Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Of coalitions and alliances

There is much speculation about a Remain Alliance to defeat the Johnson administration and thwart Brexit. Here in Wales, actual talks are taking place between Greens, Lib Dems and the Nationalists. The issue is not as clear-cut as journalists make out, and there will be much soul-searching on the part of all parties.

Alliances and coalitions are not anathema to Liberal Democrats in spite of a recent bad experience in Westminster. (To restate simply my view on that: we were right to establish a stable government in 2010 in order to restore international faith in the UK economy; we were wrong to stay in the coalition after 2011 when the price was the Welfare Bill and increased austerity generally. Even so, we achieved much that the Conservatives are now claiming credit for.) Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Party before us long espoused a proportional voting system, the norm on the continent of Europe. PR militates against single-party majority rule* but experience on the mainland and our neighbouring island is that coalition governments work well. Lib Dems also have experience in the UK, being for a time junior partners in government both in Scotland and Wales, in a Westminster pact with Labour (again to stabilise the economy) in 1978 and even today in councils up and down the country.

So it is no surprise that Caron Lindsay on Liberal Democrat Voice welcomes moves towards a Remain Alliance. We should be clear, though, that this is an alliance solely for the purpose of preventing Brexit, rather like the wartime cabinets of Lloyd George and Churchill having the single aim of preventing military defeat. Differences on other issues remain. We should also understand it if the Greens are reluctant, since in England they would have to stand aside in favour of Liberal Democrats in more seats than vice versa** if the aim of unseating Brexit supporters is to be achieved. So the grand vision of a prosperous, outward-looking UK could founder on the detailed negotiations as to who should give way in particular seats. We can at least demonstrate to the Greens a strong Green presence in the Liberal Democrat party, rather more influential than the hard-line red-green socialists in the Labour Party and something that the Conservatives cannot offer. One trusts that the Greens for their part have finally put behind them their previous opposition to the concept of the European Union.

There is less certainty about the position of Plaid Cymru. Plaid have a stronger negotiating position than the Greens, though their abstention from the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election was not as decisive as their propaganda (something at which the party is very good) made out. The results of the last three elections in that constituency show that their candidate's vote was less than the winning majority. Moreover, many federalist Liberal Democrats would find it impossible to vote for a separatist candidate.

One accepts that Adam Price, the new leader of Plaid, is a strong Remain supporter and that his party campaigned for Remain in 2016. However, there seems to have been no change in the official policy since the 2017 general election when they accepted the result of the referendum in Wales as binding and campaigned merely "to get the best possible Brexit deal for Welsh industry and agriculture". Currently spokespeople speak about fighting a "no deal" Brexit. In practice, that does mean no Brexit at all, since there is only one deal on the table - the EU27 refusing to contemplate a renegotiation of the May-Barnier withdrawal agreement - and it will not pass the Commons while the DUP has a casting vote. However, that arithmetic could change after a general election. Plaid's next party conference begins on 4th October. Will they pass a more robust policy on Europe? Will they have time to do so before a general election? Whatever, I expect some interesting discussions at local level as well as between Jane Dodds and Adam Price before all candidates are finally put in place.

This Wednesday's meeting of the Aberavon and Neath Liberal Democrats should be quite lively.

* The corollary that first-past-the-post always produces strong and stable government is demonstrably untrue, though.
** The big exception is Bristol West, where the MP's majority over the Green candidate in 2017 was around 4,400. However, that Labour MP is the strongly pro-EU Thangam Debbonaire. 

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