Friday, 20 September 2013

Handbrake Politics

Although we are only 65% of the way through the duration of this government’s ‘fixed term’ it’s probably a good time assess the achievements of the coalition; as the next 18 months will be more about electioneering than government.  This audit is obviously vital for the LibDems and Nick Clegg as they had to prove two things over the last 3 years, firstly that they are fit for government and secondly that coalition is better than one party government. Nick Clegg’s speech at the recent LibDem party conference offered us the radical message, that the last three years of coalition is not just be an historical aberration but a permanent fixture.  His talk of "bringing down the two party system" and ending what he calls the "clapped-out politics of red and blue" is a bold pitch for a party with such a low standing in the opinion polls - about 10% share!

Is this a paradigm shift in our political system where we will now be in a “European” model in which small parties have the most influence?  Will the big majorities - like Tony Blair's in 1997 and Thatcher’s in 1979 and 1983  - be a thing of the past? Watching the German election from a distance it’s easy to be confused, imagine what it’s like for the German voters who have 6 minority parties to pick from and endless coalition permutations that might result!  The whole thing is very un-British.
Without being mealy-mouthed about things one can say that the UK coalition has generally done good work and it has not been afraid to be radical.  Having been dealt a bad hand they have stuck to the task and have been rewarded with a belated economic recovery.  They have behaved in a pretty unified fashion and the convention of collective cabinet responsibility has survived, even if Vince Cable has pushed this to the limit.
So what does the balance sheet look like?  On the positive side the achievements of the coalition are pretty uncontroversial and can be listed as follows:
1. An economic recovery – even if it was a little late in arriving
2. Relatively high levels of employment and 1.3m new jobs in the private sector
3. Some reduction in the deficit and public spending
4. Some significant improvements in education
5. New welfare regime
6. A reduction in crime and immigration (although EU migration is still a huge threat)
7. Equal marriage
8. Reduction in our defence commitments and a smaller armed forces
The question that should be asked is whether the Tories would have delivered these without the LibDems?  the answer is that most if not all of these achievements are pretty solid Tory policies with the exception of equal marriage - which was a Cameron initiative to beat up his recalcitrant right wing.

The the negative side of the balance sheet is much more dependent on one’s own personal politics but might include:
1. No industrial strategy or plan including an energy plan or a national infrastructure plan
2. Slow to tackle banking reform and the overhang from the RBS and Lloyds rescues
3. Failure to tackle the unsustainable costs of an aging population (welfare and health)
4. Uncertainty around our EU membership
5. The mess over Syria
Is it fair to blame these cock-ups on the LibDems?  Most of these can be laid at the door of the Tories with the possible exception on the first one.  Vince Cable's job is to come up with a plan for industry and he has done nothing of note on this.  So the LibDems have offered no policies that have been a success nor have they done much to mess things up, so what on earth can they point to when they next stand naked in front of the British electorate?

The last thing we should consider is what LibDems have stopped the Tories doing and Clegg (not that stupid he) made this the centre piece of his conference speech and here is his list of things they have blocked:
Inheritance tax cuts for millionaires
Bringing back O’ levels and a two-tier education system
Profit-making in schools
New childcare ratios
Firing workers at will, without any reasons given
Regional pay penalising public sector workers in the north
Scrapping housing benefit for young people
ditching the Human Rights Act
Weakening the protections in the Equalities Act.
Closing down the debate on Trident.
‘go home’ poster vans
Boundary changes
This is their legacy, the LibDems have stopped the Tories from governing as Conservatives.  Interestingly this has suited David Cameron who is estranged from the right wing MPs in his party and almost all the grass roots members.  Having brought virtually no new policies to the table the LibDems have succeeded in introducing a new form of politics - maybe this suits the dull generation Y brigade who are happy to elect a government that can’t changing things (isn't that conservatism anyway). We might call this "handbrake politics" as it can be applied by those travelling in a passenger seat but not at the wheel!
Sitting comfortably with Labour - but what will they get angry about
The interesting question is what happens if the LibDems form a coalition with Labour next time; could they find a set of Labour polices to block that have the same resonance with the electorate?   It is difficult to imagine the LibDems finding these points of angry disagreement as they have a similar  approach to Labour on so many things and its therefore probable that they would lose their identity if the joined forces with Labour. This must be of great concern to both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband and between them they will have to agree on what they want to disagree on in time for the next election or it will be the Dave and Nick show all over again.

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