Nick Clegg, kingmaker?

The Lib Dems' options in a hung parliament must not be looked at in isolation

The fight for the general election has begun, and talk of a possible hung parliament continues to rumble in the background. Amid the rhetoric about fighting "every inch of the way" (as Gordon Brown said yesterday), Jackie Ashley says in the Guardian this morning that behind the scenes, politicians from both camps are discussing the options for compromise.

A kingmaker may be emerging: Nick Clegg.

Clegg has already said that, in the event of a hung parliament, he would back whichever party had won. But in our archaic voting system, this might not be clear-cut -- the Conservatives could win more votes than Labour but not quite enough to secure more parliamentary seats.

In this eventuality, Clegg must decide whom to back. This poses yet another set of questions for Brown's beleagured leadership. As Ashley writes:

Clegg [would not] find it easy to agree a power-sharing deal with Brown himself: the gap in style and age is just too great.

So Labour ministers are talking of a scenario in which, if no party won the election, Brown might stand down quickly. He would then be replaced by a more Lib-friendly leader, prepared to go further on constitutional reform; and a deal would be agreed, leading to that "realignment of the left" that has long been a staple of Guardian columns.

The New Statesman has consistently argued for a progressive realignment. As our leader argues this week, Labour will always be the more natural ally of the Lib Dems.

It's an interesting debate whether, in the event of a hung parliament, Brown's departure would be a requirement for a Lib-Lab pact.

Quite apart from the personal contrasts between Clegg and Brown, there is the problem of image. Some might argue that the public's frustration with Labour has come from disillusionment with the political system as a whole. But Brown has, in many ways, come to be emblematic of a tired government. Could the Lib Dems really be seen to be propping him up?

As my colleague George Eaton pointed out last week, Brown's tribalism may preclude a harmonious pact in any event, despite his apparent attempt to court the Lib Dems on the Andrew Marr show yesterday.

At PoliticalBetting, Mike Smithson suggests that James Purnell could be the man for the job, being "of the same generation as Clegg . . . [and] set to retain his Stalybridge seat". Certainly, Purnell's resignation last summer separated him from the current leadership of Labour -- as opposed to Harriet Harman or David Miliband, other names that have been touted.

But these arguments, by focusing on the Lib Dems and the decision to be made by Clegg, risk overlooking Labour and Brown's own psychology.

While a hung parliament would not present a victory in the usual sense of the word, it's entirely possible that Brown -- who has already described Labour as the underdog in this campaign ("When you are behind in the polls you have got to regard yourself as the fighter") -- could view the fight back from crushing defeat as an endorsement of his ability to lead the country in a power-sharing agreement.

The latest YouGov poll for the Telegraph showed the Conservatives with a lead over Labour of 35 points to 26. It remains to be seen whether the lead narrows further and a hung parliament becomes a reality. In any event, the multifaceted discussion of Brown's leadership looks set to run and run.


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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: whatever you hear, don't forget - there is an alternative

The goverment's programme of cuts is a choice, not a certainty, says Jolyon Maugham.

Later today you will hear George Osborne say there is no alternative to his plan to slash a further £20bn from lean public services by 2020-21. He will also say that there is no alternative to £9bn cuts to tax credits, cuts that will hit the poorest hardest, cuts of thousands of pounds per annum to the incomes of millions of households.

But there is.

As I outlined here the Conservatives plan future tax cuts which benefit, disproportionately or exclusively, the wealthy. Suspending those future tax cuts for the wealthy would say, by 2020-21, £9.3bn per annum.

I also explained here that a mere 50 of our 1,156 tax reliefs cost us over £100bn per annum. We don't know how much the other 1,106 reliefs cost us - because Government doesn't monitor them. And we don't know what public benefit they deliver - because Government doesn't check.

What we do know, as I explained here, is that they disproportionately and regressively benefit the wealthy: an average of £190,400 per annum for the wealthiest.

And we know, too, that they include (amongst the more than 1,000 uncosted reliefs) the £1bn plus “Rights for Shares Scheme” - badged by the Chancellor as for workers but identified by a leading law firm as designed for the wealthiest.

Simply by asking a question that the Chancellor chooses to ignore - do these 1,156 reliefs deliver value for money - it is entirely possible that £10bn or more extra in taxes could be collected without any loss of  public benefit

To this £19bn, we might add the indiscriminate provision - both direct and indirect - of public money to wealthy pensioners.

Those above basic state pension age enjoy a tax subsidy of up to 12% on earned income.

Moreover, this Office for National Statistics data (see Table 18) reveals that the 10% of wealthiest retired households - some 714,000 households - have gross pre-tax and pre-benefit private income of on average £43,983. Yet still they enjoy average cash benefits from government of £11,500 per annum.

Means testing benefits to exclude that top 10 per cent of retired households would save £8.2bn per annum. And why, you might wonder aloud, should means testing be thought by the government appropriate for the working age population, yet a heresy for retired households?

Add in abolition of that unprincipled tax subsidy and you'll save even more. 

So there are alternatives. Clear alternatives. Good alternatives. Alternatives that enable those with the broadest shoulders to bear some share of the pain. Don't allow yourself to be persuaded otherwise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.