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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Secret plots

It was not until I got home that I had an opportunity to read this story in today's Western Mail alleging that Labour and the Welsh Liberal Democrats have secretly agreed in principle to form a coalition Assembly Government after next year's election.

I was informed about the article first thing this morning and can testify that the airwaves have been buzzing all day with Welsh Liberal Democrats, including those most senior people who would have been involved in such talks, asking each other where this very clever work of fiction has come from.

I do not blame the journalist, who I have the utmost respect for and whose integrity is not in doubt, but clearly somebody has an agenda and has been briefing with the objective of advancing it. However, there have been no such talks taking place and if there had been then they would certainly not be of the sort of detail that is recorded here.

For the Welsh Liberal Democrats any coalition talks, if they are necessary after next May's elections, will focus on policy and principle. Only after we have an agreement on that would we even begin to discuss who would be given ministerial posts to implement that deal. The Western Mail say that the fact that it has happened before makes it likely that the current story is true. What nonsense.

The previous talks led to a coalition that enabled stable government for the remainder of an Assembly term. There were no assumptions involved about the outcome of an election. To strike a deal based on possible post-election scenarios is arrogant and presumptious in the extreme. It is not something that the Welsh Liberal Democrats are interested in.

There are two theories as to where this came from. It is noticeable that the article sets up a scenario so that Plaid Cymru and the Tories can knock the Liberal Democrats. It suits both those parties to be able to argue that a vote for us will let in Labour, and it suits them too to try and associate us with an unpopular Labour government. They have both motive and means and even if they did not manufacture the story themselves they have certainly played along with it and given it legs.

The most likely scenario however is that this story has come from within the Labour Party. They realise that they will lose seats next May. It is also the case that at least two of the possible successors to Rhodri Morgan have let it be known that they would rather be in government as part of a coalition and get 70% of their policies adopted than go into opposition. There are others in the Labour group of course who take an opposite view.

I would suggest that these leadership contenders have been doing some detailed thinking on what they would be prepared to offer, even though they have had no contact to see if an approach would be welcomed or not. This thinking has led to internal conversations that have in turn led to rumours. The fact is that if somebody wanted to soften up the Labour Party so as to encourage them to accept a future coalition this sort of anonymous briefing might be the way to do it. It may also have the effect of spurring Labour activists onto greater efforts to try and win a majority, a side effect that would be very acceptable to senior Labour figures.

I can think of no other reason why such a detailed story should emerge out of nothing. What I can suggest however is that Labour put such thoughts to one side. We are not interested in talking at this time and we will not do so until the verdict of the Welsh electorate is known. If we talk and who we talk to then will very much depend on the outcome of that election.

Update: Talking of bizarre and unfounded rumour-mongering I will be laughing about this little gem for some considerable time.

Update two: A colleague suggests that if Helen Mary Jones really has found a smoking gun then it is because she has shot herself in the foot.
Peter I think you should look back in your archives to the stories last year about internal arguments within the welsh lib dems. The one which suggested Kirsty Williams might wish to remove Mike German. At the time there were rumours of deals with Labour instead of the "rainbow" option.

I could see why Lib dems from Powys.....heavily dependent on tactical Labour voters to keep out the Tories, might favour proping up a Labour administration. The world looks rather different if you are in cardiff or Swansea.

The story is obviously well sourced from within the Lib dems and follows on from the Lib dems backing Labour in the Lords on the government of wales bill.

Last year you freely admitted that your group was split at the time of the original coalition. It is understandable if those divisions still exist. The view in Plaid circles for some time has been that the Lib dems are divided on the issue with many prefering a deal with labour. Life will get interesting if the combined Plaid Lib dem seats in the assembly out number Labour....not the most likely scenario but after this week who knows:)
Mark, I can assure you that you are very wrong on a number of points here. Yes, the group is split as to whether we should consider a coalition with the Tories but I have never said that the corollary of that is that some members want a coalition with Labour. That is not the case. The Plaid view is therefore misinformed.

