It’s more than two years since the Liberal Democrats joined the Tories to form Britain’s first peace-time coalition. So after 27 months, 47 parliamentary acts and infinite coalition-marriage comparisons, what does the Lib Dem governmental track record look like? Can we be at all proud of the party’s time in office?
To cure ourselves from these mid-term blues, let’s start by noting the sheer quantity of Lib Dem policies which have been successfully implemented. In fact, an April episode of The Politics Show showed that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is being turned into coalition policy compared with only 60% of the Tory manifesto. What policies, you may ask? The charmingly named website whatthehellhavethelibdemsdone.com lists the highlights, such as the ban on new coal-fired power stations without carbon capture technology (page 59 of the manifesto), the increase of the overseas aid budget to £11.5bn (see page 62), the prioritisation of dementia research (try 41) and the end of child detainment in immigration centres (page 76, since you ask).
Admittedly some policies, such as refunding VAT to mountain rescue teams and illegalising wheel clamping on private ground, are politically insignificant, regardless of their moral value. In that 70% you’ll also find the abolition of HIPs and ID cards. These may be trumpeted as Lib Dem victories but were also Tory manifesto promises which would likely have been implemented in a purely Conservative government.
That shouldn’t diminish larger Lib Dem successes. A referendum on electoral reform was delivered, even if Clegg does regard AV as a “miserable little compromise.” Liberal influence secured badly needed amendments to the NHS reforms. A wise investment of £2.5 billion into the Pupil Premium has been helping disadvantaged pupils for over a year, and continues to do so. Neither should we forget that 880,000 of our poorest citizens no longer pay income tax thanks to Lib Dem driven policy.
In spite of these achievements, it’s undeniable that the party image is in tatters and muddy ones at that. Fourth place in the London mayoral elections was humiliating. Opinion polls depress even the most optimistic of party members. On top of that, Labour and the Greens are hungry for Lib Dem constituencies. Their relish in Liberal suffering is akin to that of a family member enjoying the illness of a cousin whilst dreaming of their desired inheritance.
As Clegg has openly admitted, a key issue is communication. Liberal successes must be better publicised. The few feeble efforts that have been made to broadcast party achievements in government are not sufficient. Perhaps the party does suffer unjustifiably negative media coverage. A coalition necessitates compromise; many of the media’s alleged U-Turns are merely unpleasant but unavoidable realities of coalition pragmatism. It would nevertheless be foolish to lay anything other than minor blame on Fleet Street.
Even the most loyal Liberal Democrats are unhappy. Questions have been raised over the effectiveness of the £900m dedicated to reducing tax avoidance. Given that the party was the first to advocate same-sex marriage, many are rightly disappointed that the topic was conspicuously absent from the Queen’s speech. The elephant in the article is, of course, tuition fees; it is not hyperbole to say that never in recent years has a single issue so cripplingly damaged any one party. Scores of students are still seething over the perceived betrayal and have vowed never to vote yellow again.
Personally, I find it problematic that the party is prone to focus on political policy at the expense of matters which more directly concern you and me. Coalition is compromise but unfortunately when choosing which issues to let slide and which to carry forward the decision is too often Westminster-centric. Let’s look at AV, an issue on which Lib Dem MPs were eager to deliver. Chris Huhne, it is said, was so impassioned on the subject that he banged the table with his fist in cabinet and had to be reprimanded by Osborne. As important as electoral reform is, polls clearly suggested that success for the Yes camp was doubtful. Vast swathes of the population were apathetic, reluctant to abandon the status quo, whilst Tory and Labour opposition on the matter made an unlikely victory an impossible one.
In the long term, I believe it would have been beneficial to postpone electoral reform, and use that party sacrifice to ensure that the promise on tuition fees was kept. Not only is this a pledge that earned the party student votes, but it is an issue which has a heavy impact on the ordinary citizen, whilst electoral reform – though theoretically sound – is of little concern to Joe Bloggs. Moreover, regardless of the system’s merits, the fact AV would be most beneficial to the Liberal Democrats gave the referendum a regrettably selfish aftertaste. There was not necessarily a decision to be made between the two issues, of course, but if Liberal Huhnesque fervour had been instead directed towards opposing a fee rise, Clegg would have shown his interests to lie more closely to the people than to the party.
Given the antics of many stale Tories, the shelving of Lords Reform was unavoidable. This at least provided the impetus for Clegg to publicly speak out against Cameron, which was perhaps long overdue. Yet again Clegg’s next move is the wrong one, rebelling over a parliamentary issue rather than one which really concerns the public. In seeking to damage Cameron’s electoral chances he descends into tit-for-tat politics, something which invariably damages public confidence in parliament. The real irritant here is the pettiness; Clegg has previously voiced his belief in equal sized constituencies. He’s abandoning this support purely to spite Cameron. Instead, it would have been wiser to oppose the widely condemned NHS reforms, an issue which sparks public rage. Realistically, few care whether two issues were connected in the coalition agreement. If the Tories have reneged on one of their promises, then Clegg can easily afford to drop the coalition line on this important matter. In addition, this opposition would be a morally justified one as it supports the sentiments of almost every medical association, something which garners more public support than eye-for-an-eye political gaming.
Overall, the party’s governmental record should inspire quiet satisfaction rather than pride. The Liberal Democrats have had a largely positive influence in government and have transformed a pleasing amount of manifesto into policy. However the past two years have been far from a dazzling success. It is crucial that the party learns from its mistakes. As the old adage goes, you have to pick your battles. Clegg needs to start picking the right ones.