With one year to go to the Scottish elections, the talk at the LibDem gathering in Aviemore was all about the seven year old Liberal-Labour coalition breaking up. Labour MSPs re talking openly about the merits of going it alone, while Nicol Stephen, the Scottish LibDem leader is making nuclear power and council tax potential coalition breakers.
However, it would be a supreme irony if the Scottish Lib-Lab coalition were to break up just as coalition talk is beginning in Westminster. For I can report that, according to very senior Liberal Democrat sources, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown and the new Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, have been holding informal discussions about how to ensure that “progressive forces in British politics” can work together in future. I’m told that the Chancellor has also approached senior Liberal Democrats like Vince Cable and David Laws with the same issue in mind.
Now, in a sense we should hardly be surprised at this. The Chancellor told the Today programme last week that he believes Britain needs radical constitutional reform. However, neither side is in any doubt about what they are really talking about, which is the resumption of the dialogue between Labour and the Liberal Democrats which took place before and after the 1997 general election.
Then, the late Robin Cook and the Liberal Democrat peer, Robert MacLennon, nearly reached agreement on a coalition deal between Tony Blair and the then Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown. Indeed, one Menzies Campbell sat on the very cabinet sub-committee which explored the mechanics of coalition.
Of course, nothing happened. Tony Blair decided he could carry on quite happily on his own and unceremoniously dumped the Liberal Democrats. When Charles Kennedy came along, he insisted on equidistance between Labour and the Tories. So, surely the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t want to get burned again, would they?
Of course they would. A share in the UK government? Sir Menzies Campbell as Deputy Prime Minister to Gordon Brown? TwoJags? You can bet your ballots that the new Liberal Democrat leader would jump at the chance of entering government, provided that it was on the right terms, and that his party would willingly follow him.
The lesson of the Scottish Lib-Lab coalition is that the smaller party can wield a huge influence, and can boost its electoral support. In Holyrood, the Liberal Democrats have won a raft of measures, from free personal care to the borders rail link, and have consistently increased their share of the vote at elections. So, the model is there.
But after the disaster for Labour in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, the Chancellor’s home constituency, surely Gordon Brown would want nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats and their opportunistic ways? Well, he might very well have no choice.
Labour is in a really serious predicatment right now. The loans for peerages row will not go away; the Iraq war piles disaster upon disaster; millionaires are demanding their money back. Gordon Brown’s first general election could be a very difficult one, with a bankrupt and divided party, and a Labour membership which has dwindled to less than 200,000 members. In these circumstances, anything could happen.
Labour only needs to lose 33 seats at the next election – an outcome which Professor John Curtice of Strathclude University has said is likely – and Gordon Brown becomes just another minority leader. If he has to do a deal, he isn’t going to turn to the Tories or the SNP. Brown’s only option, if he wants a workable administration, is to deal with the Liberal Democrats, who should return with around 70 seats.
Menzies Campbell and Brown go back a long way, back to the campaigns for Scottish devolutoin in the 1980s and beyond. They sit in neighbouring Fife constituencies. They meet regularly on the shuttle flights to and from Edinburgh. There is a lot of trust built up, and Sir Menzies has a good grasp of international affairs and excellent contacts. There’s no doubt that Brown would find Campbell a more congenial deputy than John Prescott, who will anyway bow out after the next election. Campbell isn’t a brilliant Commons performer, but he is very good on television, where no one does gravitas better.
But would this club class coalition really fly? Isn’t it too early to talk about general elections when the last one was less than a year ago? Not so. Brown’s game plan is believed to be an early election. Once he takes over from Blair, Brown will likely launch a 100 day blitz, outlining his vision for Britain, and then to go for a snap election to lock out David Cameron. In other words, the next general election could be two years away, or less if Blair is forced out over the loans scandal.
But what would be the terms? Well, there would be many of course, including a reformed house of Lords. But in reality only one issue would matter: electoral reform. The Liberal Democrats would demand proportional representation for the House of Commons, arguing that Scotland has shown that fair voting can work in the British electoral system.
Now, Gordon Brown is on record as opposing PR on the grounds that it leads to weak government. However, he might just be persuaded. The threat of losing office concentrates the mind. Anyway, he admits himself that Britain has had an overdose of strong government. “There is a long-term issue about the decline in trust in politics”, said Brown last week, “over many decades and I believe at the heart of this is the relationship between the executive and both the public and the legislative in the House of Commons”. Roughly translated, this means that Tony Blair is too big for his boots, there is an elective dictatorship in British politics that has turned the voters off, and that the powers of Number Ten need to be curbed by restoring parliamentary accountablility.
It was only Tony Blair’s inflated and unrepresentative majority in the Commons which made the Iraq war possible. The PM saw off two of the biggest backbench revolts in a hundred years, purely because of Labour’s 160 seat majority, and was able to take Britain into an illegal war on the basis of faulty intelligence and without a second UN resolution. Had Westminster been elected on the same basis as Holyrood, Iraq would never have happened.
The loans for peerages scam also shows the disadvantages of handing absolute power to the PM. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Tony Blair was able to set up almost a party within a party, with its own millionaire funding, independently of party, cabinet or parliament. If Brown is serious about his plans for constitutional reform he must take PR seriously. Seats in parliamnet must better reflect the way the country votes. When he becomes Prime Minister, Brown will need to demonstrate to the country that Labour has changed, and that Blairism could never happen again. PR is the only way to doing that.
Of course, the Liberal Democrats might decide to try their luck with the Tories for a better deal. After all, David Cameron has said that his new improved Tories are a home from home for Liberals. But I can’t see Sir Menzies being particularly keen on dealing with the Conservatives – the chemistry is wrong. And then ther is the Scottish dimension.
The Tories already have a majority of votes in England. After the next general election, they are likely to have a majority of seats too. The clamour on the Tory benches will be for an end to Scottish meddling in English affairs, so they are unlikely to want a Scottish MP dictating the terms of a coaliton. The Conservatives will demand that Scottish MPs do not vote on bills which only affect England.
The Liberal Democrats support federalism, but not by this particular route. So, it looks like the “two old men of Fife” as David Cameron once sytled them, could be deciding the fate of the country in the departure lounge. The Turnhouse talks have already begin.