Coalition and tuition fees – some time later
By Mark Argent
One of the recurring themes in the 2015 General Election was the mixed feelings evoked by the fact that Liberal Democrats had been in coalition with the Conservatives. Some saw this as "selling out for power", some were angry over tuition fees, some saw it more positively.
The situation in 2010 was that no one party had an overall majority. The consequences of the slowdown of 2008 were that the financial markets were needing stability, so some form of coalition was needed. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives together had enough MPs to form a coalition. The other possibility was a coalition of everyone-but-the-Conservatives which would have had a tiny majority and been vulnerable to disagreements.
It would have been possible for the Conservatives to form a minority government, and to call another General Election later in the year. The snag is that the Conservatives have better access to wealthy donors than either Labour or the Liberal Democrats, both of whom take a while to build up their funds to fight a General Election. The upshot is that going to the polls again in 2010 would have put the Conservatives at a significant advantage. Refusing to enter coalition seemed likely to lead to a Conservative-majority government later in the year.
Coalition and compromise
It seemed likely that coalition would cost the Liberal Democrats support. Forming the coalition was a matter of putting national interest ahead of party interest. It was a courageous act. One of the more difficult compromises was to back away from the Liberal Democrat commitment not to increase tuition fees. The arrangements adopted also mean that students need to earn more before starting to repay their loans, and the unpaid balance is eventually written off: eventually the National Union of Students acknowledged that the change did actually help students, but by that stage, damage had been done to trust in the Liberal Democrats.
The awkward reality is that, as the smaller party in a coalition, it is not possible to implement all of the manifesto. It took a while for the British media to get used to the compromises of coalition, but it was a stable government. That has removed the strongest argument against a fairer voting system - which was the fear that it would lead to unstable coalitions.
Moderating the Tories
Though the electoral arithmetic made it inevitable, there was anger that the coalition supported the Tories. Those with painful memories of the Thatcher and Major governments might have noticed a difference, but it wasn't until the Conservatives came back with a majority in 2015 that the Liberal Democrat impact started to become clear. The list of things we moderated is startling - an ideological commitment to austerity (abandoned suspiciously quickly after the referendum), the snooper's charter, plans to repeal the Human Rights act (finally announced just after Turkey suspended its following of the European Convention on Human Rights under very questionable circumstances).
Coalitions are much more common elsewhere in the EU. They are a co-operative approach. It is particularly tragic that, left to their own devices, the Tories launched a referendum on EU membership where the damage done by their policies stoked anger, not at them, but displaced onto the EU. It is even more tragic that the "leave" option was so ill-defined that people supported it for a host of contradictory reasons.