Tuesday, 6 March 2012
It's nearly two years since the UK General Election result which left much of the country scratching their heads, thinking "what now?". For the living memory of most of the people watching the results come in, UK General Elections delivered a clear winner. Either the Tories or Labour would win the election and plod away with their own brand of policy for four or five years and then the whole process would be repeated. An election which didn't give such a clear winner felt, to many people, unsatisfactory. It felt as though there was unfinished business.
That business unravelled over the following few days. The Tories had won both the most votes and the most seats, followed by Labour and then the Lib Dems a way behind them. The maths was such that Tories plus Lib Dems would be enough for a majority in the house; Labour and Lib Dems would give a total greater than the Tories but not enough for an overall majority.
Just under a week after the election, David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood in the garden of 10 Downing St and acted like old friends - a show designed to convince voters that coalition could work. The initial shock of seeing Lib Dem cabinet members followed, and then the work of government started. In the time since then, we've seen the public sector cuts, tuition fee rises, benefit cuts, the NHS reforms and many other examples of things largely unpalatable to core Lib Dem voters. It's the nature of government that almost every policy is unpopular to a sizeable proportion of the population but the fact that the Lib Dems seem complicit in these policies just added to the growing anger.
Nick Clegg became the darling of the middle-class lefties. "I agree with Nick" was printed onto t-shirts across the country and it felt as though the time of the Lib Dems was upon us. But when the election came, the share of the vote didn't match the expectation. And then, dearest Nick signed a pact with the devilish Tories and slowly but surely his fall from hero to pantomime villain had begun.
But, if we remember that this is a coalition of two parties and that there isn't any one person or group or people in the coalition who agree wholeheartedly with all of the policies, did he really have any choice? What options did he have? And is he really that much of a villain?
Before striding on, I should declare myself a Lib Dem voter. It's only fair. But let's be clear about what that means. It means that I voted for the Lib Dems because their set of policies was the one which rang the truest with my own beliefs. I didn't agree with everything in their manifesto, but more of it appealed to me than either the Tory or Labour ideals.
During the days of coalition negotiations, it was hard to drag my heart away from the feeling that Labour was more of a natural fit for the Lib Dems to align with than the Tories. The fleeting promise of a rainbow coaltion to bring in the Greens and Plaid Cymru felt like a dream. "Lefties of the world unite" was the unspoken cry floating skywards from Guardian readers everywhere. But it wasn't to be. By my head was uneasy with the idea. The Labour party were unpopular at the time, and Gordon Brown even more so. A Labour party with a new leader could've joined forces with the Lib Dems and maybe it could've worked, but the lack of an overall majority was a niggle which just wouldn't go away.
Another option was to jump into a Confidence and Supply agreement with the Tories. Whether or not it's popular, the fact remains that the Tories did win both more votes and more seats than any other party. And fair democracy means that they should have first crack at forming a government. They may not have won an overall majority, but the Tories have a greater claim to have "won" the 2010 election than any other party. I don't like that fact myself (just like I don't like how many copies the Daily Mail sells daily) but it doesn't make it untrue.
A Confidence and Supply agreement would've involved the Lib Dems opposing the Tories on everything but budgetary bills and motions of no confidence. In effect, this would've involved the Lib Dems handing to the Tories the security usually obtained with an overall majority, even though they never got one. To my mind, this would've been less satisfactory than a full coalition. I feel more comfortable working alongside those people with whom I disagree than acting as the crutch to allow them to stand up on their own without my influence.
There is one final option; to simply do nothing. Labour and the Lib Dems would return to the opposition benches and the opposition benches would be slightly fuller than the government benches in the house. This would've resulted in either stagnation of policy - with hardly any government legislation getting through - leading almost inevitably to another general election pretty quickly. And a general election with a similar result. Or, it would've resulted to behind-the-scenes deals being cut - effectively a coalition in all but name.
So, as history now shows, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems stood next to the Tories and the coalition was formed. It's important to remember here that it wasn't Nick Clegg along who made this decision. The Lib Dem party as a whole made the decision, and there were serious voices of dissent from within the party. But ulimately, the lure of a few Lib Dem manifesto pledges getting into law, and the thought of having some Lib Dem faces around the cabinet table was too strong.
So there we have it. The coalition was formed. Understandably, the Labour party and their friends cried foul, and then sulked. The Lib Dems were the natural friends of the Labour party and they had come so close to retaining power that it was easy to feel betrayed by the Lib Dems. So the Labour party retreated to the opposition benches with a mope and the Lib Dems took their seats on a side of the house I bet many of them never thought they'd see.
