I went to a meeting earlier in the week with Dr Evan Harris - Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon until his very narrow defeat in May 2010 (for reasons brilliantly described by my friend Chris Brooke here.) Evan is probably about as left of centre as Lib Dem MPs get, and a very decent guy. His argument was that there was no alternative to going into coalition with the Tories in May 2010.
I don't believe that and I don't think it was in the best interests of the left of the Lib Dems to go into the coalition, but I want to explore in detail the options that were available to Nick Clegg in the wake of the 2010 result. This is usually skirted over in political discussion but I think it's really important to be clear - as, if it really is true that there was no alternative to this ConDem govt, it would be unfair to blame the Lib Dems for something they couldn't avoid doing. And I've been dishing out a lot of blame over the last 12 months, so I feel I owe it to any Lib Dems reading this blog to offer an explanation for why I feel they have let themselves and the country down.
There were three basic options available to Nick Clegg after the 2010 election results came through:
- a coalition with Labour and minor parties (Greens, Plaid Cymru etc) - this has been called the 'rainbow' or 'traffic light' option.
- Allowing the Tories to form a minority government.
- coalition with the Tories.
Option 3 was followed. I want to look at the viability, and likely results, of option 1 and 2.
Option 1: rainbow coalition
At the time, I rapidly dismissed this as an option because the electoral arithmetic seemed not to work. The way I thought about it was that Labour had 258 MPs, plus 57 Lib Dems, making 315 - short of a majority. Adding in Caroline Lucas, plus 3 Plaid Cymru, plus 4 sympathetic Northern Ireland MPs (3 SDLP and 1 Alliance) made 323 - still short of a majority (just). On this basis, I dismissed the option as unworkable. However, it has since transpired that the 8 DUP MPs had indicated to Andrew Adonis, who was in charge of putting out 'feelers' for a Labour-led coalition, that they would abstain in the event that such a coalition was formed. This would mean that 323 would be a workable majority. It's possible that the 6 SNP MPs would have abstained as well. In the event, Adonis told Andrew Rawnsley in the updated edition of Rawnsley's book The End of the Party that a rainbow coalition could have "an effective majority of around 30" - bigger than John Major's actual majority in 1992.
That being the case, I no longer reject this option on the grounds of parliamentary arithmetic. Instead, I reject it on the grounds of Labour not wanting to do it. On the Monday after the election, when it was announced that the Lib Dems had opened formal negotiations with Labour as well as the Tories, several Labour 'big beasts' (e.g. John Reid, David Blunkett) got themselves onto the news to put the kybosh on the deal. With open mutiny of this sort going on, it's pretty clear that the Lib Dems couldn't commit themselves to any kind of deal with Labour (and in any case it looks in retrospect as if Clegg was using the Labour negotiations as a bargaining chip to get more concessions out of the Tories). So I think we have to concede that the rainbow coalition wasn't a viable option.
Option 2: Tory minority govt
Once the results started coming through, I was sure this was what would actually happen - because I severely underestimated the willingness of the Lib Dems to cut a deal with the Tories. I thought the sticking point would be electoral reform - which the Tories would not countenance in any circumstances. What I hadn't anticipated was that the Lib Dems would agree to a referendum on the Alternative Vote - not their preferred option, and not even proportional representation - so readily.
But was minority Tory government a viable option? Sure; indeed, if the coalition talks had broken down, it would have been the only option. There has to be a UK government, and if coalition talks fail, the convention is that the party leader with the most PMs gets invited by the monarch to form a government.
Minority governments in previous periods in UK history are normally allowed by the opposition parties (or at least those opposition parties that hold the balance of power) under 'confidence and supply' agreements, whereby the opposition agrees not to attempt to bring the government down on a motion of no confidence, and to allow budgets (i.e. the Finance Bill) to pass. However, this is a rather fuzzy area, and the exact shape of arrangements vary. For example, in the "Lib-Lab pact" of 1977-8, the Labour government negotiated a modified programme with David Steel and the Liberal MPs; the Liberals did not formally enter the government but this was a more wide-ranging arrangement than "confidence and supply". On the other hand, Budget measures were not passed through without amendment - basic rate income tax was cut from 35 percent to 33 percent in the 1978 Budget due to an amendment which the Lib Dems and Tories both supported. So in reality, there are a wide range of deals between a minority government and other parties which can be done, stopping short of full coalition while maintaining some influence on govt policy.
