Posts Tagged Lib Dems

Wither Internal Democracy

Should a party’s annual conference make binding policy, and what role should an ordinary party member have in those decisions? Scotland’s main political parties appear to have come to very different answers to this question, which I will try to sum up below. Please bear in mind that I have only got direct experience of my own party in this respect, and will be happy to correct any factual errors below.

At one end, the Scottish Conservatives adopt an approach to policy-making which does not include any notion of internal democracy. There are no votes on policy matters at conference, even token ones, although early in the Cameron era his Built To Last document was submitted to a vote. Instead, the leadership determines policy: typically just the leader plus his or her kitchen cabinet. In this sense therefore, the Tory system is relatively close to that used by the Workers’ Party of Korea, who rarely bother with the rubber-stamp assembly beloved of other notionally leftwing personality cults. It’s at least honest, and to be fair, since 1998 the Tories have also let the membership choose their leaders from a shortlist of two by one member, one vote. This is clearly progress over the old approach – where MPs only got a vote – or the even older version – a leader “emerged” from the “magic circle”: i.e. it was carved up out of sight in a way that must have been great fun for those who regard politics as a full contact bloodsport.

Next along this sliding scale: Labour. Their procedures used to be highly democratic, including the formal setting of policy through motions such as the composites beloved of union bigwigs and loathed by the Millbank Tendency. This is all basically over now, with the leadership now setting all policy, not even the Blairite National Policy Forum. Some of the changes are relatively recent: until 2007 branch parties and trade unions could bring policy motions for a vote, even if the results would then be ignored by Labour Ministers. Having mentioned leadership above, personally I also deplore the way Labour allows people to join several “socialist societies” and unions and get several votes for a new leader, not to mention the way MPs both sift the candidates then get massively disproportional say in the outcome.

Then the Lib Dems. They have picked a particularly bizarre point on the spectrum from Stalinist control through to radical democracy. As I understand it, their conference is open to all members, all of whom can vote and bring forward motions. The problem is they mean nothing, especially when Lib Dem Ministers have got some selling out to do. This week the issue was so-called “free schools”, discussed here previously by Jeff. As the Lib Dem proponent of the motion said, “Just as the supermarket drives the corner shop out of business, so it will be with schools.” Danny Alexander, described by one Twitter wag as tree-promoter turned economics expert, then declared it would make no difference to policy. The same used to apply to Scottish Lib Dem conference when they were in government here. The membership said that GM crop trials should stop. Ross Finnie pressed on regardless. Curious. Not particularly liberal nor notably democratic.

Although it was put to me that this blogpost was designed to make Greens look good, the brief research I’ve done does show the SNP joining us at the actually democratic end of this spectrum. I must admit I know less about the SNP’s procedures, but I do know that, like the Greens, their conference does formally set policy, with members and branches free to bring motions. I also can’t find an instance of the leadership simply over-ruling them, although Mr Cochrane, the Last Black-Hearted Unionist, has got one. The party’s leadership procedures are posted online in their entirety, and seem pretty hard to fault. Like us, it’s one member, one vote, no special treatment for MPs or interest groups.

The open question is not one of principle, though – obviously it’s hard to make a principled objection to internal democracy. But are parties with actually democratic procedures more likely to survive internal tensions and evolve, or can that internal democracy make it harder to respond to changing circumstances? Does Labour’s “democratic centralism” actually help them more than they pay in demoralised activists, unable even to slow a swing to the right? Those decisions surely weren’t taken simply for self-interest: Peter Mandelson or someone else must have concluded that the open expression of democracy was more damaging than the alternative. My sense is that that move was wrong both strategically and in principle, but I don’t have any evidence for that view.

And is going into government something which ought to change a party’s approach? Did the Lib Dems stick to the policy set by conference except where it restricted Lib Dem Ministers’ activity? Will Labour return to a more democratic approach now they’re in opposition across the country? Have the SNP really managed to keep internal democracy while running the Scottish Government? There seems little point letting the membership set policy only when you’re in opposition, rather than when you might be able to make real change.

As a press officer for a democratic party, I certainly see one downside of the radically democratic approach, not that I’d change it. Any radical new policy development the party makes can’t be unveiled dramatically in March or April of an election year. It must instead be decided in public at our autumn conference. If only there was a way we could agree any policy changes democratically but still keep them under our hats until we could publicise them as effectively as possible.

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Is Labour minority now the most likely outcome?

Graphic based on Mail on Sunday pollThe Holyrood electoral system was explicitly designed to make one-party majority virtually impossible, some say to “dish the Nats”. Sure enough, eight years of stable but unambitious coalition have been followed by three years of stable minority administration.

The polls suggest Parliament has settled into a relatively constant formation, with two large parties competing for first place, two medium sized parties competing for third place, then Greens and sometimes others. The most obvious coalition shapes are a large party plus a medium party, given the unlikelihood of the grand coalition.

To narrow that down still further, the Tory brand has never been properly decontaminated in Scotland, despite the odd sensible young buck on their Holyrood benches, and neither Labour nor the SNP could formally go into coalition with them here. You can’t point and shout at London cuts implemented by your Deputy First Minister’s Ministers at Westminster.

