Friday 15 May 2009

Red lines

The announcement this week by Peter Black that top-up fees would be a red line for the Lib Dems in any future coalition negotiations in the Assembly was a brave move. Whether it was brave in the ordinary sense of the word or in the sense in which the word was used by Sir Humphrey is something that only time will tell.

Short term, it looks like a politically cute move, but I wonder about the longer term. It seems to be effectively ruling out any coalition with Labour, since Labour have been determined for some years to introduce the fees. The Tories' opposition to tuition fees is valid only until 2011 – I and others expect that, particularly if Cameron is in government by then, the Tories in the Assembly will be told to step into line with their London masters.

That seems to mean that the only possible coalition option for the Lib Dems from 2011 on is with Plaid Cymru. For all Peter's attacks on us over this issue, Plaid is likely to be the only other party able to enter a coalition with a party for which the abolition of top-up fees is a policy on which no compromise is possible.

More generally, given that the Lib Dems have set out their stall by naming their first red line, to what extent should other parties also be defining clearly in advance what are their red line issues?

Superficially, it seems like a good idea that parties should go into the 2011 election with two or three items on which they say 'no coalition without x'. And at a personal level, I find the idea of laying down some absolutes to be very attractive – and I might even wish that we'd chosen the same one that Peter has announced. But how practical is it, in reality? There is a potential danger that parties might end up putting themselves in a position where no coalition was possible within the terms set out, and the Assembly was reduced to a total stalemate.

The extent to which any party can get its manifesto commitments into a coalition agreement depends heavily on the result of the election, and how many seats each party has (and just a little on the skill of the negotiators!). The more seats a party brings to the table, the greater the influence they should expect on the agreed government programme.

Any party entering negotiations has to be seeking to get as much as possible of its own programme included in the government programme – but there also has to be some give and take. Once the negotiations are complete, each party has to look at the package as a whole, and decide whether they think it's a good deal or not. I suspect that a party which states in advance that certain things are completely non-negotiable will find that the hand of its negotiators is weakened rather than strengthened.


Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...


Nice piece, but excuse us all for taking any of Plaid's views on promises with a pinch of Salt. The AMs that voted with the Government (and not under collective cabinet responsibility) are hypocrites.

The over analysis of Peter's comment i think show a huge worry that Plaid will be out of Government in 2011.

Gavin said...


I think it is fair to have a go at Plaid for voting in opposition to their party policy. However in the sense of this piece it was not a One Wales commitment. If it was then it was broken by both Labour and Plaid.

Labour of course are well versed in breaking both manifesto and government commitments. Free health care for the disabled is the immediate one that springs to mind but please don't get me started on the way the Westminster party has totally abandoned its party principals. Privatisation, illegal wars, undermining trade unions etc. Whilst I agree with you on attacking plaid for tuition fees I think as a Labour supporter you are trading on very thin ground to discuss breaking promises. For a labour supporter to accuse anyone of being hypocritical is a little embarrassing I am sorry.

In regards to Peter Blacks comments there is a danger of over analysing however it was clear from the debate that he outlined it was a red line issue. From what was said there is no way that the Lib Dems will or can join a coalition with any party unless they agree to scrap tuition fees. Of course there is nothing stopping Labour physically from changing their position but I just don’t see it. Politically it would be an embarrassment for them to be defeated on it yet again and I also see no appetite for it. The words of Jeff Cuthbert and Jane hutt will be quoted for many years if they did. I do not see them changing their view and with that in mind do not see and potential coalition between Labour and the Liberals. I think your postings show the huge worry Labour have that they will be left with no coalition partner post 2011 as the most desirable for many, the Lib Dems, now appear to be off the cards.

John I think you are right about the Tories and it will be interesting to see where they are. They have no commitment beyond 2011 but with a potential government to be formed they will have more leeway than labour to change their position. Certainly for the Lib Dems their red line commitment does make it appear at present that their only natural coalition partner is Plaid. A corner I believe Kirsty would rather Peter Black had not backed them into.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...


