A couple of weeks ago Andrew Gamble visited Keele to speak about the general election results and what it means for mainstream politics.
He began by asking if he thought the result was as expected? One one count, it was. The spread betting turned out to be inaccurate but the exit poll many commentators sneered at on election night was spot on. The opinion polls were largely on the money too. What was entirely unexpected by the commentariat was the Tories’ decision to go for a coalition as opposed to a minority government. Gamble included himself in this group: he thought coalition was unlikely because they had only previously happened under the special circumstances of war. The 1918-22 coalition was really a Lloyd George premiership supported by the Tories, and similarly 1931 wasn’t a true coalition: it was basically a Tory government with Liberal and Labour ministers. Hence from the standpoint of British political history the present coalition is breaking new ground.
Coalition government offers certain advantages to both parties. For Cameron the alliance with the LibDems solves a number of problems. He can sideline the Tory right, drop manifesto commitments he didn’t really want (such as the pledge to cut inheritance tax), and with the LibDems in the treasury the political damage from his cuts programme doesn’t fall entirely on him. It has the further advantage of allowing Cameron to position himself as a modern, liberal Tory and dilute the hard euroscepticism and xenophobia still endemic in his party.
For Clegg the prize was getting LibDems in the cabinet for the first time since the war, ensuring his position in the annals of British politics. He can now set about dismantling its reputation as the party of perennial opposition and demonstrate the advantages of coalition politics – one that ensures the LibDems will be a contender in future elections. He will also preside over the implementation of LibDem policies, not least the referendum on the Alternative Vote.
There are a number of dangers that lie in wait that threaten to derail the coalition government. The first is the Tory right. Many Tories kept mum before and during the election for entirely pragmatic reasons. They had the disagreements and were displeased with the direction the Tory party were heading, but knew to keep a lid on things for electoral expediency. They wanted to see Labour form a progressive coalition with the LibDems and others because when it would (inevitably) fall apart the electorate would punish them by voting for the Tories in droves and return them with a healthy majority. For this scenario to be thwarted by their leader in favour of coalition has left them seething. If that wasn’t bad enough, the five cabinet posts and 20 ministerial positions reserved for the LibDems will have put some careerist noses seriously out of joint. But even more unforgivable has been Cameron’s compromises over key policy shibboleths, especially on tax
cutting. Who could have forseen a Tory government committed to raising the rate of capital gains tax? The move to an early reform of the Lords, the AV referendum concession, fixed terms, and the 55% no confidence threshold have poured more oil on the blazing back benches.
The second risk to the Tories are the consequences of the coalition succeeding and seeing out the full term. By moving the Tories more toward the liberal centre the LibDems could be partially absorbed but at the same time leave their right flank exposed. This presents the likes of UKIP and the BNP an opportunity as the Tories have traditionally mopped up the xenophobic hard right vote. With an opening of this political space some in the party might be tempted to jump ship to UKIP or a yet to be formed populist outfit, gradually whittling down the coalition’s majority.
The third is the risk the LibDems face. There has been little in the way of an organised rebellion in its ranks so far. Vince Cable might not look comfortable with his Tory mates, and Charles Kennedy has grumbled away in think pieces but it’s steady as she goes. However, seeing as the coalition will become unpopular very quickly how will the LibDems cope under the extra pressure and scrutiny? As we’ve seen these last couple of days, David Laws departure was very swift after his expenses scandal came to light. Could this be the shape of things to come? Another problem for the LibDems is that historically, previous associations with the Tories have led them being absorbed. The 1895-1912 Liberal Unionists and the 1931-68 National Liberal splits have met this fate – could Clegg lead the bulk of his party into a liberal Tory party, especially if the latter’s rebranding succeeds and presents more of a liberal face in the LibDem’s heartlands?
What about Labour? Gamble felt there was palpable relief in Labour’s ranks, especially after post-TV debate polling put Labour behind the LibDems. However that there wasn’t a total wipe out obscures the real dangers it faces. First, the number of seats gained do not reflect the slump in the vote – only the arithmetic of first past the post saved its bacon. Second with Cameron’s pledge to cut the number of MPs by 60, you can bet the boundary commission’s recommendations won’t fall too heavily on Tory seats. This will create more marginals and make it difficult for Labour to win outright in the future.
Another problem for Labour is the geographic concentration of its support – it remains disproportionately weak in England. For it to win back the marginals New Labour won in 1997 some serious thinking needs to be done. But that won’t be assisted by a leadership contest comprising of men all from a very similar background without much in the way of policy difference between them.
By way of a conclusion, Gamble noted a number of issues that will dominate the next five years. The first is the deficit. Associated with this will be a major defence review, which inevitably will downgrade Britain’s capacity to project its power (as well as invite rebellion on the part of Tory back benchers). The union will come under strain too. Between them the coalition won 36% of the Scottish vote, but given Cameron’s comments about the dependency the economies of the north, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the public sector, pushing through cuts there could be fuel for the nationalist fire.
The one thing Gamble didn’t mention was how much the ‘new politics’ is business as usual. He talked about the periods 1976-92 and 92-08 as Tory and Labour hegemonies, but these were times marked by consensus around the subordination of society to market imperatives. Regardless of what realignment the coalition brings about in Westminster (if any), policy wise the platforms of all three parties are determined to make the working class pay for the crisis by cutting public sector employment, services, welfare benefits, and raising national insurance and VAT. But working class people are not responsible for the crisis. Commentators who flag up easily available credit to explain the crash overlook the reckless business practices of the banks, practices that cannot be separated from the short termism of making billions for their share holders. This is not to forget the role governments have played in engineering regimes whereby business is cut free from any
social obligation, giving capital free reign to roam the planet for profitable opportunities.
The transformation of the banking crisis into a crisis of public finance will inevitably produce a wave of opposition up and down the country. The scenes from Greece could easily be repeated on British streets. But what remains unclear is how this will work its way through politics. Will a resurgence of the labour movement push Labour more to the left? Can dissatisfaction work to exacerbate political divisions in the LibDems and the Tories? Will small, marginal forces to Labour’s left and the Tories’ right benefit from the struggles and social dislocations to come?