This also means the Tories’ partners down south are also off the table come May next year, at least as far as Ministerial office goes. To my mind, this leaves a limited range of options for the next Scottish Government. They are, starting with the most likely (based on current polling):

  1. Labour minority. They’ve seen how it’s worked for the SNP, and they quite like the idea of not having to share office, even if they’d share power with Parliament.
  2. Labour supported by another party more informally. The Confidence and Supply model might allow them to be propped up by the Lib Dems, or potentially by Green MSPs.
  3. SNP minority supported through Confidence and Supply. It’s hard to see them coming out ahead of Labour in May, semi-irrelevant though that is for making a majority.
  4. Either an SNP or a Labour formal coalition with the Greens. Again, looking at the numbers, it’s even less likely for the SNP and Green votes to make 65, so that alone puts Labour as the most likely partner. On the pro-side for either large party, we’re not contaminated by Westminster. However, the actual policy differences would be stark, starker than the (non-constitutional) differences between the two largest parties themselves.

Today’s poll in the Mail on Sunday is just another straw in the wind, but it is clearly blowing against the SNP and also the Lib Dems. I haven’t seen a non-SNP-commissioned poll which had them close to Labour at the top, and it’s been a while since the Lib Dems were as close to the Tories as they used to be. This one is also current, conducted this week, unlike the last one to get attention, which was from early August.

Voting intention

Labour: 39%/36%/55 (+9)
SNP: 29%/26%/35 (-12)
Tory: 16%/15%/18 (+1)
Lib Dem: 11%/12%/16 (0)
Green: na/6%/4 (+2)
Other: 5%/5%/0

(note, I used Weber Shandwick’s predictor, and am not sure if it reflects the new boundaries. Either way, the result was one more Green MSP than John Curtice estimated for the Mail on Sunday)

Again, the SNP couldn’t form a two-party majority with anyone except Labour, and SNP plus Green plus either Lib Dem or Tory isn’t a majority either. Conversely, Labour would only ever need any one of the three largest parties to win any given vote, and given how well Bruce Crawford’s dealt with the need to find Labour or two others, that would look pretty tempting.

This would be a radically changed Holyrood after May. A massive swath of the SNP back benches would be out after one term, and the fight for first and second place would be very clear. Salmond would surely be gone as leader, too, despite the desperate counter-polling, which would almost certainly lead to a mouthwatering contest.

Labour’s substantial lead over the SNP in voting intention would put them 20 seats ahead, yet the Lib Dems’ constituency strengths mean they wouldn’t fall much behind the Tories. The gap for third would still be very clear, though, at least in votes. As Malc suggests, if you back the Coalition, why vote Lib Dem instead of Tory? The Green Group would double in size but no longer hold the balance of power. One wee thought – an extra one percent on the Green list vote from the Lib Dems, and we’re up three more to seven. It’s going to be a hard-fought eight months.

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Will the Lib Dems pay for being a Tory shield?

On MitB, I regularly whacked the Lib Dems for everything I could think of.  But given we’ve started afresh, with a blank canvas and a promise of positivity, that has to stop.  Which is a shame – there isn’t much more fun in the blogosphere than baiting Lib Dems.  Nevertheless, I’ll try to get through a post without dissing them too much.

I think one of the most surprising things that came out of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was, for me, the fact that the Lib Dems took on the role of Secretary of State for Scotland.  I was a little surprised that they didn’t give it to Alastair Carmichael, who acted as Scotland spokesperson during the election debates (and, in my mind, was a very able performer, even – and I don’t think its unfair to say – outshining Alex Salmond in the event at the Hub) when they did get the position.  More surprised that they gave it to Danny Alexander, and then Michael Moore after Alexander’s move to the Treasury, but then I don’t know that much about internal Lib Dem personalities and cliques.

Anyway, I was more surprised that they took on the role – though I guess the Conservatives didn’t really give them much of a choice (with only one MP in Scotland, the role was probably odds-on to go to a Lib Dem).  For me, the Conservatives must be delighted with this – and the fact that they have a Lib Dem in the Treasury too – for the simple reason that, although the policies that are being enacted (and for “policies” read “cuts”) are pretty much Tory ones, they can point to the Lib Dems and say it is them who is doing it.  In essence what Scotland has is a Lib Dem “Governor General” who fronts for the Tories in Scotland – providing a shield for them and their unpopular cuts up here.  The Tories must be delighted.

But… I said I’d be positive, so here’s something:  I can understand why they took the job.  I think pre-Nick Clegg and the TV debates, the Lib Dem vote was in free-fall.  There were some polls in which they had fallen below 15% nationally – and, indeed, they were squeezed out of the Lab-SNP and Con-Lab narratives in Scotland.  The Clegg effect kept them at 2005 levels.  But because of the two narratives here, they do need a handle on why they remain relevant in Scotland – and I think the fact they have the Secretary of State for Scotland gives them that opportunity.  Now it may be that relevance is symbolic – that Michael Moore can say what he likes in the Cabinet room and no one will really listen – but it does look to the public like they have a role to play.  And that, in elections, is important.

So yes, on the surface, having a Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland gives the Tories a nice shield in Scotland.  But on the other hand, it also delivers something for the Lib Dems too – a measure of relevance (which, arguably – and I’m sure you’ll debate the point – they may not have without it).  Everyone’s a winner.

But what about the voters?  Will they see it the same way?  “The Lib Dems have the guy running Scotland in the Cabinet, therefore we must vote for them” is one way they could look at it.  Alternatively, the “Lib Dem Scottish Secretary is a front for Tory cuts in Scotland – we must punish them by voting against them” is another potential view.  So how will that go?  I guess time – and the full force of the cuts – will tell.

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