Your position shows a naivety of how any coalition Government would initially discuss a programme of Government. In 2011, there will be horse trading based on the current and future realities of that time, it will involve some give and take. To say that the Lib Dems wont be in coalition with ANYONE who wont reverse tuition fees is simply not the actual reality of what can potentially happen.

I saw Peter’s comments as true to his party’s commitment in their manifesto, a manifesto Plaid broke. Gavin, you can throw at me a load of examples of Labour doing that too, but that is merely mud slinging, rather than accepting that Plaid AMs are gutless liars over this issue. Credit must be given to Bethan and Leanne for their principled opposition. It is not a defence to merely point to other parties supposed examples, two wrongs do not make a right.

Also, while John understands the nature of coalitions and the policies you sometimes have to swallow, it is belied by the “Plaid driven Welsh Government” line they spun yesterday. Which one is it? Do Plaid only drive the decisions they deem as right? It is a curious disposition where Plaid have a ‘agency worker’ approach to collective cabinet responsibility – I believe that the Deputy First Minister is a noble example of someone who truly understands the notion, but the Plaid activists seem to want to cherry pick policies when it suits. There are some policies, as a Labour supporter, I don’t agree with in One Wales, but ultimately they are One Wales, not Plaid or Labour decisions.

Honestly, I was gutted that the Labour manifesto commitment for the 25,000 apprenticeships was ditched, particularly as these are the type of things we need to genuinely skill our young people.

Believe me, as an activist who got interested in politics with the same idealism I am sure you guys did, Government sucks a lot of the time. But, despite me having many criticisms of the Labour Government’s in Westminster and Cardiff Bay, Government is the only place to truly make a difference to people’s lives. I am sure this was a reason that Plaid voted through One Wales, despite Labour being mortal enemies. I know from a Labour view this was the case – it was One Wales or opposition.

My understanding of the One Wales agreement was that it chimes with the commitment to looking at student finance during this term, there was no explicit commitment beyond that or how that ‘looking into’ would result in. I personally wanted to see a more means tested, less universal system, as there is a danger that University is becoming devalued as an genuine way to improve career prospect.

Gavin said...

"To say that the Lib Dems wont be in coalition with ANYONE who wont reverse tuition fees is simply not the actual reality of what can potentially happen."

Not at all. I can accept, whilst I don't believe it, that Labour will change their position. But Peter Black said it clearly that it is a red line issue for them post 2011. therfore they can not join a coalition unless their partners agree to scrap the tuition fees. That is unless the Lib Dems are willing to throw away their position on this. Onviously they can but then it would make them a laughing stock considering the position they have taken against plaid on this. I fear that you fail to understand the significence of Peter's assertion that this is a RED LINE ISSUE for the Lib Dems when it comes to discussing coalitions.

"Gavin, you can throw at me a load of examples of Labour doing that too, but that is merely mud slinging, rather than accepting that Plaid AMs are gutless liars over this issue"

I have accepted that Marcus. I did say I agree with you that Plaid should be attacked on their stance on this. I am not a party member or activist by the way although i did vote plaid last time. I fail to see however how it is ok for a Labour supporter to attack Plaid on issues but to claim it is mud slinging for anyone to say the same in return on a far greater lists of u-turns. Either you must accept that Labour are to be beat by that stick or you can't attack others. It goes both ways i am sorry.

John Dixon said...

Of course opposition parties are attacking Plaid over the top-up fees decision. I've made it clear myself that it's a decision that I don't like, and would have preferred had not been taken. My position is, as I've stated a few times, that I disagree with the policy followed by the government, but understand the position in which our ministers found themselves and why they felt it right to make the compromise. But I don't blame other parties for trying to make as much political capital as they can out of it.

Marcus - I have to agree with Gavin over the definition of a 'red line issue'. If this really is a red line issue for the Lib Dems, then they will be unable to enter any coalition arrangement which is not committed to abolition of top-up fees. And if they have scope to negotiate some lesser position, then it's not a red line issue.

