The aftermath of the General Election on May the 6th has undoubtedly been historic and produced an unexpected, new kind of government. There have been grand claims that politics has somehow fundamentally altered, as if parliament had literally been strung up by the electorate, leaving corpses of the old way strewn about Westminster. Whilst scepticism as to these claims of a newly purified political class is wise, it is also foolish to deny the scale of the change that has taken place.
For in many ways Nick Clegg is not wrong to claim that a new era of political history has been ushered in, replacing the way things were forever more. For the first time since the Second World War the country is guided by a coalition government and crucially the two party seesaw between Labour and the Conservatives has been interrupted. This is truly an exciting time in British politics and a time of change and the coalition has sought to highlight just how daringly different it will be to the “old” system, in order to paper over cracks in its hurriedly assembled agreement. It might be true that the deal between the Conservatives and Lib Dems has changed politics forever but it does not ensure sudden transparency, honesty and fairness. David Cameron wishes the public to acknowledge how enormously grown up he has been to get into bed with Nick Clegg for the “national interest” and to paint a picture of a more civilized, cooperative government. He hopes to ride a wave of popularity, based on doing the right thing and getting things done through compromise, all the way to the next election.
Whilst Nick Clegg’s surge in the polls during the election campaign, following his effective use of the TV debates, did not translate into an increased number of Lib Dem seats it did show his potential for popularity. In many ways the popular backing Cameron will gain from embracing Clegg is more valuable than the stable Commons majority afforded to him by the Lib Dem MPs. The new Prime Minister has instructed his Deputy to direct a programme of political reform including a PR elected House of Lords, a referendum on Alternative Vote and a “Great Repeal” Act. Clegg understandably sought to emphasise the liberal opportunities open to him and the extent to which the state would be rolled back in favour of the individual. Whilst Cameron is likely to incur the wrath of his backbenchers he is also likely to acquire new support from the public from those keen to see reform. And the anxious Tories needn’t worry, as Clegg’s grand programme is only likely to yield moderate reform that the two coalition parties agree on such as the right to sack MPs, whilst giving the impression of something far more inspiring to the nation.
Cameron then appears to be manipulating Clegg’s role for his own long term benefit. Combine this with the lack of women in the new cabinet, the high proportion of privately educated ministers and the misuse of the coalition’s honeymoon goodwill to conceal realities of deficit reduction with talk of quangos and waste once again, and very little about politics seems to have changed. However as I have said the breakthrough of a third party into the status quo cannot be underestimated. Fresh ideas and policies can liven up the new government’s agenda, with the Lib Dems winning some surprising concessions in the negotiations. Part of the radical redistribution of the tax system advocated by the Lib Dems will go ahead, for example. Crucially for those on the left of the party, the Liberals also have the opportunity to restrain the worst of Tory policy, with inheritance tax the headline casualty from the Conservative manifesto. As I have argued previously the Lib Dems were absolutely right to enter into a coalition, and those opposing it from within cannot be genuinely serious about making a difference through the best of their own policy and halting the worst of their new partners. However as the Labour leadership race accelerates it is understandable that many Lib Dems might fear for the future prospects of their party following the coalition deal.
Following the deal Labour was boosted by an influx of disaffected Lib Dem voters, who felt betrayed. This is perhaps not surprising given that many may have voted Lib Dem primarily to avoid a Tory government. Labour also did better than it might have done in the election, retaining a strong base upon which to build as the only party in opposition, with plenty of targets to aim at. It will be tempting for the victorious candidate in the Labour leadership election to score easy points by demolishing the morally compromised Lib Dems and continuing to snatch their supporters. However I hope that the winning candidate has the foresight and sense of fairness to realise that avoiding a return to the old tussle between red and blue will benefit democracy and leave the Tories weakened. It will be a difficult balance to strike, but the new Labour leader should not alienate the Lib Dems and dismiss its contribution to taming the Tory beast. They should rebuild the party to appeal to a wide range of voters, embracing the progressive agenda of the Lib Dems to isolate the Tories. Hurriedly looting Lib Dem support would only strengthen the Conservatives in the long run and rob the country of genuinely needed new direction and debate. The coalition will limp to the next election on the brink of disintegration from internal disagreement, battered from without by the pain of deficit reduction and media scrutiny of scandals like that of David Laws. Labour and the Liberal Democrats must be careful that whenever this government does end, the Conservatives and David Cameron do not escape blame.