June 17, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
If you are ever in need of a primer in the problems of coalition government, you should look no further than Nick Clegg’s press conference yesterday. There he was, announcing the Lib Dems’ plan to put a commitment in their 2015 election manifesto to ‘ring-fence’ education spending, and very quickly the questions were onto whether that would be something he would be willing to drop in coalition negotiations. It quickly became apparent during the questioning of him just how undemocratic coalition negotiations can be – even for a party that cites itself as being as democratic as the Liberal Democrats do (see, the clue is in the name!).
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning those education plans. Here is what he said:
Supporting education is a vital part of modern progressive liberal ideology – which is about spreading opportunity and the more ‘positive’ freedom in which the state intervenes to help people make the most of their individual potential. But ring-fencing anything when you are government is dangerous. The Conservatives were forced into announcing that they were ring-fencing the NHS budget at the last election because they weren’t trusted on it, and the development/aid budget because it made them look less like the “nasty party” they had been accused of being – but that has led them to have to cut in other areas more sharply than they might have done. In basic economic parlance, ring-fencing has an opportunity cost, and given the hostile reaction to every single cut that has been a feature of our political culture these past four years, any new government that ring-fences anything will immediately be asked what they will cut more of.
Which is where the press conference immediately went, because any other cuts would have to be part of a Coalition agreement, and here’s where Clegg made a telling point – he said he can only speak for the Lib Dems. He said, you cannot produce a Blue Peter “here’s one I prepared earlier” blueprint for a coalition. Those decisions would have to be taken after polling day, he says. So let’s be clear on this – he’s not going to tell the public, or even his own party, what he would agree to cut in a coalition negotiation – that will happen after polling day. Really? He’s not going to discuss it with the decision making body of the Lib Dems? This is where the problem of machinations about coalitions crops up – decisions on what manifesto commitments to “red-line” (make non-negotiable) and drop (e.g. tuition fees) are made by a small number of people in back-room negotiations – as happened in five days in May in 2010, and if you listen to Clegg will be happening again in May 2015 – although I would imagine it would take a bit longer.
The point is that Nick Clegg (who in many people’s observations looks extremely tired and stressed at the moment and may possibly not last until May) is not going to be able to make a policy announcement from now without being asked whether he’ll stick with it in the coalition negotiations. It might be an idea for him to have a lot of the “interminable” meetings he reported he had to have with members of the Lib Dems before signing the coalition agreement now – so they can work out democratically what they are prepared to do or not do next May.
Let’s not forget, the country’s election system means that the Lib Dems could well receive well under 10% of the vote but win over 30 seats whilst UKIP could win up to 20% of the votes but win no seats, so there will already be many questions about whether the Lib Dems should be having another chance to govern – so the least they can do is make sure they are united and ready for it. Otherwise they should just do away with what seems to be the annoying word in their name for Nick Clegg and just call themselves the Liberal party instead.