Monday, 26 April 2010

Coalition? Er, no thanks.

According to Conservative blogger Iain Dale, Nick Clegg is getting a bit uppity about his coalition demands.  After all,  Westminister is not Eton and as for the membership, well!  Libdems are certainly no more than a bunch of monochromed middle-class oiks.

All good-natured joshing aside, just why are us Liberal Democrats demanding equal billing (and that means equal numbers of cabinet ministers) in any coalition?  Aren't we just fresh off the political boat; rubes ripe to be turned over.

Not quite.  Although the Liberal Democrats have the potential to break through on May 6th (and that dear Reader, is still very much up to the people of Britain), as a party we have experience of coalitions around the country.  Many councils are coalitions and -  note Mr Cameron, still function well.  The Welsh party were in coalition with Labour from 2000 to 2003.  Likewise the Scottish Libdems were part of the Scottish Executive with Labour as the senior partner from 2000 to 2008.

When Labour lost to the Scottish Nationalist Party, it was widely expected that the Liberal Democrats would retain our coalition position.  Certainly this was what the SNP wanted, expecting the then Libdem leader in Scotland, Nicol Stephen, to retain a fond attachment for the ministerial limo.  To the shock of all, that did not happen.  Scottish Liberal Democrats preferred to oppose and to this day the SNP is a minority government, supported by a deal cut with the Scottish Conservatives.

Why did the Libdems not enter into another coalition?  After all, we achieved many things while in power: free eye tests and care for the elderly are excellent examples.  We were in position to do real good and did so.  The rub though was that come polling day; the Liberal Democrats got all the blame and none of the credit.  Labour were only too happy to lay claim to popular policies.  The SNP were successful in pouring scorn onto what they called “the Lib-Lab government”.  The electoral results were not good for us. 

There is more though.  Let me make it clear that I am just a foot-slogger and not privy to talk above the salt.  A few titbits did make it down to bottom-feeders such as myself though.  I had heard that a senior member of the SNP later regretted that the coalition did not take place.  Apparently it threw all their plans into disarray.  During the campaign the SNP were making ludicrous claims about how they would put more police on the beat, cut class sizes, build more schools etc. while everybody knew there was absolutely no money available for these pipe dreams.  For all their shortcomings, the people who make up the SNP are not stupid.  They too knew that such promises could not be met.  The plan was however was to put the blame on their would-be coalition partners for blocking all these wonderful aspirations when budget time arrived.  Instead, they had to squeeze through a shambolic excuse of a plan with the help from the Tories.

“There comes a time to talk of many things.”  If not cabbages then at least king-making has returned to the Westminster agenda.   Two problems with that as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned: the first being Labour.  As I have blogged several times in the past week, the attempts at heavy-petting from Brown’s party has been rejected with scorn as there is baggage in the relationship.  Labour has never forgiven the Gang of Four (Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers, and Williams) for splitting the party in the 1980s.  In their eyes, the Liberal Democrats remains an aberration; a coalition would the end-game towards final re-absorption of the Social Democrat Party.  In other words, Labour would attempt to swallow us whole.   Is this not merely paranoia on my part?  Not at all: on BBC’s Today Programme, Nick Robinson confirmed as much when reporting an unattributed  comment from a senior member of government “the unification of the centre-left would be the realisation of the New Labour dream.” [Quotation from memory].

On Sunday, Nick Clegg slammed the kissing gate on Labour fingers and coyly turned towards the Conservatives.  He had to: both to distance us from Brown and to keep all options open come 7th of May.  While preferring an outright win for ourselves, we Liberal Democrats certainly do not want to see a Cameron majority on the ruling benches and thus there is all to play for.  Certainly there will be no danger of the Tories claiming the Libdems as their prodigal son so in that regard a Conservative-LibDem coalition will be less of a danger.  Though now we return to the perils of being the junior partner as illustrated above with our experience of the SNP.   Just how are the Conservatives going to pay for their civil-national service and tax-breaks for the rich?   As part of power, the Liberal Democrats would do some good only to be stiffed by both parties at the next election and a return to third-party obscurity.  That is why if any coalition is going to be entered into; the price is going to be very high indeed.

Otherwise, the opposition benches might start to look very comfortable, at least for another few years.  Liberal Democrats are a patient bunch.  We can wait.

1 comment:

Martin Veart said...

On facebook Amy Stanley wrote:
"It makes sense, Martin, particularly with the obscurity of the National party in Australia in mind, but what do you think is the best solution for the liberally minded given how things have played out?"

There are two possibilities and one non-possibility. First, I don't think a coalition with Labour is possible. It would need other parties, would be very unwieldy to manage and to be frank, would fall apart as the Nationalists would demand pork-barrel bailouts for Wales and Scotland. It would be too much of a threat to the Union. It is tempting only for the carrot electorial reform. That is a big carrot though.

The Conservatives offer is just a starting point. It addresses only one of the four key points as layed out in the party manifesto, that being education. There is other common ground; especially in terms of civil liberties. But since the Liberal Democrats would support the destruction of Labour's totalitarian state-in-waiting no matter what, this is hardly enough for us to sign our souls away to Cameron. He offers very little meaningful election reform, our tax plans are "an aspiration" - in other words they like the idea of the first £10,000 tax-free but not closing the loop-holes for the rich which we were going to use to pay for them.

If Cameron wants the Lib Dems to crew his ship-of-state, our share of the prize-money is going to have to increase substantially.