Just to get the emotional stuff out of the way – I’m still angry with the Liberal Democrats for enabling five years of cuts that went too far too fast, the regressive policies they’ve enabled, and the legacy they’ve left as they’ve imploded. But I’m most annoyed with the line peddled, most recently by Andrew George, that the electorate have punished them for going into government. Because though I’m angry about at what the 2010-15 coalition have done, that’s not because it was a coalition.
I want defend coalitions. I’ve always liked the idea. Or, to turn it around, I dislike the idea that someone who is passionate and knowledgable about a particular policy area, who is recognised by the electorate for this, and returned to the House of Commons, may not be able to utilise their expertise in government because they are of the wrong political stripe – even if on the policy matter they care about they are ideologically close to the governing party’s position. Of course, that’s not just me – Gordon Brown made a (rather unsuccessful) attempt at a government of all the talents.
I also dislike the idea that a government can be formed, as today’s, solely from a party for whom barely a third of the electorate voted. Proportional representation, and the kinds of agreements and pacts that are associated with it, ensures a government is drawn from representatives of at least half of the electorate.
This idea that the LibDems were punished for going into government is strange and silly. Why are the LibDems so special? Their coalition partners also went into government – and they don’t seem to have been punished. The Tories weren’t punished for going into government in ’79 either. In fact, neither Labour nor Conservatives have ever lost 6 out of every 7 of their MPs for going into government, which one or other of them has done at every single election for almost 100 years.
Maybe this is an allusion to the fact that the LibDems have always done rather well as a party of protest. That’s allowed voters to project their aspirations on them – as a young party of just 27 years, formed of a marriage of convenience from tribes of quite distinct philosophical origins, it’s always had a rather fuzzy identity (something which, perhaps, enabled the rise of the Orange Bookers’ revival of classical liberalism leading to the realignment that made the austerity coalition possible). As a party of protest, it is liberating not to be burdened by a coherent ideological underpinning. In government, it’s a recipe for confounded expectations.
I heard a LibDem commentator explain that “the public aren’t used to coalitions”. But if they were, they’d be in an even better position to see that the real problem here was using the coalition as a smokescreen to pursue policies that were at odds with those they’d campaigned on. The electorate would surely still want to punish them – wouldn’t they see even more clearly that they’d failed to gain major policy concessions, or take senior government positions? If the public were used to coalitions, they’d have seen successful coalition parties who clearly stated their priorities, drove hard bargains, and focused on ensuring they were delivered. The LibDems received too little, spread themselves to thinly, and in trying to pretend they were influencing all aspects of government became tainted by all the policies they enabled.
As a result, the LibDems have reaped the worst general election result in their short history. Nick Clegg believes that history will judge the party kindly. I believe history will judge Nick Clegg to have made the second major mistake in the history of the LibDems – the first being Paddy Ashdown’s failure to try for electoral reform as part of a pact with New Labour in ’97. Going into government was not his mistake – it could, in principle, could be the brave move he wishes it was – his mistake was setting his sights too low, and striking the wrong deal. If the LibDems had secured electoral reform either in 1997, or in 2010, as they might easily have done, they really would have changed the political landscape.
It has been the one consistent and unifying belief in the party – the need for constitutional reform. And that need is something that is as apparent as ever, even as the LIbDems have withered away. I’m not optimistic, but I hope that the electoral system does get reviewed – because in government, coalition is a strength, not a weakness. Coalitions occur anyway within all political parties as factions attempt to unify and share their political strength – the alliance pact from which the LibDems arose being just one example – but the multi-party landscape that has emerged in the past decade should offer the voter a chance to chose more directly the constituent parts of their emergent government, which should then be able to claim a mandate from over half the electorate – if only the electoral system reflected those choices, rather than being part lottery.