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CAN THE COALITION SURVIVE?

 

By Andrew Tarrant

 

Friday, November 5, 2010.

 

For those with an eye to drama in British politics, this will be a not-to-miss parliament. Usually, the outcome of the next British general election is fairly predictable as soon as the previous one is completed. Not this time around, as anything could happen. Post the first round of party conferences and the debate over the coalition government's spending review, the terms of interparty conflict for this Parliament are set. But each party brings major weaknesses as well as strengths to this contest.

 

The Conservative Party as the largest party 'in the coalition government is in the strongest position to influence the outcome of the next election in five years time. However, it is the first Conservative government since the Second World War which has entered office dependent on a coalition partner. This is the weak flank of the government. If the Liberal Democrats exit the coalition or substantial numbers of their MPs defect to the opposition benches, then the government will be severely weakened, precipitating an election. Given the economic policy chosen by the government, it is unlikely to be popular enough to win an election until the end of its mandate.

 

The Conservative Party's dependence on the Liberal Democrats is a consequence of its failure to win the 2010 election, This was due to the failure of the Conservative Party to reassure the general population, and public sector workers in particular, that public services were safe in their hands. The argument for this is set out in Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley's authoritative, and just published, study of the 2010 British general election.

 

Their analysis of polling shows that the electoral swing to the Conservatives was substantially lower in constituencies where more than 22 per cent of the population worked in public services.

 

From 1997, the centrist political economy constructed by New Labour combined improved public services with relatively low taxation by European standards and the creation of a favourable environment for private economic activity. This proved to be a popular settlement and marginalised the Conservative Party for the two elections after 1997. David Cameron's first role as leader was to try and tame his party's hostility to public spending and move towards this settlement.

 

Until 2008, the Conservative leadership's stance was that they would manage public affairs in the same way as New Labour but, in their view, more competently. In the context of the economic crisis, they have seized the opportunity to move away from this settlement and to try and restructure the political economy. It is not a manoeuvre which is simply ideological, as many commentators argued. It is in fact a highly pragmatic policy from a Conservative Party perspective. A society in which the state plays an important role, providing good quality services to the m3jority of the population and employing a significant number of people, is not one which is likely to reward the Conservatives with large mandates.

 

The latter is more likely to be achieved where public services become the preserve of the poor alone. In that situation, the majority may be reluctant to support public services and to vote for parties more closely associated as their protectors. This is why the Conservatives have gambled with a more aggressive cutting agenda than is actually necessary.

 

The key question for the next three years, the point of maximum weakness for the coalition, is whether the Liberal Democrat Party can survive the assault on public services? Or, indeed, whether it should want to do so? Liberal Democrats parliamentarians consist of two groupings: an economically liberal faction and a larger social-democratic faction. The rust faction tend to be elected in constituencies where they are dependent on tactical voting by Conservative-leaning voters to defeat Labour MPs. The second group tend to be reliant on tactical voting by Labour leaning voters to keep out Conservatives.

 

The chances of this second group being re-elected are highly dependent on people accepting that there is no alternative to the government's economic plans and that cuts are being applied in a "fair" way. The Liberal Democrats, on the evidence of the TV debates, have the leader, Nick Clegg, who might be most capable of achieving this. Given the stark reality, however, communications skills are not likely to be sufficient. Opinion polling indicates that the number of people accepting the proposition of "fairness" is declining rapidly, Liberal Democrat support is haemorrhaging.

 

Polling shows that it has halved since May. The second group of Liberal Democrat MPs are likely to face an acute dilemma between supporting their leader, Nick Clegg, and knowledge that they will lose their seats if they do so.

 

The Labour Party has passed its first hurdle in opposition, It has, in Ed Miliband, elected a competent and likeable leader. Unlike previous historical occasions, it has not entered opposition ideologically divided or having lost large numbers of experienced politicians. It has the capacity to be an effective opposition.

 

However, in order to succeed electorally, it has to do two things. First, it has to persuade the electorate of its economic competence. Unfortunately, focusing on its internal leadership debate has meant that Conservative politicians have been uncontested in their claim that the need to cut is Labour's fault. The second thing it has to do is more specific. As Kavanagh and Cowley's book shows, the group which swung most heavily against Labour at the last election

were working class voters, the group that consider themselves the "squeezed middle". Labour will have to convince them that it continues to have their best interests at heart. Whether the "squeezed middle" are willing to listen to Labour will depend only partly on the policies it now develops and the skill it exercises in communicating it.

 

The moment when the majority of the electorate engages with messages from politicians is when an election nears. The extent to which the "squeezed middle" continues to have valued public services available to it at that point may determine how receptive they are to Labour's offer.

 

The die is cast. Will the Liberal Democrats split or defect? Will the next election take place in conditions of recession or growth? Will the Conservative's politically driven spending cuts, and desire to recast the electorate's relationship with public services, increase the likelihood of a recession that may frustrate those very plans? A double-dip recession will expose coalition plans for what they are and make pressure on Liberal Democrat MPs intolerable.

 

Alternatively, will there be scope for the Coalition to make tax cuts just before the next election?

 

No one, not even the central protagonists, knows the answers to these questions. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all locked into our seats and the roller coaster is about to set off.

 

The writer is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Labour MP

Gregg McClymont

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