The Cost of Coalescing in British Politics

by Isabel Taylor
January 20, 2011

The festive period is supposed to be a period of good will. Apparently, no-one told various members of the UK’s coalition government this. Barely six months into its lifetime, fractures and divisions have begun to appear both between the two main parties of the coalition (the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) and within these groupings. And some have begun to turn ugly. In recent weeks, the coalition government has had to face up to violent protests against their plans to raise university tuition fees and undercover journalists reporting the less-than-loyal comments of a number of government ministers and poor showings in last week’s special election in the north of England where the Labour Party managed to return its candidate as the local Member of Parliament and increase its majority along the way.

The Liberal Democratic leader, Nick Clegg, led a populist election campaign centered on a number of high-profile pledges, such as that to abolish university tuition fees, and won many votes because of them. Although some political commentators predicted no party would win an outright majority in the General Election in May 2010, no formal talks were conducted between parties until the results were in. Many voters did not consider this possibility when casting their ballots in their local constituency and traditional Lib Dem voters in many ares of the country actively voted against Conservative candidates in an attempt to prevent a right-wing government. Seeing candidates for whom they voted sitting alongside the old enemy in a Conservative-led government is a bitter pill for many of them to swallow.

As Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg is the understudy leader of a government that has introduced a number of policies seemingly at odds with his party’s election pledges, including raising the price of university education. One senior Lib Dem has claimed that they should not be held accountable to their election manifesto but rather to the coalition document to which they signed up to after all votes we cast (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11803719). This argument has not convinced many Lib Dem supporters, with a recent YouGov poll suggesting that their support has dropped by two thirds (http://today.yougov.co.uk/commentaries/peter-kellner/two-thirds-lib-dem-voters-desert-party).

But perhaps inevitably, the coalition is also being attacked by the right-wing of the Conservative Party with some traditional Conservatives, still preoccupied with issues like European integration and immigration, appearing to need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. These factions certainly do not naturally coalesce with any socially liberal grouping, even if the two parties now share much of a common economically liberal rhetoric. Indeed, a former cabinet minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government of the 1980s wrote in a national newspaper that he hoped the Lib Dems would finish in 4th position in the recent by-election (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/16/tory-embrace-split-lib-dems). Even for such a famously right-wing politician, this is not the conciliatory attitude on which successful coalitions must surely be based.

Though it may be overly-ambitious to suggest that the coalition will change the nature of the UK’s political process, it is perhaps not as unlikely that the nature of – and the relationship between – the parties will inevitably be impacted by the current political set-up. The Liberal Democrats have never previously been tested in a national position of power and the conflicts that have recently exposed their disparate support has led one commentator to ask “How many parties are the Liberal Democrats” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/16/tory-embrace-split-lib-dems). Meanwhile, the leader of the Labour Party, the newly elected Ed Milliband, has called for disenchanted Lib Dems to support his party which he is attempting to rebrand as the only truly socially progressive group in British politics. If he succeeds, his tactics may not only return the Labour Party but also threaten the future of the Liberal Democrats as we know them today and the dynamics of collaborative politics in the UK.

Further reading:
http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/mehdihasan/2010/05/lib-dem-tory-labour-clegg

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/liberaldemocrats/8215481/Vince-Cable-I-have-the-nuclear-option-its-like-fighting-a-war.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/jan/12/liberal-democrats-oldham-saddleworth-byelection

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/14/betrayal-clegg-punish-alternative-vote

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12191431

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