Saturday 27 November 2010

ConDems: A Lasting Marriage or Heading for Divorce?

The grey man of British politics has let go the reserve former prime ministers usually keep to venture forth his opinions on the Coalition. Unlike Thatcher's embarrassing interventions, since leaving Number 10 John Major has occasionally chipped in with bits and pieces of advice for his successors. In this tradition I can't see his latest musings upsetting anyone's applecart.

Major argues that it makes sense for the Tories and LibDems to cuddle together for now because they have a sufficiently large electorate between them to ram through their programme of "necessary" cuts without paying too heavy a political price. But in the event of the wheels coming off the legislative timetable the two parties should consider extending the coalition arrangement beyond the lifetime of the present parliament (there is also more than a hint that Major would like it to continue regardless).

There are two things going on here.

During the election and after Little Dave's impressive performance in the
leaders' debates, quite a few Labour people and the odd LibDem thought a liberal-left coalition could happen, and as such it became the repository of all manner of fantasies. The most common was a vision of government evolving in a more Keynesian direction minus New Labour's baggage of petty authoritarianism and the bolting on of decent electoral reform. It would be a government determined to tackle the deficit and prepared to make cuts, but not as savage or as deep as those favoured by Dave and the gang. And what is more it would constitute a 'progressive majority' that might keep the Tories out in perpetuity.

As we know now its possibility was rendered null and void by the electoral arithmetic of the hung parliament and Dave 'n' Nick's whirlwind bromance. But the argument underlying Major's praise for the coalition follows the same logic. LibLab becomes ConDem. A long government of the progressive majority is supplanted by a (hoped for) semi-permanent centre right Coalition, an arrangement what would use state power to reshape British society even more completely around neoliberal dogma. BigSoc is the philosophical garnish sprinkled on this explicit class project.

Second is the marginalisation of the hard-right Europhobe/dingbat wing of the Tories so ably represented in parliament by Bill Cash and the increasingly erratic Nadine Dorries. As
Andy argues (and noted here before), building an alliance with the Orange Book'er LibDem leadership puts clear distance between Dave and the uncaring and the unacceptable. The Coalition has been the means for strengthening liberal Tories and "sensible" patricians in the party, and it's this that has caught John Major's eye. From the pound's messy retreat from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on the Tories were plagued by incompetence, scandal and backbench unrest. Let's face it, the right wing "bastards" of the 1992-97 school make today's clique of grumbling Blairites look like nodding dogs. Major's not muzzling them himself, but he must be feeling more than a little schadenfreude to see his former enemies getting slapped about and ignored.

Major's comments come at a time the Coalition faces its first major test. The size and militancy of student protests and demonstrations have put the LibDems under
severe pressure. More protests next week plus rumours of NUS legal action against LibDems will keep them sweating - and deservedly so. To be sure the rebellion of sufficient numbers of their MPs plus the odd recalcitrant Tory could bury this awful government as surely as its insidious plans for higher education.

So what are we looking at here? The normal ups and downs of the average marriage or the beginning of divorce proceedings? Whatever it is, the future of the relationship will be decided over the coming weeks.


Robert said...

The coalition is not going to break up. Lib Dems know that an early election might well see them slaughtered. The worse things get and the worse the opinion polls the more they will stick close to the Tories and hope that in five years time the economy will have recovered and the public will have forgotten about the more unpopular policies. They're going to go on all the way to 2015.

If the Tories get an overall majority in 2015 that will be the end of the coalition since backbench Tories woudln't put up with a Tory prime minister promoting liberals and giving them jobs ahead of his Tory colleagues when he didn't have to.

The only consolation is that the Liberals probaby will be slaughtered at the next election. If the government is unpopular they will take the blame. If the government is seen as having done a good job the Tories will take the credit. Either way these liberal weasels are likely to get slaughtered.

SamG said...

No way is the marriage breaking up, at least not by the Lib Dems. It is like some fat 50 year old bloke with a beer belly and rancid teeth has managed to get off with an unfeasibly desperate Myleene Klass look-a-like! Who do you think would be the first to break that relationship up?

The Liberals hope to become the permanent deal maker in British politics, by forming a coalition with whichever of the bigger parties gets the most votes.

I think I preferred the old 2 post the post system. Let the Liberals death be a quick one, please!

asquith said...

There should not be an extended coaltion or an electoral pact of the kind this Nick Boles suggests. The coalition was formed in response to unique circumstances, the peculiar results of the election, the situation the country found itself in, & the awfulness of the previous government. The idea of it becoming permanent is not one I'd like.

As a social & economic liberal I have in general supported the coalition, while I disagree with some of its policy (there is a lot of unwelcome continuity from Blair & Brown in the authoritarianism, the hyperactivity of government, the launching of ill-considered initiatives, the misjudged statements, & I also don't hold by specific things such as the abolition of child trust funds, the further extension of the means testing disaster, etc).

But I felt, before the election, that Cameron was more economically liberal & also more socially liberal than Brown. Socialists often think Blair & Brown were free-market liberals & condemn them accordingly, but in fact they were lovers of big corporations & the City of London rather than consistent, principled liberals. So there was something to alienate everyone.

I saw merit in both of the then-opposition parties. I ended up, with the usual caveats, supporting Clegg. Now I do not regret this decsion. But it needs to be said that the coalition is only a temporary thing. As in European countries with long traditions of coalition policies, parties will get some of their agenda & have to give up on others, the strength of their position being according to the strength of their vote.

A friend of mine expressed the hope that the cuts would enrage people so much that a Labour government would be elected with the help of reluctant former Lib Dem voters. What I didn't say, but should have done, is this:

What would happen if at the next election the electoral logic was such that Miliband formed a coalition with Cleggover? Well, I am more heavy on social than on economic issues so if Miliband was genuine on his social liberalism (a big if) then I wouldn't condemn it out of hand even if it would be socialist. I am interested in what Labour loyalists would make of the whole thing. Will it inform your dealings with Lib Dems now to think they might not be eternal enemies?

Some people might find themselves very confused in 2015. That is what I say. Especially if there is a yes vote on AV.

Phil said...

The LibDems might well cling to the Tories like a decomposing limpet, but doing so will cause them considerable damage. If they do become the permanent deal makers of British politics there will be a very high turn over of LibDem MPs. Say for argument's sake the Coalition survives the full term and then go on to form a coalition with Labour. Can you believe Little Dave and Uncle Vince would be acceptable to the Labour leadership? I think not. Their careers as front line politicians are over and done with this coalition.

But then there's self-preservation. People have long memories, especially when politicians are swinging around a wrecking ball demolishing jobs, public sector provision and endangering economic recovery. Some LibDems are sweating and have a choice - vote with the Tories against fees and preserve the coalition, but risk their seats; or vote against and be lauded for doing so (as well as saving their own necks). I think sufficient numbers will vote against. But whether that brings the whole coalition down, we shall see.

Phil said...

Asquith, I don't think Blair and Brown were liberals - they were *neoliberals*. It meant using the language of liberalism and the means of privatisation for providing state-funded socialism for the rich.

I think a lot of Labour people have problems with coalitions full stop. I can't imagine many welcoming the prospect of a tie-up with the LibDems now or four years down the line with unfettered joy. The Greens, if they're able to make advances at the LibDems' expense ... that's a different kettle of fish.

Phil said...

While we're talking LibDem self-preservation, I see Jenny Willott has resigned.