In a sense, that was the point of my original post - I agree with you, actually, that in reality, coalition negotiations have to be based on the situation as we find it at the time. Laying down absolutes months or even years in advance ties peoples hands. Superficially, declaring that something is a red line issue sounds very high-minded and principled; in reality, I think that they will live to regret making such a statement.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...


Wisely argued as ever.

As with all our debates, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I personally saw Peter’s answer as this being a red line issue at that time, it may remain so when we get to 2011. To say that this means that Peter has essentially ruled out any chance of Lab/lib in 2011 is very much wishful thinking. Plaid will attempt to make much hay from Peter’s statement in 2011, but then we can all recall the ‘Kick New Labour into Touch’ message that Plaid spent many thousands of pounds worth of advertising on.

Lib/Plaid is simply not going to get enough seats, that is the electoral reality.

John Dixon said...

"Lib/Plaid is simply not going to get enough seats, that is the electoral reality."I wouldn't care to make a firm projection this far away, but I would invite you to consider very carefully whether there isn't just the teensiest possibility that Labour/ Lib Dems might not get enough seats... Labour only need to lose 3 seats for that to happen.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...

"but I would invite you to consider very carefully whether there isn't just the teensiest possibility that Labour/ Lib Dems might not get enough seats... Labour only need to lose 3 seats for that to happen."

Well we are guessing here, but i would safely say that Labour/Lib would have more of a realistic chance of reaching 30 seats than Plaid/Lib surely?

I mean if both votes broadly hold up, then it should be comfortably 32 seats.

John Dixon said...

"If both votes broadly hold up".

Ever the optimist, eh? Certainly, if each party holds precisely the same number of seats as it has now, then the Lab/Lib Dem total after 2011 would be exactly as it is now, i.e. 32 as you suggest. But if Labour lose ground (which I don't expect you to concede at this point), then your preferred outcome would not be possible. That doesn't mean that Plaid/Lib Dem would necessarily reach the magoc 30 either, which I guess was the point you were making. At this stage, Labour and Plaid would both be acting more on faith than on fact to believe that an arrangement with the Lib Dems alone would be enough.

Back to the original post, though - I still think that the Lib Dems have painted themselves into a bit of a corner by ruling out one of those options anyway. I tend to agree with you that they will, come 2011, be looking to extricate themselves from that corner somehow. And that brings me back to my main theme in the post.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...


The problem with your remarks regarding my optimism can equally be chimed the rather ambitious claims that Plaid will grow. The problem is that any growth or decline in one parties vote will lead to anothers rise so to speak.

Will a tory revival hurt Labour or Plaid more? Will a Labour meltdown mean a lib dem rise? Will One Wales' record be a burden for Plaid?

John Dixon said...


Well, yes. If one party wins seats it'll mean that another party loses them. There's no shock horror story in a Labour blogger talking up Labour whilst I talk up Plaid; of course not. Neither of us knows the outcome of the next election; each has his own view of what might be desirable. But back to the original post - in such circumstances, trying to be completely definitive now about what might happen in two years' time is something which the Lib Dems will live to regret.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan said...


The game of 'he said, she said' will be a rather superfluous part of the coalition system.

This is why both the tories and the lib dems read out verbatim statements from Plaid AMs at the debate. Personally, I do not see how Peter has said anything particularly different to what Plaid would have been saying early 2007. Indeed, Plaid spent thousands of pounds asking the for votes on the premise it would ‘kick labour into touch’ . While I am not having a go at Plaid for this particularly, my point is that when the votes are cast and discussions begin – there is a rather ground zero approach to it all. This I hasten to add, is the kind of mature attitude we should demand of our politicians, particularly ones who welcome pluralistic politics that seeks consensus.

I hope that all parties become more open and transparent prior to elections regarding potential coalition partners, and voters should be looking to consider whether regional votes are better spent on their ‘second choice/preferred coalition partner of first choice’.

Labour received 300,000 regional votes in 2007, it got two seats. Now would those votes be better used for preferred coalition partners? It is an interesting thought…