Like it or not, the Tories and Labour are going to have get used to sharing power

With hung parliaments likely to become the norm, the kind of strop that Tory MPs are now throwing will be utterly counterproductive.

There's an interesting piece from Dan Hodges today in which he suggests that many Tories are so sick of having to govern in coalition with the Lib Dems that they may actually prefer to be in opposition.

This is a phenomenon that I witnessed first hand in the run up to the 2010 general election. At the time I was doing a lot of media and in one of my radio studio appearances I was chatting to a right-wing commentator who I knew from previous conversations was considering a potential future career as a Tory MP. The subject of electoral reform came up and he stated in blunt terms that if first-past-the-post was ever abandoned for Westminster he would quit politics. For him it was not enough to have power, it had to be absolute power for his party alone.

As a long-standing pluralist, I find this attitude hard to understand. Some might suggest that as a Lib Dem I would say that. But I thought this long before I joined the party. Compromising with colleagues is something that almost everybody does all the time in the "real world". Extending this across party boundaries within politics should not really be controversial and yet, somehow, it is. Well, in this country at least. Most other countries have political systems that ensure the most likely outcome is the sharing of power in various ways. Very few have such a brutal winner-takes-all system as the United Kingdom.

Even under first-past-the-post, it seems likely that the smaller parties will continue to eat away at the long-term vote share for the big two. Indeed, across the world the "Westminster model" is now usually returning hung parliaments. This could well lead to more opportunities for coalitions in the UK. If this is correct, Conservative and Labour MPs and activists are going to have to get used to sharing power. The sort of monumental strop that numerous backbench Tory MPs are now throwing will be utterly counterproductive.

The idea of working with one's political opponents has been anathema to the main parties for the last 60 years. The "winner" of the election gets a majority of seats and pushes through what they want. That has been the basis of our politics for so long that it is a genuine culture shock to find ourselves in a world where constant compromise is necessary. That is as true for the Lib Dems as for anyone else, which is perhaps surprising given they are the party of electoral reform - but that shows how deeply embedded our previous settlement was. We need to see a culture change in this country's body politic. Instead of compromise with political opponents being seen as weak, we need to accept it as an inevitable part of policy making. No one party has a monopoly on good ideas and our country can actually be strengthened by ensuring that more than one political philosophy and tradition has input into that process.

And if we can all accept this, then maybe next time we have a coalition the MPs that form the backbenches will have a slightly more realistic expectation of what can be achieved and perhaps be grateful for the opportunity to contribute, rather than equate compromise with betrayal of their principles.

Mark Thompson is a political blogger and commentator who edits the award-winning Mark Thompson's Blog and is on Twitter: @MarkReckons

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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