One of the frequently cited reasons for Lib Dems remaining in the Coalition is that they are proving to a nation that was clearly sceptical of coalitions that such a government can and does work. It’s fair to say that ostensibly, they have certainly done so. The Government exists, it has a programme of work that it is implementing and while it is frequently dysfunctional I think all audiences would largely accept that this is not the preserve of multi-party government, but more of multi-humans government!
The Lib Dems have achieved a fair amount by taking the country on this journey. But whether they have succeeded in proving that coalition “works” would, I believe, depend entirely on who you were trying to convince of this and what is meant by working. I thought I would take this time to examine some of these audiences and definitions, trying to be as dispassionate as possible, and see where there have been successes and failures.
The first success is the area most hyped up before the last General Election. The Conservatives and their supportive media went hell for leather to convince us all that a hung Parliament would spook the Bond Market, threatening Britain’s fragile recovery. This simply hasn’t happened. The stability of the Coalition has soothed this particular tempestuous beast. There hasn’t been a run on the markets. This fear has been completely negated, and it’s to the credit of Government that this is the case (the fact that the Government’s own policies have separately halted recovery is a different issue for a different post).
Secondly, they have convinced the less far-right sections of the Tories that coalition works. In fact, despite the moaning of sections of their backbenchers, they have in fact been delighted with how well coalition has worked for them. Until Osborne blew the Budget, Lib Dems were taking practically all the flack for unpopular decisions. Before the 2010 election, the Tories were running Party Political Broadcasts warning of the dangers of a hung Parliament, now there is talk of coupon elections. It remains to be seen if the Tory leadership will either feel weak enough to need to do this, or if their backbenchers will feel strong enough to let them, but no one seriously believes it is completely out of the question.
Finally, they have – to an extent – convinced some sections of the Labour Party that coalition can work. With a second party either as compliant as the Lib Dems have shown themselves to be, or perhaps a nationalist party like Plaid Cymru with whom Labour has more in common than some leading right wing Lib Dems such as Clegg, Alexander and Laws. They are very far from convinced it is desirable, but are at least no longer convinced it is impossible.
These successes are not to be sneezed at. Large swathes of the establishment have gone from believing that coalition government would be a disaster to believing it to be a perfectly workable, if not ideal situation.
But there are other audiences whom are not convinced, not convinced at all. Interestingly, these should have been the audiences most likely to favour coalition government.
First and foremost has to be the voters. Specifically those who previously voted Lib Dem. This morning, Nick Clegg was once again running the line that if voters wanted more Lib Dem policies in Government, more of them should vote Lib Dem. Quite apart from the deeply disingenuous context (he was talking about the tuition fees pledge, which was specifically designed for individual MPs in or out of Government) this line doesn’t seem to be convincing any but the absolute core vote. Regularly polling about a quarter of your last General Election vote is not mid-term blues. It is a sign that the people who elected you to do a particular job don’t believe that you are doing it right. As these were people who voted Liberal Democrat, we can safely assume that most of them would be more comfortable with the idea of coalition than people voting for the larger parties.
That so many of them believe that the Lib Dems are not making this coalition work in the way they envisaged when voting for them is not the sour grapes Lib Dem activists sometimes resort to painting it as. It is equally not a misunderstanding of how coalition government has to work and compromise. If the Lib Dems continue to push this line they will never understand what has gone so dramatically wrong for them. They are in real danger of proving to their most sympathetic voters that coalition doesn’t work. That the small party makes very, very little difference to the issues they care about. The lived experience of the Lib Dems former supporters does not support their PollyAnnaish championing of the 75% of their manifesto they are supposedly enacting (proving once and for all that all policies are not equal). The differentiation strategy does seems to have extended to a few rebellions in the Lords, but as they have always been overturned in the Commons it isn’t anywhere near to making the kind of difference needed to prove to former Liberals that the Party they voted for is making coalition work.
The second group for whom coalition is not proved to be working is civic society. Einstein once said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The modern equivalent seems to be pressure groups for whom Liberal Democrats who were their biggest champions before 2010 expecting at every turn that this time will be different. This time Simon Hughes, Tim Farron, Jenny Willot etc. will stand up for the values they have previously passionately espoused. Patience is wearing thinner and thinner as meetings with former allies get hand wringing agreement followed by solid trooping through the Government lobby. Once again, a group who might have thought that having two parties in Government would give them two bites of the cherry, two chances to put their case and make their arguments are instead simply greeted with two different sets of deaf ears.
It would be churlish to say that the Lib Dems have not proved to a decent extent that they have made coalition government work. They have. But I am far from sure that they have convinced the people who will ultimately decide their fate that it works for them. The elites may be more relaxed about it, but in the end, it simply won’t be them who decide the final fate of this Government.
This post was originally published at The Scarlet Standard