showed in 1982, but the point is to deter a prime minister from rushing to an election when the polls look right, and to raise the political price of doing so. The 55% figure is probably a bit low, but is basically high enough to ensure that neither of the current coalition partners can easily pull the plug on the other, and to provide an incentive to stable government. loveandgarbage's analysis has already been widely linked, but if you haven't already seen it it is here and here.

Which leads me to my reason for switching from soft no to soft yes on the deal. In my write-up of last weekend I expressed certainty that there would be another election soon, so the Lib Dems would need to get their price for coalition out of their partners early. The fixed term parliament deal kills that worry stone dead. The referendum on AV will therefore go ahead as normal government business rather than as part of the run-up to the next election campaign. I am not a huge fan of AV, but I do buy the argument that it is a first step towards proper reform, and the removal of the prime minister's power to run to the voters on a whim is sufficient compensation for me, for now.

There are other aspects of the package I don't like. I'm a sceptic on electing the Lords, so I hope that the coalition parties implement the first half (appointing enough members now to reflect party support at the election) and forget the second half of the plan. Of course, I have the luxury of not living in the UK so I can pick and choose the bits I like to comment on - the economics will make very little difference to me.

I'm alarmed by the lack of reference to international affairs or Europe in the coalition agreement (keep Trident, stay out of the euro, that's it). Also the Lib Dems have not done well on the international affairs portfolios - nobody in DFiD, and I've never heard of Jeremy Browne, the junior minister at the FCO who is still in his 30s. (Nick Harvey gets to be armed forces minister; I quite like him but have no idea of his suitability for the job.) But I can't honestly say that the Lib Dems have had much of substance to offer on British foreign policy recently other than on cases which actually shade into civil liberties (where the coalition agend is much more robust, and Labour particularly awful), so perhaps it's only to be expected.

I shall email my views to my local conference reps, as well as sharing them here. But I expect the package will get a thumping endorsement at tomorrow's conference.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 15th, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
An elected senate increases legislative checks on the executive, which I think would be a good thing. The long terms being proposed are good, and may reduce the seesaw effect; the combination of AV for one house and PR for the other might be enough to provide the common sense we need. If we do get that, maybe then we could remove the supremacy of the AV house.

I would rather see a system with an elected executive, and a second house which is less partisan (maybe by selection by public debate in some sort of committee according to some sort of plainly meritocratic rules, with confirmation by an AV or PR house), but that's much harder to get to from here.

For now, although I'm fearful of the economic consequences of Tory-led cuts, I am pretty optimistic about this government, which is far better than the electorate deserved.
May. 15th, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
I'd be fearful of having a populist pissing match going on with a Senate and the Commons - especially if it leads to the kind of climate change denialism as has been seen in Oz.

On the subject of the old Lords - I once listened to a very interesting programme on the radio which featured Lord Fitt (ex-Irish Republican!) musing on his time in the Lords. One thing he said stuck with me - many in the house were ex-professionals in many fields of expertise, and when legislation in those fields came to the house they made sure they were there and scrutinised it. Can any elected senate do that?
May. 15th, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
Climate denialism is a spent force, pretty much. Hopefully we'll learn the lessons from it.
May. 15th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
I don't know about that - I recently read a book called Fads and Fallacies in the name of science, by Martin Gardner of Sci Am fame. It's from the 50s, and covers all the fakery and deception from the year dot to that date. Dianetics, Scientology, Dowsing, Past Lives etc. In parts there are hopes expressed that a new rationality will dawn, seeing how people and science are now better informed. Over 60 years later quackery is still with us, and I wouldn't be so sure that it or its cousin denialism are on life support.

