The Coalition must rediscover the radical
This is a guest post by Zach Johnstone:
At a time when the news cycle is dominated by the chronicling of economic stagnation, Middle Eastern political unrest and journalistic indiscretions it is easy to overlook the fact that we are, remarkably, already (slightly more than) two years in to the five-year term of the Lib-Con coalition government. A coalition that, above all else, resolutely pledged to break with the past; that vowed to be radical in its policy implementation and to take the United Kingdom in a “historic new direction”. A coalition that bore the weight of public expectation from day one, and which embraced this responsibility enthusiastically.
The announcement of a hung parliament on 6th May 2010 precipitated a tortuous period of indecision, obfuscation and power-brokering, but once in office the Coalition wasted little time in implementing basic reforms. Within one day of taking office David Cameron announced a 5% pay cut for all ministers and a further pay freeze for the entirety of the Parliament, whilst less than eight weeks later the Coalition had also announced the introduction of five-year fixed-term parliaments. The Coalition enjoyed broad public support, a clear vision for governing in the form of the Coalition Agreement and faced a leaderless, bungling opposition hopelessly tarred by its thirteen years in power.
Two years later, however, the picture could scarcely be more different.
Take the Lib Dems. The immensely high hopes surrounding the party and, in particular, its leader rendered disappointment inescapable. A series of strong performances in the televised leadership debates preceding the general election elevated the Lib Dem leader from relative obscurity to veritable stardom; the term ‘Cleggmania’ – coined by the media – not only entered common usage but also found its way into the 2010 edition of the Collin’s English Dictionary, such was the furore surrounding the former MEP. Clegg was cast as kingmaker – the man to whom the other parties would have to deign if they hoped to form a government.
But the basis for this popularity – Clegg’s position as the virtuous candidate, unblemished by the trappings of power – became instantly untenable once he took office. The sacking of David Laws following details of his living arrangements and a much-derided ‘U’-turn on tuition fees shattered the illusion of purity, whilst the failed AV referendum – seen as the greatest concession to be extracted from the Conservatives when forming the Coalition Agreement – left the party’s membership feeling forlorn and powerless. Perhaps the bigger problem now, though, is one of perception; after years of vacuous mud-slinging from the sidelines of British politics, the Lib Dems will be forced to campaign in 2015 without that which sets them apart: outsider status. They are part of the problem, and will not be able to rely upon their natural position as the ‘alternative’ party to win votes in three years’ time.
From a Conservative perspective, the prospect of coalition was largely perceived to be, and accepted as being, necessary. As unpalatable as five years of compromise and diluted policy-making appeared, it was understood to be preferable to another half a decade of opposition; Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems was a stroke of political brilliance, and rendered Labour irrelevant from the beginning of the coalition negotiations. The Rose Garden press conference following the Coalition’s formation, despite everything, seemed like a natural fit – even those who doubt the tenability of coalitions as a general rule felt a peculiar optimism on that sunny May morning.
No one, however, could have foreseen the damage that Cameron’s vicarious involvement in the recent phone-hacking scandal would do both to his own image and that of his party. The embarrassment that accompanied Cameron’s decision to hire the former editor of the News of the World as his communications director was compounded by details of his close personal friendship with the former Chief Executive Officer of News International, Rebekah Brooks. Any political credibility gained from Britain’s successful participation in the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya which ultimately led to Gaddafi’s removal from power, or Cameron’s much-lauded EU ‘veto’, was overshadowed by scandal, and with the Prime Minister’s appearance at Leveson still to come (and with Coulson having been charged with perjury this week), the spotlight seems set to remain firmly on Number 10 for the foreseeable future.
Just as worryingly, the present fiscal torpor has damaged public perceptions of Conservative competence where matters pertaining to the economy are concerned, a dependable vote-winner at previous general elections. The IMF, whilst broadly backing the Coalition’s austerity-driven economic strategy, has called for a greater emphasis on growth in the form of quantitative easing and investment in infrastructure, precisely the approach that the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has been lauding for months (albeit in an effort to take a diametrically opposed position to the Government rather than an exhibition of economic acumen). Given that the worsening state of affairs in the eurozone is likely to inhibit Britain’s capacity for recovery and that, domestically, trust in politicians is at an all-time low, it is perfectly reasonable for Conservatives to question how the party can turn things round.
What seemed impossible two years ago has become a permanent reality: Labour is presently between five and twelve points clear in the polls, whilst Ed Miliband enjoys almost universal support amongst his party membership. As scandal threatens to render the positions of Hunt and Warsi untenable, Labour finds itself in the enviable position of being able to watch those in government self-destruct. Early predictions of a swift and unceremonious coup to oust the ostensibly hopeless Mr Miliband have been all but eradicated; at times he almost seems convincing. The initiative has changed sides - if the Conservatives wish to return to power in 2015 with a parliamentary majority this is a trajectory that they must calibrate immediately.
Above all else, the Government must rediscover the approach that made it so popular at the outset. The Coalition’s early support emanated from its radical tone; the electorate supported the notion of a government with a clear plan to change Britain for the better. Yet for two years, the governing parties – and particularly the Conservatives – have failed to communicate their achievements amidst the chaos of events out of their control.
Gove’s educational reform, for instance, has been a roaring success; as many as 45% of the 20,000 schools in Britain are now academies, whilst he has also overseen the introduction of Free Schools across the country. Yet how many people in the United Kingdom could even explain the concept of a Free School? The Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, has worked tirelessly to increase transparency at the local level; councils are now required to publish all spending data above £500, for instance. But how many amongst the electorate would be able to identify this as a Coalition achievement? The Government has raised the income tax thresholds, thereby taking over 800,000 citizens out of income tax altogether. Few in either governing party would argue that this received the column inches that it deserved. And what of Iain Duncan Smith’s outstanding work in the area of welfare reform? Despite being an immeasurably important consideration for Conservative voters, the party has done little to demonstrate the scope, and value, of the changes it has made.
As imperative as enacting far-reaching educational reforms or establishing a more efficient system of welfare distribution is ensuring that voters are aware of what is happening and why it is necessary. The Government has been forced onto the back foot amidst a profusion of bad news, but the only way it will regain popular support is by articulating both its accomplishments over the past two years and its aspirations for the next three years of government. Labour’s biggest weakness following the general election was the absence of any coherent plan for government: that has not changed. Faced with a government once more firmly focused on fulfilling its election pledges, the Labour Party’s ad hominem attacks will find little support amongst the electorate.
The solution is simple: the Coalition must unapologetically champion its achievements and expose Labour’s dearth of policy initiatives. If it engages in the vacuous exchanges upon which Ed Miliband’s reputation depends, it will pay the electoral price in 2015.