Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Back on election night, the received wisdom was that we could expect to be back in the NIA sometime in the autumn for a second round of elections, but now, I'm not so sure. I don't think that this coalition will run until the planned date in May 2015, but I also don't think we yet can know the reason that it will collapse. My view is that it will last two to three years before events overwhelm it and drive divisions between the two partners, raising the prospect of a Tory minority government staggering on until 2015 or having to beg the opposition to put it out of our misery prior to that date.

It is possible that this might be a new start in British politics, but I can't help but feel that we will revert to type before long. It may be that we will get to 2015 and Labour will face a coalition attempting to harness the 'anti-Labour' vote to support coalition candidates in each constituency, which is a worrying prospect, but this is rather more challenging at a national level than it is at local.

It is true that all government is about the art of the practical and that compromise is and always has been a key skill for an effective government manager. I've long maintained that Labour members struggle with their party in government because it will - without exception - fail to deliver the level of perfect social justice for which we yearn in our utopian idealism. I suspect that this applies to all parties to a greater or lesser extent and the coalition will be judged by members of two parties as time goes on. The key question is how much compromise we are prepared to accept - is something better than nothing, or do we hold out for the impossible dream of getting everything on our agenda? If you long to have the mechanisms of production returned to the hands of the workers, will a better system of tax credits and the minimum wage be an acceptable enough compromise? The past thirteen years haven't been everything that I would wish from a Labour government, but I'd certainly take them as a damn good start (and I'm not going to re-run the credits reel again, just go and check Gordon's speech for the highlights).

I'm not sure who got the better deal out of this little stitch-up. Certainly, the Liberal Democrats played the negotiating game extremely well and seem to have learnt from their experience in Birmingham, where the best they could do was to get some council cabinet and scrutiny chair positions, but have enacted very little of their 2004 local manifesto. Given the size of the Liberal parliamentary contingent, getting a formal post as deputy Prime Minister and a raft of other ministerial positions - I think that about a third of the parliamentary party is now tied in on the payroll vote - is a very solid achievement and demonstrates Cameron's determination to get to Number 10. It was clearly the case that if Cameron had failed to become Prime Minister, then he would have been brutally and rapidly defenestrated by his party for his failures.

However, that isn't to denigrate that deal that Cameron has emerged with - it suits him very well. With their spread of ministers, the Liberal Democrats are firmly tied to the mast of the coalition and will either survive the oncoming storm or founder with all hands. In particular, the eminently-slappable David Laws at the Treasury will have his hands dipped deep in the blood as he is tasked to wield the axe across Whitehall and beyond, as a willing henchman of Osborne.
With the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party on board, the votes necessary to ensure the passage of legislation are pretty much ensured - the new bugs on the Tory benches will broadly vote loyally with their leader and the Conservative backbench 'headbangers' (as described by Lynne Featherstone at the Liberal special conference last week) will be unable to halt the policy agenda on their own. Cameron has also taken advantage of his honeymoon position of power to try to neuter the 1922 Committee by ensuring that ministers are now able to attend the meetings of the Tory backbenchers and thus positioned to prevent mutiny in the ranks. This does not bear the perfume of the New Political era, but reeks of the 1990s Old Politics, as recommended by John Major, who was personally only too well aware of the damage that the 'bastards' can do to a government agenda if they allowed to roll around the gun decks uncontrolled. I note that tonight, Cameron has backed away from the plans, clearly not wanting to rile his colleagues too much.

To be fair to them, they have produced a detailed plan for government and although there are rumblings of backbench discontent - chiefly from the Tories - I suspect that the Conservative MPs will be sufficiently grateful in the short term to be in power to not to wish to disrupt the honeymoon too much. While this is a new diversion, it is not quite as clear cut as the spin suggests. Many of the elements of the programme - even in the detailed plan - are still vague to allow further political wiggle room and over thirty measures will be kicked into commissions or consultations before a final decision on legislative action is taken. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but does suggest that it may be an expedient rather than principled diversion.

There are key policy divides - Europe being one. The Liberal Democrats are as fanatically pro-European as the Conservatives are viscerally opposed - the pro-European faction being largely reduced to Ken Clarke. With Europe focussed more on preserving the Eurozone and tackling the economic disaster areas of Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece rather than trying to achieve ever closer union, there is probably little expected to be coming down the track with the potential to derail the coalition, but events may prove differently. For example, although the Liberal Democrats remain in favour of joining the Eurozone, they have ruled out joining in this parliament - I can't imagine a situation at any time in the medium-term future when it is likely to be in our interest so to do.

