Considering the controversies over the spending cuts, tax rises, the NHS reforms and that the only repository for protest votes against the Con/Lib Dem coalition is Labour, this result is extraordinary and must be very disappointing for Labour. The coalition parties amassed 54% of the votes verses Labour's 37%. It's unsurprising that Lib Dems support dropped significantly from its impressive 2007 level. It is surprising the Tories actually did better than their 2007 result and their 2010. The Lib Dems were always going to have to face up to losing their soft support from the anti-establishment left. Their moderate left of centre support will also be flakey until they are convinced that the path the coalition is taking is correct. That will only happen once the path has been trodden and the results are tangible.
However, if the coalition is to deliver, all parties need to be working together constructively, supportively and with a shared vision of what is to be achieved and how. As I suggested in a previous post, the Lib Dems need to spend less time trying to win back the niche anti-establishment leftists that have abandoned them and try to build support back up from the true centre of British politics (that's a bit more to the right of a significant number of Lib Dem frontbenchers like Cable and Hughes). The aftermath of Thursday's election results has led to a lot of noise from the left of the Lib Dem party suggesting that they need to become more obstructive and demand more policies that would appeal to the supporters they've lost since allying themselves with the Tories. While there is sound logic in Lib Dems maintaining their identity apart from the Tories, I suspect much of this talk exposes good old fashioned anti-Tory feelings that have been painfully suppressed by their originators since the coalition was formed. And it's dangerous talk.
Tony Blair came to power intending to achieve radical reforms that would improve health, education and social cohesion. He failed miserably. Any improvements to public services were achieved through enormous increases in spending with little or no reform whatsoever. The result was ever diminishing returns on the investments. Productivity fell as budgets expanded seemingly inexorably. What improvements there were often proved to be illusory as real world experiences of public services were ignored in favour of managerial performance statistics that just ticked the right boxes for the politicians who started setting priorities instead of, for example, medical, educational or policing professionals. We were told that our young people had never been better educated, but employers were coming across increasing numbers of innumerate and even illiterate school leavers. We were told that our health service was the best in the world thanks to the enormous increases in spending there (it now costs over £100 billion a year). But cases of patients dying of malnutrition in hospital beds increasingly appeared in the media, complaints about uncaring and incompetent treatment increased and health outcomes lagged behind countries who's health services really did provide best in class care.
If there is one lesson this government must learn from the previous administrations it is that reform is the only route to genuine and long lasting improvement. What stopped Blair from achieving his goals? The answer is Brown. More accurately, it was the competing agendas of two camps in the Labour party, the Brownite left and the more reform friendly Blairite modernisers. Brown crippled Blairs reforms and eventually undid many of them. He was all for spending tax payers money but he didn't want to alienate the left of the Labour party by reforming services run and staffed by predominately natural Labour supporters in the public sector; staff who paid their dues to Unions who funded the activities of the Labour party. Indeed Brown thought that by massively increasing the number of people employed by the public sector (incredibly, and disastrously for our economy, to over 50% of the entire country's workforce) that Labour's future would be secured as "turkeys don't vote for Christmas" i.e. they're not likely to vote for the Tories as they believe they will reduce their numbers. In the end many did vote for Christmas and we are about to eat a lot of turkey. But I digress. The point is that, reform is vital, especially in health and education. And now we are finally starting to pay for Labour's largesse there won't be great wads of cash raining down to paper over the cracks that will inevitably appear if cuts are delivered without reform.
The reason the language emanating from the likes of Cable and Hughes is so dangerous is that, if it is listened to and acted upon, the Lib Dems will become the Brownites of the coalition. Hell bent on obstructing reform in order to focus on a subset of their support base that exists (actually existed would be more apt) out on the left wing. Believing, wrongly in my view, that a) they will ever come back and b) that they need them to survive as a real force in British politics. Ed Miliband's Labour is their natural home. Many politically aware leftists who may have once supported the Lib Dems will harbour a deep sense of betrayal as their world view leads them to believe most people agree with them deep down, that there is a "progressive" majority in Britain that's main aim should be to keep the Tories out. We heard Huhne, Mandelson and others describe this view during the AV referendum campaign. These people will not return to voting Lib Dem. Certainly not by the next election anyway.
This politicised view of the people of Britain is wrong. There is no progressive majority who would keep the Tories out for ever if only the Labour and Liberal Democrats got together. It's no coincidence that it was when Yes to AV campaigners started more explicitly describing AV as a way of "stopping the Tories" that their support started to plummet. It was a mistake, not least because AV wouldn't have "stopped the Tories". In fact what voters want to see is a government working with purpose, unity and competence to achieve real improvements, such as fixing the nations finances while improving services. They understand doing both is not easy but expect results none the less.
Those results won't come if Brownite style obstructiveness rears its one eyed grumpy head again within government in the form of Lib Dem attempts to win favour with voters who will never consider them again after they dared to stand with the great Tory Satan. Instead a better option would be to work constructively and supportively in government to deliver real and effective reform that will enable savings to be made in order to address the budget deficit, while entrenching long term improvements to services and avoid or mitigate the cuts short term affects. This will involved challenging policies as they are developed but doesn't include the public wholesale blocking of reform in order to be seen to be an opposition in government. Because if they do that, it won't be long before that's where they'll return, permanently.
If they stick together and make this coalition work, both parties can emerge at the next election and claim their fair share of the successes. Looking back from 2015, Labour will look as irrelevant as they really are in modern Britain. If things go very well there may even be an opportunity to replace Labour as one of the big two.
Monday, May 9, 2011
PoliticalBetting.com highlights analysis of the parties national share of the vote during Thursday's elections by Rallings & Thrasher. It confirms that the Tories actually had a (slightly) higher vote share than Labour. Given recent opinion polls that regularly gave Labour 6 to 10 point leads, the Tories have got to be pleased with that.