Delivering Real Change
The face of British politics has changed quite radically since I last wrote for the Rayleigh Times, and that change may well have long-lasting effects. The voters of Britain set the political parties quite a conundrum at the election; only time will tell if they have solved the puzzle satisfactorily.
A number of dissatisfied voters have asked why the Lib Dems have ended up in a coalition with the Conservatives. I entirely understand their concerns – after all, there are plenty of areas where we disagree significantly. But I keep coming back to two fundamental questions:
Question 1: Was there ever a realistic alternative to a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition? Well, we could have tried a coalition with Labour, the Scots and Welsh nationalists, the one Green MP from Brighton – but can you imagine the fractious negotiating of deals and constant threats of pulling the rug from under the whole enterprise? I doubt such an enterprise could have held (though most Lib Dems would probably instinctively align themselves with Labour values rather than Conservative values). And in any case, Labour had polled the lowest percentage of votes by any outgoing government since 1832 – a poor 29%.
The other alternative was to leave the Conservatives to run a minority government, with whatever support they could garner on an issue-by-issue basis. But Nick Clegg had said before the election that in the event of a hung parliament, he would negotiate first with whoever got most seats and most votes (not always the same thing, of course) – and that was the Conservatives.
Question 2: Will this government be better for having Liberal Democrat ministers and policies? Undoubtedly. Many people will have voted Lib Dem because of our promise to raise the tax allowance so that people earning under £10,000 a year wouldn’t have to pay tax. That wasn’t in the Tory manifesto, and Labour had already made clear their lack of concern for low earners by scrapping the 10p tax band. This key Lib Dem policy is now part of the coalition agreement, and will be implemented over the course of this parliament.
There are, of course, a number of Conservative policies which we disagree with (e.g. whether to keep Trident or not) – and we have had to compromise in the interests of stable government. The Conservatives have had to compromise too – but that is what coalition is all about.
So none of the parties liked the result of the election, but Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have agreed to work together to achieve what we see to be the best way forward for the country. We are not used to coalitions in this country (though all political parties are coalitions to some extent), and some people are finding it hard to come to terms with. A number of media commentators in particular are finding it difficult to get out of their old ways of thinking; it’s easier to think in black-and-white terms, two parties alternating in power as Conservative and Labour have done for the last century, except in case of national emergency. But I would suggest that we have to get used to a more diverse and plural way of thinking about how we run our country.
One of the pluses for the Conservatives is that David Cameron is shielded from the loose cannon on the extreme right of his party – he doesn’t have to kowtow to the eurosceptics to keep them on board, as the coalition has a healthy parliamentary majority.
For Liberal Democrats, the bottom line is that the coalition agreement is full of policies that we have been campaigning on for years, and which we now have the opportunity to put into practice. I’m particularly pleased to see the end of detention of children for immigration purposes in the agreement, along with many other Lib Dem civil liberties initiatives.
It has always been Lib Dem policy to delegate power to the lowest possible level – which means not having decisions made in Whitehall which should be made locally. I’m glad to say that both coalition partners have agreed that the number of houses built in any area should be decided by the local council for that area – not by diktat from on high. Which means that if Rochford District Council gets its act together, the housing target imposed on us by the last government (4,600 houses, with no funding for infrastructure) should become nothing more than a bad dream.
We’ve also secured a commitment to voting reform, which Lib Dems feel is well overdue. In 1951, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party polled more than a million votes more than Churchill’s Conservatives, but the distortions allowed by the first-past-the-post system saw Churchill form the government having won 321 seats to Attlee’s 295. It’s also worth noting that in that election the two main parties won 93% of the vote between them. In 2005 they won just under 68% – and this year, the figure was down to 65%. As politics becomes more pluralistic, we are going to find ourselves having to form coalitions more frequently.
One thing I should make clear – the coalition at Westminster does NOT mean that Lib Dems and Conservatives locally are in coalition. On Rochford Dictrict Council we are committed to fighting for the interests of local residents, keeping people informed, and trying to make the council more democratic and accountable.