There’s a common argument made by Lib Dem supporters of the coalition. It’s repeated in this week’s New Statesman’s Letters and it goes like this: “The coalition is good for us, because getting 10% (or 15%, or whatever) of what you want is better than getting nothing. It’s worth propping up the Tories because we’re getting things that otherwise we never would.”
There is a fatal and fairly obvious flaw in this argument. It assumes that the other 90% (or 85% or, for the optimists, 70%) is neutral. That whatever you get is a bonus that wouldn’t have happened without the coalition and so makes the decision to support the Tories, and allow them to push through less “liberal” legislation, worthwhile.
This is clearly ridiculous. To better illustrate the point, let’s create a little points table and allocate each of the coalition policies identified as “Lib Dem” a score. Ten points for a policy from the Lib Dem manifesto fully implemented and a sliding scale down from there. We need to use the manifesto, because this is the document which people voted for. I am picking on policies which wouldn’t have been implemented by the Tories anyway (e.g. scrapping ID cards, because there’s no Lib Dem input in a coalition required to achieve this).
- So, for a referendum on the “miserable compromise” of AV, let’s say 6 points (where PR would be 10 points)
- The £1,000 increase in the personal allowance – 4 points (a long way to go to £10,000)
- The increase in CGT to 28% – 3 points (this is nothing like equalisation with Income Tax)
I am not sure there has been much more in the way of coalition announcements which we can say reflect Lib Dem pre-election policy for now. But I am not doing the full scorecard here, so it doesn’t really matter. At the moment, the Lib Dems are 13 points up. Well done. What a lot of Lib Dems do is stroll off into the sunset at this point, whistling merrily about how coalition is all about compromise and yes, we only got part-way to our targets on each of these, but we would never have achieved any of it without the coalition.
But remember, on our generous measure, these policies only account for 10%-20% of the coalition’s overall policy output. So, we need to score the other policies on the same scale, only negative. And on this side, we’ve got some policies which are also being implemented by Lib Dems as part of the coalition:
- A complete top-down reorganisation of the NHS with no elected PCT boards, less local accountability and more private involvement – 7 (this is the beginning of the end of a national health service and in breach even of the coalition agreement)
- Free schools paid for while redevelopment of existing schools scrapped – 5 (let’s be generous)
- VAT – 10 (clearly. Remember the billboard?)
So, picking up on three coalition policies (with many, many more left unconsidered – benefit cuts, Trident, nuclear power, impending tuition fee rises or a graduate tax, savage spending cuts this year), we’ve reached 22 (completely subjective) points. Sadly, this leaves the Lib Dems down 9. Of course, there’s a percentage of government policy which falls in the middle and wouldn’t achieve much of a score either way, but with massive, ideologically-driven cuts to come in the autumn, the chances of the Lib Dems securing much more from their manifesto is not looking great.
Many Lib Dems will now become quite defensive and say that compromise was vital and the country needs stable government. There is merit to this approach, but also enormous danger. Voters will remember the arguments put forward at the election and the way the Lib Dems positioned themselves. As Labour knows to its cost, broken promises can cost you very dear at the ballot box. The electorate will look at the surplus and deficit column of the coalition spreadsheet and when they produce their scorecard, it will be a judgment on the Tories and Lib Dems together. This is the nature of coalition, we are learning.
Therefore, I suggest that Lib Dems stop using the “15% argument” now. By all means trumpet your successes, but until you are willing to complete the full equation, your maths won’t even begin to add up.