Why the Liberal Democrats were right to join the coalition (and support thoroughly un-Lib Dem policies)

Despite the recent malaise within the Conservative Party and Ed Miliband’s poor personal rating, the Lib Dems are floundering in the polls. Much of this is still blamed on their decision to go into government with the Conservatives. So why on earth was it good for them to join the government?The first and rather predictable reason involves taking a completely non-partisan approach to forms of government. Strong governments, with reasonably-sized majorities, are more effective at governing. A minority government after the 2010 election would have found it harder to find support for legislation. There is a case to make that a united Tory government would be more competent, with less need for the compromises which lead to leaked budgets and incoherent policy, yet as we have seen recently it is David Cameron’s politics as much as that of the Lib Dems which angers the Tory right. It is also true that after the 2010 election the Lib Dems could have attempted to form a government by allying with Labour, yet there seems something undemocratic about denying the most popular party power.

For natural Lib Dem supporters who oppose much of the coalition’s decisions, this is an argument difficult to accept as a reason for coalition. Yet for their own sakes, Liberal Democrats were right to join a coalition, for a very simple reason not expressed enough. Liberal Democrats are Liberal Democrats because they believe in Liberal Democrat values and policies, and believe these policies should be introduced as government policy. The aim of the party is to introduce these policies. The best chance of introducing these policies is undoubtedly through being part of government, not as a secondary opposition party.

Left-wingers may still not buy into this. The coalition’s policies are right-wing, and by voting with the coalition Lib Dem MPs are acting as right-wing MPs. This is all whilst Lib Dems have supposedly not influenced policy. Obviously there has to be a pay-off for being in the coalition: it would not be worth it if the Lib Dems had no influence. However, I don’t think this is the case. From delaying the Health Bill to the (ill-fated) AV referendum to raising the income tax threshold to possible Lords reform, if the Left is honest the Lib Dems have had quite a lot of influence.  According to this UCL study Lib Dems had 75% of manifesto items going into the Coalition agreement. It is also worth bearing in mind that the Lib Dems have 57 MPs whilst the Tories have 306. Representing about 16% of MPs in the coalition, Lib Dem MPs should not be expected to have much influence. In the popular vote, the Lib Dems got 23% and the Tories 36.1%. It is the number of MPs each party has which affects the power balance more than anything else, but even on the basis of the popular vote you would expect the coalition to be more conservative than liberal. Overall, for the left, or at least for the centre-left, a coalition is more desirable than a conservative-only government.

Lib Dems should defend themselves with these points. They tend to claim instead that they formed a coalition in exceptional circumstances in the national interest. This is a weak argument: depending on who you talk to, there are always special circumstances, and always fundamental reforms needed to the country. Believe it or not, before the financial crash the United Kingdom and the world were not devoid of problems.

The biggest worry for those in the party about going into the Coalition is surely the loss of electoral support. It is not known whether Lib Dem support will return before the next election, or after it, or never again. My hunch is a combination of the first and second. Ironically, the Lib Dems could find themselves in another coalition after the next election whether or not they lose lots of seats. Overall, pursuing power in the present is more important than guaranteeing second opposition status and controlling a few councils. As Hoederer says in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mains Sales (a story with some resemblance to the choice the Lib Dems faced after the 2010 election) “Il n’y a qu’un seul but: le pouvoir.”

29/04/2012: I forgot to add at the end that I would welcome any feedback: this is deliberately quite a provocative post. What do you think?

*edit 15/09/2012 – layout changed and images removed

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