Mark Argent
Creativity design composition spirituality work with organisations

Politics:: articles from 2015 General Election Campaign
Coalition and promises

14 April 2015

I’ve had a number of emails from people feeling frustrated or betrayed that we entered the coalition in 2010.

Personally I have a very different take on this. I had had an involvement with regional governance which would have created a conflict of interest had I joined a political party before the ending of regional assemblies in 2010. I actually joined the Liberal Democrats in response to the formation of the coalition. It seemed obvious that entering a coalition with the Conservatives would bring about precisely the hammering in the polls which we have had. My sense was that the Liberal Democrats were putting the national interest ahead of party interest in a way that was worth supporting.

Why coalition?

The actual situation in 2010 was of a fragile economy, with a high deficit and troubles in the Eurozone undermining confidence in the banking system. The markets were jittery at the prospect of a weak government. People who saw the Channel 4 docudrama Coalition about the formation of the coalition will have seen civil servants reminding the politicians of the urgent need to form a a stable government. It was against that background that it was very much in the national interest for a stable coalition with a clear intention to last five years, rather than some sort of informal arrangement to prop up a minority Conservative government.

Why with the Conservatives?

Much as I might like the voting system to be changed, we do have to work with what is in place, and that created a House of Commons where there were not enough Labour MPs for a coalition with Labour to have an overall majority, so that was not really an option, which was a frustration to those of us with centre-left leanings. Had the numbers been slightly different and coalitions with Labour and Conservatives both been possible, it would still have made sense to think first of the party with the most MPs.

Strangely, the fact that the coalition was a difficult pairing means that delivering five years of stable government is more of an achievement, and demonstrates that coalitions can work in the UK.

One of the problems with this is that the British media was used to talking of “splits” in governing parties, but took a while to get used to the idea of two parties with profound differences working together in the national interest.

Party funding

An added subtlety is thrown up by way political parties are funded in the UK. General elections put considerable strains on party finances. The Conservatives have much better access to a pool of wealthy donors than either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Had we had a second election soon after May 2010 the Conservatives would have been by far the best funded, tipping things in favour of a Conservative majority. My reading of the runes is that the choice was between a coalition with the Conservatives and a second election returning a Conservative majority a few months later. I’ve had a fair number of emails from people angry that we helped the Conservatives into power by forming the coalition: the funding issue makes that look rather different.

Compromises: tuition fees, bedroom tax, cuts and income tax threshold

The forming of a coalition is a complex process which involves drawing up a coalition agreement based on points of overlap between the manifestos of the parties involved. At its best, this means the eventual agreement has more support in the country than the manifesto of either party alone.

Coalitions are about compromise. With 57 Liberal Democrat MPs and 306 Conservatives, it was inevitable that we would not be able to enact all the things we would have done had we had a majority. Among the headlines on this are:

Moderating the Conservatives

There have been some very angry comments about the Liberal Democrats on the right-wing Conservative web site Conservative Home, which give a sense of how much that wing of the Conservative party has resented Liberal Democrat influence over the government. That suggests we have done a good job of moderating the Conservatives in power. The apparent ferocity of their proposed cuts this time also gives a sense of what Liberal Democrat influence has restrained.

Why vote for us?

The argument now is for people to vote for us. The more MPs we have, and the more votes, the stronger our hand in pushing for Liberal Democrat values. Frustration over what we have not achieved is actually a reason to vote for us, so we can achieve more. The more MPS we have, and the more votes we have, the more capacity we have to push for Liberal Democrat policies in any coalition.

There was a time when the Liberal Democrats were, at least for some people, a “party of protest”. Being in coalition takes us away from that unrealistic place, into one where we go into the 2015 election with a manifesto that could well be the starting point for coalition talks. Voting for us enables more of our policies to be implemented, and strengthens our had in moderating our partners — whether that is encouraging Labour to borrow less or the Conservatives to cut less.

Who might we work with in Coalition?

We enter this campaign with potential for coalition with either Conservatives or Labour. I am personally relieved that the Conservatives have ruled out a coalition with UKIP, and Labour have ruled out a coalition with the SNP, as I think the Liberal Democrats would have major problems in taking part in a coalition which involves people committed taking Scotland out of the UK, or the UK out of the European Union. As the polls are at the moment, it looks as if the process of forming a government could be quite complex, but it’s not wise to talk about possibilities until the actual numbers of MPs are known. The Liberal Democrats have appointed a team to handle coalition talks, if these become appropriate. All I can say at this stage is that, as in 2010, those involved will be seeking to act in the best interests of the whole of the UK in any coalition negotiations, acting on the basis of the will of the British people, expressed in the numbers of MPs elected.