During my self-enforced blogging purdah, something that really started to annoy me is the misrepresentation of how coalition government and compromise politics actually works. This was typified by various comments about how, because the Lib Dems had "sold out" on their manifesto commitment to abolish tuition fees, that somehow more votes for Lib Dems would lead to more of this "selling out" and the idea that more votes for Lib Dems might have made it possible for that manifesto commitment to have been held to is somehow ridiculous. I have heard this point made many times by various commentators and activists from both major parties.
Sunday, 2 January 2011
I remember listening to Evan Harris trying to explain this on Radio 5 Live with Shane Greer and Will Straw. I have a lot of respect for both Shane and Will but the way they ripped into Evan when he made the point that if the Lib Dems had had more votes and seats at the general election they would have been in a better position to deliver on the tuition fees pledge was very disappointing. Not least because I am sure they both understand full well the point that Evan was making. Shane even made a snarky comment along the lines of "Is that a pledge!!!?".
But let's look at the facts for a minute. The Lib Dems got 57 seats at the general election. Labour got 258 seats. The Conservatives got 307 seats. Part of the coalition negotiations were to work out which parts of each party's programme would be implemented in government. The 4 key pledges from the Lib Dem manifesto (political reform, the pupil premium, fairer taxes and green jobs) were all included in substantial part in the agreement. The tuition fees policy was not included in this way. In order for the pledge to abolish fees within the 6 year time horizon to have been realised in full, the rest of the manifesto in its entirety including the ways in which the revenue for this measure was planned needed to be available too. Once those started to be compromised upon it became very difficult to sustain the pledge.
Let's go to an extreme hypothetical here first. Let's imagine that the Lib Dems had got 326 seats back in May last year (yes, yes, I know). Then there would have been a Lib Dem majority and the manifesto in its entirety would have been implemented. The tuition fees pledge would have been stuck to as the Lib Dems would have had a majority on their own without the need for a coalition. So that is a definite example of where (many) more votes for the Lib Dems would have led to tuition fees being abolished.
Of course that did not happen. But we do not need to go to such extremes to be able to see how it could have worked. The Lib Dems plus the Conservatives (57 + 307) have a decent majority of close to 80. But the Lib Dems plus Labour (57 + 258) only got to 315 seats, 10 short of an overall majority. This meant that during the coalition negotiations it was very difficult for a Labour/Lib Dem coalition to be a viable solution. But let's hypothesise that the Lib Dems had got another 30 seats (equally taken from both Labour and the Conservatives). Then Lib Dem plus Labour would have been 87 + 243 which would have been 330 or a majority of 10. Not a huge majority but good enough to be going on with. That would then have meant that with a "doubly hung parliament" like this, the Lib Dems would have been in a better position to be able to get further concessions from either of the two bigger parties. Even if they had still have gone with the Conservatives eventually, the fact that a Labour coalition was viable (and given all the noise Labour have made about tuition fees since I would expect this is an area they would very much have been willing to compromise on) would have made it a lot more likely that a deal on tuition fees that was much closer to the Lib Dem manifesto pledge would have been struck. Given our quirky electoral system, even a small change of say 3% to 27% for the Lib Dems (taken equally from the other parties) could have seen a difference in seats of this magnitude. So if a few more hundred thousand people had voted for the party, they would have been much more likely to be able to deliver partially or even wholly on their pledge.
I am not arguing in this post for or against the existing policy. I am simply saying that this attempt by the political opponents of the Lib Dems (of both major parties) to try and somehow pretend that it is ridiculous to imagine more votes for Lib Dems would have led to more Lib Dem policies is completely disingenuous.
It is not ridiculous, it is self evident.