After we hung ’em

Twelve immediate reflections on the coalition.

1. David Cameron is the adroit driver of the coalition. He proposed an offer that the weakened Lib Dems couldn't refuse. His own strategy is to replace Tory nationalism with a 21st-century version of One-Nation "Whig" Conservatism, one that can appeal to urban and suburban multicultural Britain. (See my article "The end of Thatcherism" at OurKingdom.) Don't blame Nick; Labour wasn't interested in changing.

2. Nick Clegg's speech today confirms his commitment to the "modern liberty" agenda of rolling back the intrusive, database state. It is a tremendously positive outcome of the coalition agreement and a framework of principle that helps bind it together. Tragically, Labour were positive enemies of progress in this respect and don't understand what has hit them. Just because the BBC refuses to cover an issue doesn't mean it is not important.

3. But the coalition smacks of an attempt to create a new establishment (male, public school, enlightened) to replace the turpitude of New Labour's political class. While it is wonderful on liberty, noises about appointing swarms of new lords suggest an underlying attempt to preserve the old order. The expenses scandal isn't over yet.

4. The Tory aim is to win the next election outright. The Lib Dems need a strategy that will leave them stronger not weaker when they leave the coalition. If, as he told James Macintyre, Nick Clegg wants to be prime minister, he has to be better at playing chess than David Cameron.

5. The Tories will be stupid to tell voters we can decide on our electoral system and then refuse to permit us the choice of a significantly different one. They can't "restore trust" by spending millions on a referendum designed not to trust us. The Lib Dems will be hammered, too, if they go along with this. A proportional choice should be included in the referendum. Liberty can only be safeguarded by democracy but democracy is the coalition's political fault line.

6. A new generation that grew up under the spin of New Labour, and for which the wit and facility of the web are second nature, is starting to mobilise against being fitted up by half-measures that preserve the old regime. The demand for fair votes has taken to the streets under the colour of suffrage and added a new dimension to UK politics. The purple revolution may pause for breath but it is likely to grow -- it is an irresistible claim, not a protest.

7. Britain is much better in many ways thanks to New Labour, but the new leaders will need not just to admit they were wrong on Iraq, but explain why they persisted in being wrong when so many of us, including the Lib Dems, were right. A dishonest electoral system gave them many more seats than they deserved, but this will be corrected and they have no chance of expanding the support they need until they rethink what kind of a state they offer voters, and how we can be sure it will be both politically and economically honest, as well as creating policies that don't need borrowed money. If, like the Compass "A New Hope" conference sponsored by the New Statesman, Labour ignores the implications of its database state, then its cause is already hopeless and it will lose the next election.

8. The desire to preserve the Union and prevent a boost for the SNP in Scotland was an important motive for Cameron's offer of a coalition. Otherwise, the government would have had one MP, rather than 12, from north of the border. But its effect might be to destroy the Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament elections next year. The national question is a burning fuse that might be slowed but can't be extinguished.

9. The coalition agreement stipulates that there will be a report on what to do about the West Lothian Question, that is to say, the unfairness of the present arrangements for the English (England returned a Tory majority). The official answer to the West Lothian Question has always been not to ask it. Once England enters the mix as an acknowledged grievance, stand back!

10. The row over whether parliament can be forced to rewrite the fundamental rule that if a government loses the confidence of the House it has to resign shows that the British constitution's famed flexibility has been tested to destruction. To put it politely, the UK's uncodified constitution is broken beyond repair. The coalition won't whistle it back together again. This could provide a way for Labour to be more democratic in its strategy than the Liberal-Conservative government.

11. The "Portillo moment" of election night, signalling that something historic had happened, was Caroline Lucas's victory. The Greens have a politics of the totality, linking the economy and our environment to our democracy. If "new politics" means anything, it means green. The Greens need to grow.

12. Will the dire state of the deficit and the coming cuts be used to preserve the dominance of the City and its economic system? Or is that system so obviously dysfunctional and deep cuts so likely to provoke rioting that the Conservatives (for such they are) will seek a "fair" way out of the mess to preserve the social order? No one understands what is going to happen to capitalism on a world scale. All we know is that the UK is exceptionally exposed, not least thanks to the policies of Brown and Balls, and there is a fear that something dreadful awaits us just over the horizon.

Anthony Barnett is co-founder of openDemocracy and co-edits its British blog, OurKingdom. Read his original article for the New Statesman, "Hang 'em high with this election", here.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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