Up until now, I don't think that the Lib Dems or Nick Clegg made mistakes. Any least not logically or politically. Emotionally, there was an obviously closer bond with the Labour party, but it just wasn't to be. Had more people voted Labour or Lib Dem at the election then maybe the maths would've worked out, but they didn't.
However, don't think this is going to be a defence of what has happened since, because it isn't. I must admit the coalition agreement didn't look too bad, and had policy since stuck to the script of the joint press conference in the rose garden, then I think a lot of people would be a lot happier. But it didn't.
We have to start somewhere, so let's start with the budget deficit.
Going into the last election, the UK was in deficit. Of course the Tories pointed at the Labour party and Labour pointed at others. But the truth was, it was a global problem. Different governments may have reacted slightly differently to the crisis, but no government would've been able to save the UK from going into the red through the crisis. And quite seriously into the red. So who was moving into Number 10 after the election would've had to make some changes.
Some things were inevitable whatever government we'd ended up with after the election. Some public sector spending cuts and a rise in VAT were in the plans of every party. The distinction made between the parties was the speed of the cuts. The Lib Dems, before the election, were very much in favour of a cautious approach to cuts. They advocated the Labour party line of saying that some cuts were necessary, but making them slowly so avoid deep pain in the short term and accepting that it would take slightly longer to get rid of the deficit.
The Tories took the approach of making deeper cuts and getting rid of the deficit sooner. It's absolutely true that the Lib Dems are the junior partners in the coalition, and so I don't think there is any shame in compromise. But compromise isn't what happened in this case. Nick Clegg announced that he had "changed his mind" since before the election. Gone was the desire to take things slowly, and now he announced that he agreed with the Tory policy. I would've much preferred him to say "I don't entirely agree with this approach, but in order to get some Lib Dem policies into law, I'm afraid we have to just go with the Tories on this one".
The second mistake, and maybe the most serious political mistake, was around tuition fees. It's not about the fact that tuition fees are going up, it's all around the pledge which senior Lib Dems signed to say that they wouldn't raise tuition fees. Whilst the vote to raise tuition fees may not sit well with Lib Dem voters, one could argue that they had no choice. In the same way Tories are (largely) voting for some things they wouldn't normally - legalising gay marriage doesn't strike me as a traditional Tory policy for instance - the Lib Dems are going to have to sometimes walk through the lobby they promised to, no matter how much it hurts.
The mistake with tuition fees happened long before the vote itself. One could argue that a sensible politician would never sign a public pledge on a single issue if they thought there was ever any chance they have be forced into going against the pledge. Talk about support for an issue, sure, but politics is about compromise and negotiation and a sensible politician would be very wary about drawing red lines in public. Of course, if tuitition fees really were such an important issue, maybe the right thing to do was make the public pledge, and signing the pledge was not the biggest mistake...
The biggest mistake was not bringing this up during coalition negotiations. If the issue of tuition fees was so important to senior Lib Dems that they would sign a pledge in public, and on camera, then why didn't it occur to them during the coalition negotiations to raise the issue. As junior partners in the coalition it may not have been possible to stop fees rising, but negotiating an abstention would've been a good start, at least.
Having to vote in favour of increased fees after signing the pledge was embarrassing - and rightly so - I was just disappointed that Nick Clegg didn't see this one coming and find a way out before the only solution was an about face.
A coalition is about compromise. It's about both sides accepting things they don't like in return for getting things they do. I would prefer a little more openness about that. I understand that "the markets" want to see a stable government, but I think a healthy coalition is one which isn't afraid to expose differences between the constituent parties and admit that there are differences and that compromises are being struck. The British public may not be used to coalitions, but I don't think the British public is too stupid to understand the idea of compromise.
Yes, it's true that the vast majority of the policies of the coalition government will be Tory policies, but that's because the Tories won the most seats - and that's a direct result of the number of people who voted Tory. When the coalition was announced, I lived in hope that the Lib Dems would be a tempering influence on the Tories, and I'm sure they may have been, but it would be good to see a little more of that influence being made in public.
I did vote Lib Dem. I didn't vote for higher tuition fees and I certainly didn't vote for the NHS to be hung, drawn and quartered. I don't like much of what the government is doing, but the reality is that if the Lib Dems had not gone into coalition this would all be happening anyway and it would probably be even worse.
But if you really want to worry about what's happening, then consider this. More people voted Tory at the last election than voted for any other party. You can blame the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg for many things - and believe me I do - but you can't blame them for that.