Is the Marriage of Convenience Heading for Divorce?

AP Photo/Alastair Grant
By Roland Bensted

Formed within five days of the 6 May 2010 UK general election, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat (Lib Dem) coalition government was a new and unlikely development in British politics. One year on, with the British electorate having delivered a comprehensive “No” in the May 2011 referendum on whether to switch the voting system to the Alternative Vote (AV) and with the Lib Dems having suffered huge losses in English local elections and elections to the devolved Scottish and Welsh parliaments, this unlikely partnership is enduring a rocky patch. Many analysts are predicting imminent divorce.

Yet from the start this was always a marriage of convenience rather than passion, in spite of the personal chemistry between party leaders David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Both partners, however, had incentives to make it work; the Conservatives had won more seats than Labour but had failed to achieve an overall majority, and the Lib Dems, incapacitated for years by what they perceive to be an unfair first-past-the-post electoral system, finally had a chance to be a part of national government. In spite of scepticism from some quarters, there was some genuine optimism when the coalition formed that this was an opportunity for a new kind of politics; for two parties, with quite different views on many issues, to work together in the national interest.

In the aftermath of the referendum on AV and local and devolved elections, the new kind of politics appears to have rapidly regressed to the same old politics. Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary, described the Conservative Party as “ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal” in one interview, while the Conservative-funded “No to AV” campaign had targeted Nick Clegg in order to capitalise on his low approval ratings.

Before May 2010 the normally centrist Lib Dems had campaigned to the left of Labour on many issues, including civil liberties, university tuition fees and criminal sentencing. They received a pre-election endorsement from The Guardian, which further helped them to win key voters, such as public sector workers and students, from Labour. David Cameron’s Conservatives also made a conscious effort to persuade swing voters and dissatisfied former Labour voters to opt for them. By promising to protect spending on the National Health Service (NHS), scrap intrusive identity cards and promote the “Big Society”, Cameron was attempting to move the Conservatives in a centrist direction by smoothing the sharper edges of Thatcherite policy.  

After the coalition agreement was signed, both the Conservatives and Lib Dems modified or threw aside some of their manifesto pledges. Reduction of the public deficit, primarily through cuts (or “savings”, depending on one’s point of view), was made the number one priority. A Lib Dem party that had campaigned against a Conservative “VAT bombshell” before 6 May was, less than two months later, nodding in approval as Chancellor George Osborne dropped the “bombshell” that value added tax would rise to 20 per cent from January 2011. Similarly, the National Union of Students (NUS) pledge to oppose any rise in university tuition fees that senior Lib Dems had signed before the election - and quickly reneged on after- was explained away by the necessities of coalition government. The Conservatives gave ground too - the Lib Dems argued that their influence had led to Conservative concessions such as the removal of some low earners from paying tax, and improvements to public pensions.

One year after the coalition’s birth, there is discontent from both sides. Conservative backbenchers accuse David Cameron of ceding too much influence to a junior partner, whereas many Lib Dem backbenchers and voters believe that the Lib Dems have too little influence in government. For them, most key policies, from the increase in VAT, to the quasi privatisation of universities and cuts to budgets and services across almost all departmental portfolios, were devised by the Conservatives. Some commentators point out that if the Lib Dem influence had been stronger, the government could have passed a bill in parliament introducing AV rather than holding a referendum that the “Yes to AV” campaign was always likely to lose. Add to this Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s messy plans for a reorganisation of the NHS and there are significant grounds for division.

Yet, in spite of both the apparent policy differences between the two parties and internal criticism within both, the coalition has not only survived thus far but, on occasion, has looked robust. This has partly been due to the relatively weak position of the Labour opposition; as the coalition was getting its policy programme underway in summer 2010, Labour was staging a protracted four month leadership campaign. The impact made by Ed Miliband, chosen at the end of that campaign in September 2010, has been underwhelming. The coalition has also been winning the public narrative over the Labour Party. The coalition has pointed to the alleged profligacy of Labour’s spending when in office as a key cause of the current deficit. Labour’s response is that the current deficit is largely due to the unprecedented measures taken after the September 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse and resulting financial earthquake.

However, Labour’s message, that the many billions of public money that were used to bail out banks in order to prevent recession from escalating to something comparable with the Great Depression of the 1930s, has not had much resonance with the public. Many voters oppose cuts to public sector jobs, services and other provisions. Yet, those same voters believe that the deficit must be reduced. This sentiment has, so far, been helpful to the government. Thus, when the coalition stopped Labour’s renovation programme for schools, largely in deprived areas, or made cuts to welfare payments for people with disabilities, it has been able to cite lax financial control by the previous administration to avoid public ire.

The referendum on AV appears to be the first real test of the coalition’s staying power. On this issue, it was clear just how far apart the two governing parties were. Some of the veneer of unity has been undermined by Chris Huhne’s threat of legal action against the Conservative-funded “No” campaign for allegedly misleading the public. With Huhne not ruling out resigning, and with Vince Cable politically marginalised since his December 2010 comments about “declaring war” on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, few observers would state confidently that the coalition can survive a full five year term.

Yet any negative impact from being in coalition seems likely to hit the Lib Dems harder than the Conservatives. Following an April 2011 YouGov survey for Prospect Magazine, YouGov’s Peter Kellner indicated that as many as 69 per cent of people that voted Lib Dem in the May 2010 general election have deserted the party. The results of the English council elections of 5 May 2011 suggest that many Lib Dem supporters have defected to Labour and the Conservatives. Labour made gains at the expense of the Lib Dems, but Conservative support has consolidated.

The main reflection from one year of marriage between these unequal partners is that while the key government policies have been led by the Conservatives the public has blamed the Lib Dems and punished them at the ballot box. The key “achievement” from joining government gained by Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems may, ironically, be to help expedite the return of the two party system that the Lib Dems so detest. Future UK general elections are likely to once again be contests between the Conservatives and Labour, with the Lib Dems a peripheral third party. Nick Clegg, having decided to swim with the Conservative sharks, is being eaten alive, much to the delight of many Conservative, and some Labour, opponents.


12 May 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Alastair Grant