A few days ago I wrote optimistically about the prospect of a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Now that we have a coalition for real, I feel even more cheered.
Part of my argument in my earlier post was that there needs to be cultural change in politics. When I listened to the radio last night and heard David Cameron and Nick Clegg enthusing about the “new politics”, I felt like a major hurdle had been crossed. Of course, a lot of it is probably hollow rhetoric. But with the parties’ actions so far, they have shown that they can put aside party differences and constructively work together. This is — without a doubt — a great thing.
Is there enough action on the voting system?
Of course, it is not easy to stomach some of the things the Liberal Democrats have had to concede. For instance, I did not think a referendum on Alternative Vote represented radical enough electoral reform to secure agreement.
Another Liberal Democrat member I know was much more enthusiastic than me a few days ago. Believing that AV can be a staging post to proper electoral reform. I don’t like the idea of having to change the voting system several times if it is possible to make the right change once.
But we have to be pragmatic about it. On this issue, the Conservatives have given up a lot of ground. They have never shown any sign of being interested in moving from first past the post, but now they have opened the door that may let it happen. I’m sure if I was a Conservative, I would be feeling much more pain over this than I am as a Liberal Democrat.
All-in-all, I think the Liberal Democrats have done very well out of this deal. They have just 16% of the MPs, but have secured a lot of power. I was surprised that they have ended up with five cabinet seats, even though none of them (with the exception of Deputy PM) are particularly big posts.
In fact, the way the Lib Dem cabinet posts have been handed out seems to be more about convenience. They couldn’t credibly leave Vince Cable out, but making him Business Secretary keeps him at arms length from the George Osborne’s plans for economic policy.
Giving a Lib Dems the Energy and Climate Change job is also quite convenient for both parties. The Conservatives can be associated with green policies while being able to explain it away to grass roots members who may not agree with action on climate change.
And isn’t it useful to be able to give a Liberal Democrat the role of Scottish Secretary? With one move, the Conservatives have insulated themselves from accusations that the government doesn’t represent Scotland.
On the Conservative side, the picture is very mixed from my point of view. The party’s “good guys” (chiefly Kenneth Clarke and William Hague) are outweighed by the more dislikeable element (George Osborne, Liam Fox, etc.).There has already been criticism for the appointment of Theresa May as Equalities Minister. This is an odd choice for a party that is trying to avoid its “nasty party” image!
On policy, too, my feelings are mixed.
I am delighted with the political reforms, that have been proposed. It looks like reform of the House of Lords — using proportional representation no less! — may finally happen, along with a reduction in the number of MPs and the ability to “sack” corrupt MPs.
Political reform was one area where Labour did well in its early days in 1997, but it had long run out of steam and dithered on making reforms that have become overdue. The agreements in this area made by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats offer a lot of promise in my view.
The Liberal Democrats have lost big time on foreign policy though. My views on immigration are probably even more liberal than what the party had outlined in its manifesto. But it is clear that this issue, along with the party’s stance on the euro and Europe in general, is a big electoral liability for the Lib Dems. As such, it is no surprise that the Lib Dems have had to drop its policies here. It’s disappointing, but understandable.
Nor am I very happy that the Conservative proposal to give tax breaks to married couples has been given the go-ahead.
Civil liberties — the great area of agreement
But while some of the Conservatives’ social policies still seem a bit antiquated, they offer a great deal of hope on the issue of civil liberties. At last, the relentless assault on civil liberties will be reversed by the new government.
The attitude towards civil liberties is central to the Lib Dems’ ideology, and crucially it is also an area in which the Conservatives have good form. This is one of the core reasons why I favour the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition. At long last, we have a liberal government. The Conservatives can help deliver a genuinely liberal agenda in a way that Labour simply don’t know how.
What’s to hate about the Tories?
While the Conservative party still generate a lot of anger among some, it’s not clear to me just why. Thatcher is 20-year-old news, and no-one holds Labour to account for Michael Foot’s policies.
I think the left must realise because you hear the shrieks of “poll tax” much less often than you did even just a couple of years ago. I have found it very interesting that time and again people instead bring up fox hunting. Admittedly, this is sometimes in a light-hearted way. But it has clearly become the new lazy way of criticising the Conservatives.
Is fox hunting really the worst thing about the Conservatives today? If so, I see no reason to worry too much. It’s an odd issue to get worked up about. If you are worried about a few dead foxes, why don’t thousands of dead Iraqis matter so much?
Let’s be fair. Labour have had their time, and it was not pretty for a liberal. It has been 13 years. Let’s at least give the Conservatives a chance.
Overall: a tentative thumbs up
There’s no doubt about it — there be dragons, potentially. Both sides will have plenty to disagree with, and a lot of it is difficult to swallow.
But this is the way coalitions work. We see coalitions work like this in democracies around the world, and they have worked in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I am delighted at the grown-up way in which the political parties have handled the situation. Although some voters clearly have a bit to go, this bodes well for the idea that this country truly is ready for positive political reform. A “new politics” gets the thumbs-up from me — but time will tell whether it can last.
Most of all, it pleases greatly me to see a liberal — big ‘L’ and small ‘l’ — government. It already feels like a breath of fresh air.