That said - I do hope you're right!
May. 15th, 2010 09:01 pm (UTC)
I think many of us who have had any substantial contact with the HL and were previously as convinced as most the population of the inherent stupidity of having an unelected upper house, came away impressed with the knowledge and experience of those who actually engage in HL debates and scrutiny (as opposed to those who stay at home tending their gardens the size of Essex or whatever);I heard comment also in the post-election fallout that the HC is now dominated by people who are basically career politicians - we are long past the days where most MPs came from industry or union or even professional backgrounds with real experience of SOMETHING. And then there is the incredibly refreshing freedom of Lords, even despite the presence of the whip, to engage with difficult and controversial topics and ocasionally stand up for things like human rights and constitutionality, without constantly thinking 24/7 "will this get me elcted again?" Me, I'd be happy to swap the HC for the HL albeit with a bit of reform and pruning. But then i'm a natural intellectual snob :-P

Edited at 2010-05-15 09:04 pm (UTC)
May. 16th, 2010 06:22 am (UTC)
Interesting that you mention career politicians, as a totally elected HL would be a nice starting point for... career politicians!
May. 16th, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
Gerry fit
What exactly was the qeuestion?
May. 17th, 2010 03:44 am (UTC)
Re: Gerry fit
It was more Gerry reminiscing about his times in the Lords on the eve of the last reform (1999?). Excellent programme - must have been on Radio 4.
May. 16th, 2010 07:17 am (UTC)
I don't see why an elected senate will be better at providing checks on the executive?
May. 19th, 2010 03:35 pm (UTC)
By having 15-year rotating terms.

Checks on an executive must be created in a democratic way, otherwise you are stuck with some sort of bizarre aristocracy. Like the House of Lords.
May. 19th, 2010 04:02 pm (UTC)
I don't see why having 15-year terms rather than life appointments will make an upper house a better check on the executive. I really don't.

Seeing as the most useful check on the executive at present is actually review of the law by unelected judges, rather than by parliament, I would say it is self-evident that checks on the executive need not be rooted in a democratic mandate or 'created in a democratic way', whatever that means.

I argue this in more detail here, but in a nutshell, if you have one democratically elected house, what really is the need for two? Won't an elected upper chamber simply have exactly the same kinds of people in it as the elected lower chamber? Might it not be better to run draft legislation past a panel of experts, whose opinions can then be either accepted or rejected by those with a democratic mandate? And would such a panel of experts, in the end, look so very different from the HoL as presently constituted?
May. 19th, 2010 08:44 pm (UTC)
The most useful check on the executive in the last 30 years has been the limits of party discipline of first the Tories and then the Labour Party. Sadly these limits were ineffective to prevent some great crimes and misdemeanors, but it would have been worse without them. I agree that the judiciary is also a vital check, but it only has the teeth given to it by the executive acting in parliament (e.g. the Human Rights Act), which teeth are reduced as often as they are increased.

The British system is fundamentally flawed by the absolute sovereignty of parliament. Anything, including any change to the constitution itself, can theoretically be achieved by simple Act of Parliament. The monarchy and the Lords could be abolished, as could the Human Rights Act, the judiciary, and democracy itself. So why does this not come to pass? What are our safeguards? We have a single defense against an unlimited radical executive: the conservative (and democratic) instincts of the British people, which would prevent such a thing by rebellion first in the Commons (those limits of party loyalty), but also in the Lords (which would refuse to vote for it), the civil service (which would refuse to draft or implement it), the police (which would refuse to enforce it), the judiciary (which would refuse to preside over it), the armed forces (which would refuse their orders), and ultimately we the people, who would march on Westminster and kick the bastards out, and probably string them up along the Embankment.

So that is the ultimate function of the Lords. A democratically elected second house could conceivably exercise this function considerably better, *because its existence would challenge the principle of lower house supremacy*. The Parliament Acts make the Commons supreme because it is through the Commons that the people can exercise their notional sovereignty. In a bicameral system, this argument evaporates and I would advocate ditching that constitutional rule, and reverting to the previous case in which Bills become Acts only through passage by both houses.

My phrase 'created in a democratic way' probably means pretty much the same thing as your phrase 'rooted in a democratic mandate'. Whatever that means.

At least let us start by getting rid of the bishops or the hereditaries, which are a gross offence against the democratic principle, almost as great as the fundamental insult of the monarchy itself.
(Deleted comment)
May. 16th, 2010 07:14 am (UTC)
If you are appalled by the way this was done, I invite you to consider how the hereditary peers were (mostly) abolished...
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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