I'd argue that this was a viable option - and it's the one the Lib Dems should have taken. Agreeing to support the Tories - perhaps for a defined limited period, of (say) 2 years, rather than the whole 5 year term - on confidence motions, while retaining the right to vote down (with Labour and the other parties) legislation that they thought was not fit for purpose. A "Lib/Con Pact" in other words.
Such a deal would have allowed stable government whilst mitigating the worst excesses of the Tory government far better than what has in fact happened in formal coalition.
Option 3: the assessment
In terms of what has actually happened, for the most part, the Lib Dems have not really managed to make enough changes to Tory manifesto policies to make the last year much different from what a Tory government would look like. To see this, just look at the record:
- the announced spending cuts are pretty much in line with what the Tories said they were going to do in their manifesto.
- stealth privatisation of health and education has proceeded apace under Lansley and Gove respectively.
- Huge cuts to benefits for working age people and reductions in funding for welfare-to-work programmes.
- Royal Mail is being privatised.
- Delibaretely starving the BBC of cash to weaken it compared with Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB.
- The Lib Dems completely abandoned their pledge to eliminate tuition fees.
- VAT has gone up 2.5%, at the same time that corporation tax has been cut.
The only specifically Lib Dem policies one could point to, which wouldn't have happened under the Tories, are:
- The AV referendum (although this wasn't in the Lib Dem manifesto either - ironically it was in the Labour manifesto);
- (possibly) scrapping ID cards (although the Tories may well have done it anyway to save money);
- not implementing a few of the more bonkers Tory ideas (e.g. transferable tax allowances for married couples);
- the above-inflation increase in the personal allowance - although bear in mind that this was considered by the Tories just before the 2005 election and abandoned because it's an extremely badly targeted way of reducing the tax burden for poor people (because most of the gain goes to better off people). In the leader debates before the 2010 election Cameron said that the policy wasn't affordable. This implies that the policy has been funded at the expense of greater spending cuts elsewhere - i.e. the Lib Dems may have shifted coalition policy to the right of what the Tories would have done on their own(!)
This looks like an extremely feeble return for being in formal coalition. The Lib Dems' structural role within the government is also relatively weak. They have only 5 secretaries of state and all the 'big four' are Tory (PM, Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary). The three main public sector reform departments - Health, Education and Work and Pensions are all held by Tories. Clegg's Deputy Prime Minister role is under-resourced and fuzzy in definition, as Andrew Rawnsley's Dispatches documentary this week pointed out. Progressive Lib Dems like Evan Harris point to the activities of the Lib Dems in the government as tempering the Tories' worst excesses, but have they really done this? Vince Cable - supposedly the grand old stager of the Lib Dem left - spends most of his time implementing an employment relations policy which seems to have been cooked up by the Institute of Directors. Danny Alexander sounds like a robot put together in the lab by George Osborne's special advisers. I'm not sure what Chris Huhne has actually done in policy terms. Michael Moore has a good, radical name but I don't believe I've ever seen him do anything, ever. And as for Clegg... he was talking sense on interns but that was about it.
All in all, I find it very hard to believe that a minority Tory government - with the Lib Dems combining with the opposition parties to vote down the most unpleasant Tory proposals - could have been more right-wing than the coalition has been. And the cost to the Lib Dems in terms of electoral prospects has been enormous. According to YouGov they are down to about one-third of their 2010 support levels, while even on ICM, where they poll higher, they've still lost almost half their support. Why? Because they're seen - slightly unfairly, but not completely unfairly - as spineless collaborators. This has been exacerbated by the fact that - until very recently - Lib Dems were deliberately tailoring their rhetoric to ape the Tories. So, for example, any Lib Dem politician making a speech on the economy sounded like the speech had been written by George Osborne. Given this assimilation of the Tory point of view, could anyone be blamed for thinking that the Lib Dems had lost the ability to think for themselves?
To summarise, next time a Lib Dem politician, activist or supporter tries to tell you that there was no alternative to the ConDem arrangement, give them the double whammy. (1) a Tory minority govt, with the worst excesses of the Tories voted down by the opposition parties, was probably a better option in terms of delivering less of the Tory agenda and more of what's sensible for the UK. (2) the coalition option has so far been disastrous for the Lib Dems, and could conceivably end up destroying them as a national party. Don't let them tell you that There Was No Alternative, as there was - and it would have been better for them, and for the country.
Finally, note that this post only really covers the first year of the coalition between May 2010 and May 2011. The second phase - which according to Nick Clegg, will find him carving out a clear and distinctive political position rather than operating as a Tory bag-carrier - is still too recent for reliable comment. But rest assured that I will be following up on that over the summer once the lay of the land is a little clearer.