Secondly, those who are the least enthusiastic about working with Labour again are the senior members who might be involved in any talks. I would be astonished if talks had taken place and believe people like Mike German when he says that they have not.

Thirdly, contrary to your view the Powys members were the least enthusiastic about a pact with Labour as they were afraid that it would drive away soft Tories. There is no logic to say Kirsty would prefer to work with Labour because she is from Powys.

Fourthly, I can guarantee that this story is not sourced from the Welsh Liberal Democrats because I have checked. The source was somebody within Labour and another person with no connections with Labour or the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
This is a situation where in some ways I would be happy to be wrong.

If, as you say, the Plaid view is wrong fair enough but senior members of my party have come to the same conclusion and have good reason for doing so.

This is an admission of defeat for Labour so it seems odd that they want it broadcast. For what its worth I think there were to many details for it to be literally true. I assumed it was "dressed up" to make the story that some Lib dems would be happier doing a deal with Labour than the Tories a bit more interesting.
You are right Peter to say that there's no point in speculating about coalitions until the people have spoken and it is known what composition of Assembly the Welsh electorate has delivered.

Assuming that no single party wins a majority (which, let us remember is what the Assembly's AMS electoral system was intended to normally achieve), then various options might exist. The position may also be complicated further if the two independents retain their seats and it it concievable they might be joined by 1 or 2 more.

While it's all speculation until May 4th however, conventional wisdom suggests that Labour can't realistically slip below about 25. Since it's almost inconcievable that Labour could do a deal with Plaid and utterly inconcieveable they could do one with the Tories, then the 2 realistic alternatives would seem to be a Lib Lab deal, or a 'traffic light' government with Labour in opposition. All other alternatives are far fetched indeed.

One of the joys of PR in Wales (like elsewhere) therefore it that it is your party Peter that enjoys the casting vote. Which way will you swing? It's a fair question, and the Welsh electorate have a right to a straight answer (though they won't of course get one)!
I just dont accept your scenario. There are so many variations. Labour could form a government in coalition with Plaid or even with independents. They might decide to form a minority government as now. We might be able to form a government with Plaid. I do not accept that the ball is in the Welsh Liberal Democrats court at all. In fact I do not see the point in speculating until after we know the outcome of the election.
"though they won't of course get one."

Exactly ...
A fascinating study but I do not see how it advances your argument. All it does is to illustrate how the Liberal Democrats are better prepared for coalition, it does not say that we need to always go into coalition with Labour or indeed the largest party. In fact it even points up the fact that we have the capacity to walk away from doing a deal if we believe that it is not in the interests of the nation or if we believe that our principles are being compromised. In those circumstances Labour could always do a deal with Plaid of course.
I'm not claiming it directly supports either my argument or your refusal to accept my premises, but it's a new paper on the topic produced by a former senior Lib Dem party official now in academia. I simply posted the link because I though readers of this thread, by definition, might be interested.

It is not really surprising that the LDs are (or were back in 1999) better prepared to deal with the post election politics of PR - after all you've been advocating it long enough and although you hate to discuss it in public, even under FPTP over the last 30 years, Liberal dreams have always been based on the possibility of holding the balance of power in a hung parliament!

At present I see the prospects of a Labour / Nationalist coalition as remote to put it mildly. The cultural resistance of Labour activists to a deal with your party is as nothing compared to the hostility to Plaid - which is fully reciprocated on the other side. Moreover Labour and Plaid are direct challengers to each other in far more seats across Wales than the Lib Dems.

I will concede one point though. Unless there is a total political eathquake, Labour will remain the largest party in 2007 and will thus have the primary obligation to carry on her majesty's government. This may lead to a minority government being formed, throwing down the gaunlet to the opposition to evict it and either form a stable coalition of their own, or dissolve for a further election (as will be possible under the new Act). That I suspect would be the most likely scenarion in the event that the Lib Dems choose, in effect, not to choose.
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