One criticism I often come across when talking about politics, and/or the Liberal Democrats, is that Nick Clegg supposedly “betrayed his principles for a shot at power”. I’ve come across that exact line several times. But was it really a betrayal? I don’t think so. Of course, the Liberal Democrats in the Conservative-led coalition are proposing policies that they probably wouldn’t do in a Labour-led coalition, and are having to alter their policies on things like tuition fees. Even so, coalition with the Conservatives was pretty much inevitable come 10:02pm on 6th May.
- The numbers didn’t add up. This is the key problem with the Rainbow Coalition as it was proposed. If we remove Sinn Fein, and the Speaker and his deputies, the majority needed would be equal to 321. Assuming Woollas, Macshane, and Illsley would’ve taken the Labour whip, that nationalists and Greens would’ve sided with Labour, the Alliance with the Lib Dems, and unionists with the Tories,* the Progressive Coalition would have 327 votes compared with the Tories’ 314. It doesn’t take a genius to realise this would’ve have been a weak government too vulnerable to nationalist MPs (especially with the SNP leader Alex Salmond admitting he wanted to “hang Westminster by a Scottish rope“).
- Even if they did, Labour would’ve have bullied the minority parties. This is most obvious in their attitude towards the Lib Dems, with the sentiment post-election that they had a god-given right to govern if the Tories didn’t have an overall majority. Admittedly, this is because every party in Parliament but the DUP (and Sylvia Hermon) is traditionally anti-Tory, but the remarks of Salmond in 2009, and Clegg several times in the run up to the election, indicate that only Labour have a fervent anti-Tory bias. This would’ve have shown in any coalition agreement: there would be no concessions to the Lib Dems on civil liberties, tuition fees (one of the darling policies of Labour-in-Power), or some of the most overt nanny-state policies.
- The Tories were more receptive to coalition. Indeed, Oliver Letwin (C-West Dorset) reportedly went through the Lib Dem manifesto, found the red-line areas (which, surprisingly, tuition fees weren’t), and was surpisingly accurate. The sentiment during the caretaker period was also that the Tories were more open to making concessions, mostly to emphasise some of their libertarian credentials.
- The Tories and the Lib Dems also had more common ground. Indeed, graphs from Public Whip show that during the 2001 and 2005 Parliaments, the Tories and Lib Dems were in agreement most of the time. This may be due to the pros of being in opposition, but the Tories nevertheless were increasingly concerned with some of Labour’s authoritarian counter-terrorism policies.
- Another Labour government would have been immensely unpopular. Brown was already facing criticism for being “unelected” (a stupid criticism, as PMs aren’t elected—you know who else was “unelected” in the same fashion? Churchill, 1940—but an important one nonetheless). Seeing as only one newspaper (the Mirror) backed Labour, a coalition would have been seen as tantamount to stealing the election. There was also some market uncertainty towards a fourth term.
- Coalition also drags the Tories towards the centre. The Tories are well aware they did not win the election either. Which is why they were more receptive to coalition: they wanted power as much as Labour did, but were well aware that the Lib Dems would slightly lean Labour (polling of Lib Dems’ second preferences tends to split 60-40 in this regard). But they need Lib Dem votes to pass legislation, so they have to find a policy that is amenable to both sides. They know this well from tuition fees; likely, the Tories would have placed a higher limit than the coalition did (which is still lower than Labour’s prospective limit). Their justice policy has also gone to the centre from the days of Michael “Prison Works” Howard (despite press pressure); Ken Clarke is effectively the sixth Lib Dem minister.
- Liberals are not exclusively on the Left. This much can be seen by European governments, where coalition with the liberal FDP is business du jour for alternately the SDP or the CDU, or the Swedish riksdag, where the centre-right Alliance for Sweden relies on the liberals and centrists for their majority.
- Coalition does not mean convergence on policy. Certainly, this is a common criticism of Nick Clegg (“shame on you for turning blue!“), but coalition is more about enacting mutually agreed policy, such as repealing some Labour laws both parties feel excessive (for example, some anti-smoking legislation), and reaching a compromise on others, such as tuition fees (the Lib Dems wanted abolition, the Tories wanted a higher cap). Parties still disagree in coalition (look at the Telegraph sting on Vince Cable) and it’s to be expected and is a healthy process of coalition politics: that distinct political parties can nevertheless work together in the national interest.
- A minority Tory government would be quickly replaced by a majority one. This explains why one of the first things the coalition did was remove the PM’s prerogative to seek dissolution: because Clegg didn’t trust Cameron fully to dissolve parliament behind his back. Even if Cameron didn’t seek dissolution, he would’ve lost a vote of no confidence by Christmas. Which meant voters going back to the polls. And this is the kicker: Labour and the Lib Dems are skint. They don’t have the Ashcroft millions to fight another election. Even with the polls standing as they are, the Tories would’ve have probably won a second election, and possibly a majority government.
*I’m making a general assumption here; in actuality, nationalist parties tend to side more with the Lib Dems, as do the Greens.
Admittedly, I am disappointed at the Lib Dems for abandoning some of their key policies like tuition fees, or VAT (although they didn’t rule out the VAT rise themselves). But I still want the party to succeed, as there isn’t really another voice for people who don’t like Labour’s “we know better” approach or the Tories’ pro-millionaire approach. And I’m supportive of proportional representation and coalitions in general: no party in the past 75 years has won a majority of the votes, so policy has generally been rammed through with a good 60-65% of the population having not voted for it. And if we had proportional representation, governments would have to represent at least 50% of the population, and the Lib Dems wouldn’t have had to make all these concessions; it’d be more consensual governance than anything. Even so, I see the coalition as a pragmatic decision: I’d much rather have a coalition government with 57% of the votes than a Tory government with 38% or a Labour government with 34%.