Some divides are just fudged. In particular, the issue over nuclear power, where the Liberal Democrats have a 'red-line' opposition to new nuclear power stations, but the Conservatives are in favour. On this occasion, while the Liberal Democrats will speak against the proposal, they will abstain when it comes to a vote. For me, this is less of a convenient political accommodation and more of a derogation of responsibility by the Liberal Democrats. If nuclear power stations are such a key issue that the coalition cannot find agreement, to refuse to vote against is a betrayal of principle. Incidentally, can anyone explain to me the inconsistency of thinking where the Liberal Democrats can continue to support the military applications of nuclear technology, but deny that to peaceful civilian use, because I can't figure it out.

However, the programme of cuts is perhaps the most interesting Liberal Democrat concession. Remember that only a few weeks ago, Messrs Cable and Clegg were agreeing with Gordon and Alistair that cutting now would put the fragile recovery at excessive risk. Now, apparently, Clegg has seen the books and decided that the Tory programme - prepared in opposition with the same access to the financial data as the Liberal Democrat treasury team - is right after all. I'm not quite sure what could have convinced him - perhaps it was the offer of the deputy premiership that convinced him.

You have to feel for Vince Cable as well - a couple of weeks back, he was defending the pass against the Conservative slash and burn merchants, now he is Osborne's bitch and no sooner has Vince been given a department to play with, than he is forced to impose thumping cuts. For years, the students have been courted by the Liberal Democrats, with a promise (now on hold) to remove fees. Now, 10,000 of them won't get into university next year, fuelling the unemployment queues beside the 25,000 or so who won't get jobs in the civil service.

This isn't all Tory policy, though - don't forget that scrapping the Child Trust Fund was a Liberal Democrat proposal, while the Conservatives just wanted to limit it. Quite why it is a good thing to abandon a scheme designed to encourage saving amongst a group historically averse to putting much aside for a rainy day, while still maintaining other tax perks isn't clear. Similarly, abolishing the Future Jobs Fund, a way of providing direct assistance to employers seeking to take on workers, doesn't seem to be the brightest of moves from a party that raved on about the 'jobs tax.'

This is but a trial for the axe that we expect to see wielded later on in the year. Of all the issues that will cause division, this could be problematic in the short term, but I don't think we'll see mass defections in either the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party or the membership - at least not yet. If things go badly or the media starts to exploit the chinks in the armour, then that is when the splits will occur, as the party which is strong at local levels finds itself under the same pressure that affects all governing parties. The survey in the Guardian which reveals that there has been no great haemorrhage in support from the Liberal Democrats is no shock - the honeymoon is in full swing and much of the programme announced so far demonstrates the commonality of policy between the two parties. Indeed, there's much that I can support in headline form - reform of the Lords, scrapping ID cards, electoral reform - but I await the details. These policies don't challenge the Liberal Democrats very much, but this may well shift as time goes by.

I think that this depth of coalition is a great risk for the Liberal Democrats, as if all goes well, the temptation will be for the Tories to grab the limelight and push for an outright majority, perhaps taking some of the more right-wing Liberals with them. If it goes badly - and there will certainly be things that go badly, for that is the nature of the beast - then the Liberals are going to be blamed. Clearly, attempts will be made to shift all the blame onto Labour - the Regressive Partnership in Birmingham have been sustaining that argument since 2004, but it remains to be seen if that survives media focus on a national level. I think that the Liberals will also struggle with coalition consistency. On the other hand, a looser 'supply and confidence' arrangement which would have protected the Conservatives from losing finance or confidence motions probably wouldn't have cut the mustard.

In the end, I suspect that whatever causes this coalition to collapse, the Liberal Democrats will come out of this in a poorer position. One Liberal Democrat MP was heard to remark today that it felt more like a merger than a coalition and these are the feelings that are likely to lead to a split. The Liberal Democrats will find themselves squeezed in the Labour marginals and may well lose out to the Tories where they are in a close second place - why vote Lib Dem and get Tory, when you can vote Conservative in the first place? It may even be that two or three years down the line, with support dropping - as it does for all governments - the Lib Dems decide that they can survive better outside the coalition and decide to leave the Conservatives in a minority.

Only time will tell, but this is certainly interesting.

1 comment:

Bill said...

Thanks John - nicely written and very perceptive, as ever.