May 15th, 2010

Lib Dem, libdem

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.

More Northern Ireland election news

One of the administrative reforms rumbling around Northern Ireland for the last few years has been the proposed reduction of the number of local councils (26 unitary councils replaced the previous six counties etc structure back in 1972). This is one of those curious political projects that actually doesn't benefit or harm either side's interests very much, except in so far as the current 582 councillors would be reduced in number (on the latest proposals, to 462). The last local council elections were in 2005, and while there normally should have been fresh elections last year, these were postponed to 2011 when the 11 new supercouncils were supposed to come into force, thus giving those councillors elected in 2005 a six-year rather than a four-year term. (This isn't especially outrageous - readers in the Republic may like to reflect that until 1999, local government elections there were held at the convenience of the government, which meant the gap between elections varied randomly between three years and eight.)

But now (see Slugger, the News Letter and the Belfast Telegraph) it seems that the green light for the election to happen on the new boundaries has not come in time from Stormont, and there is talk of postponing the whole exercise for several more years, while holding elections in 2011 for the 26 existing councils - probably on the same day as the Assembly election also due in the first half of next year. There is the usual muttering that the relevant minister, the DUP's Edwin Poots, opposes the transfer of Dunmurry from Lisburn to Belfast. There are lots of reasons to dislike Poots, who is a fairly typical DUP activist, but I would note that his public utterances have always been sceptical on the need for the change in the first place, on the grounds that the cost is not justified by the savings. I would further note that since the immediate cost (at a time when the public belt is to be generally tightened) is projected at £118 million, in return for savings of £430 million over twenty-five year period, scepticism on those grounds is entirely justified.

So it looks now as if the entire project may be shelved for four to five years, and the elections next year will be to the existing 582 seats on the 26 existing councils.

I would propose, however, that in that case one modest reform should be adopted. Due to population change in the 18 years since the current electoral boundaries were drawn up, the electoral areasw are no longer proportional to the number of seats they hold. This was true even at the last eletions in 2005: in Belfast, for instance, the Court (=Shankill Road) and Upper Falls electoral areas each elected five councillors, though Court's electorate was only 13,582 and Upper Falls' 19,767, out of Belfast's total 166,824; allocated proportionately to the 51 seats currently on Belfast City Council, Court should have had four and Upper Falls six. That of course explains also why my proposed reform will not be adopted.

May Books 8) Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

A steampunk novel, set in an alternate 1880 where Seattle has been devastated by a mysterious gas which turns people into zombies; the wife and son of the inventor who caused the catastrophe 16 years before venture into the walled-off city to find The Truth. Lots of running around in poisonous fog wearing gasmasks while pursued by the undead. It's entertaining enough, if not Great Literature; will be below The City & The City on my Hugo ballot (I have yet to read the other nominees).
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