One of the things I’ve been pondering over is the long term impact that being in government will have on the Liberal Democrats – and to a smaller extent, the Greens in Brighton which are leading a minority council there.
For as long as I can remember, the Liberal Democrats have been…well…’there’ as far as national politics was concerned but never seemed to make much impact until very recently. During my early childhood I remember echos of old men in grey suits talking about “Doctor David Owen” and “Doctor David Steel” in slow monotones about “The Alliance” – something I’m now reading a little more about in Shirley Williams’ autobiography.
People often forget that the Liberal Democrats are a coalition in itself – The Liberal and Social Democratic Party, formed from a merger between the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party which was formed in the early 1980s when some of the ‘moderates’ within the Labour party split off to form a new party as Labour veered off to the left following the 1979 election. Thus you could almost say that the 2010 Coalition is a coalition of three parties rather than two.
Now that the Liberal Democrats are part of a coalition in government, they are having to take responsibility for things that perhaps they’d rather not – for example tuition fees. One of the big policies that for many years has stood the party out from the Conservatives and Labour is the issue of voting reform. The reason why this issue is particularly crucial is because moving to a system of proportional representation would increase the likelihood of future governments being coalitions of existing political parties – similar to what we see in Continental Europe. With our current system, it is ‘winner takes all’ (assuming they get a majority). It is because of this central platform of voting reform that the pressure is on for the Liberal Democrats to make the Coalition work. If they cannot make a coalition work, then their entire premise for voting reform is undermined. Why would we want to move to a system of unstable government after unstable government similar to those in say Italy in the years prior to Berlusconi?
There’s also the issue of the Coalition implementing as many of their unpopular policies as possible as early as possible – tuition fees and NHS reforms being the big ones. Will the voters have forgotten about those unpopular policies by the time the next election comes along? I remember the first election I followed reasonably closely – that of 1992, fully expecting a Labour victory given the coverage. It never materialised. 18 months after the poll tax riots of 1990 and the fall of Thatcher, when the Conservatives seemed to be in absolute disarray to victory in the polls. Given where the Liberal Democrats are in the polls, do they need to keep the Coalition going as long as they possibly can in the hope that the economy will recover and with it, their fortunes?
David Cameron for his part is under pressure from some on the right to dissolve the Coalition and call for a snap election. This may suit the Conservatives in having a chance of winning an election outright at a time when the Liberal Democrats are unpopular and at a time when Labour are still recovering from the defeat of 2010 & their leadership election. We’ve seen perilously few co-ordinated policies or anything near a coherent alternative from Labour – hence Peter Mandelson’s recent comments.
Fast forward to a post-2015 election and the big assumption that the Liberal Democrats don’t form part of a coalition government and end up in opposition, what could we expect? For one, those that served in Cabinet or at higher ministerial office may well find themselves with a higher media profile than normal. It may also make for far better scrutiny within the Commons of the government of the day. One of the things I notice when former cabinet ministers ask questions of ministers in the Commons, ministers tend to be far more respectful of those MPs. This is in part because ministers acknowledge that those MPs have been in their shoes before having to wrestle with difficult decisions – experience of which often results in far more targeted questioning. But how many of the current ministerial cohort of Liberal Democrats will remain in the Commons after the next election?
There is then the impact of having all of those volunteers, party apparatchiks and special advisers that have been drafted in to advise ministers. Julia Goldsworthy, a former MP and Question Time regular disappeared off of the face of the earth until I realised that she had been appointed as a special adviser to Danny Alexander in the Treasury. I imagine it will be people like her that will form the cohorts of parliamentary candidates at the next election, where experience of seeing how government functions may well help them scrutinise it properly and hold it to account. But again, how many will make it to the Commons at the next election?
On a smaller scale, similar challenges face the Greens in Brighton, where Puffles’ Twitter feed is picking up Labour going after the Greens much more strongly than of late. Caroline Lucas has been a beacon for the Greens having won my old stomping ground of Brighton Pavilion. I’ve kept tabs on the Greens’ growth since 2000 as Keith Taylor contested the constituency in 2001 and 2005 picking up nearly 4,000 and then 10,000 votes respectively prior to Caroline Lucas’ victory in 2010. I lived in Hove at the time of the 2001 election and would regularly stumble across Anthea Ballam, the candidate there who has since gone onto become an interfaith minister and priest.
Now that the Greens are running a minority council in Brighton, it means having to defend a record in office just as the Liberal Democrats have to. What both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats face is constraints and burdens that are not necessarily of their making but ones that they have to take responsibility for – or at least explain to people that they really do have their hands tied. In the case of the Greens it is slightly easier because only a minority of local council funding comes from council taxes and business rates. This makes it easier to say “It’s someone else’s fault” – which is exactly what Lambeth did, to much controversy. Irrespective of whose fault it is, running a council means having to take the decisions – which will inevitably make some people feel that you are going along with unpopular policies.
Just as being in Coalition is a steep learning curve for the Liberal Democrats, I guess that the same is true for Brighton Greens – one where the cauldron of running a council will show where potential talent may emerge as well as the realisation of those found wanting.
As with the Liberal Democrats learning about life in national government, life running a council provides a huge opportunity for the Greens to educate its other campaigners and elected councillors about the day-to-day running of a local authority. In the long term it will be interesting to see what impact this has both on the effectiveness of those Greens elected to public office as well as on their general electoral fortunes.