The 100 hundred days mark of the coalition government has been and gone and I realise that so far I haven’t written about the new government and my reaction to it. So this post is a brief summary of my thoughts so far.
The first thing to note is that, in governing terms, a hundred days isn’t all that long. It certainly isn’t long enough to make anything but a sketchy and very preliminary judgement on the coalition’s success. This is important because in this situation rushing to judgement is the last thing we should do. I said back at the end of June when writing about Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat local government conference that “the next few months should be about holding our nerve” and nothing that has happened since has changed my mind on that. Instead I am beginning to suspect that the months may turn into years of nerve holding.
However, without rushing to judgement, I have reached some initial conclusions about how things are shaping up. It is clear that the leadership of both political parties, Lib Dem and Conservative, are committed to making the coalition work and to it lasting the full five years. Away from their leaderships there are many in both parties who are nervous and uncertain, and others who have doubts about the direction the coalition is going in. But none of this is strong enough or widespread enough to amount to a level of discontent that would threaten the existence of the coalition. The idea that this coalition couldn’t work and that it would inevitably and quickly fall apart is proving to be nonsense.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the coalition will come under strain or that it lasting the full five years is guaranteed. It is possible that it could come of the rails. As I see it the biggest potential threat to the coalition would be if the referendum on AV is lost. But that aside, the chances of it lasting the full five years are very strong.
It is also clear that the new government is genuinely a coalition in the sense that it consists of two parties working together in partnership. Loose talk of the Liberal Democrats being poodles and meekly propping up a Tory government without anything to show for it is simply not born out by the facts. The coalition agreement itself clearly demonstrates that the Liberal Democrats are having an impact on the government’s agenda and we have seen examples of where this has continued in the weeks since the agreement was signed. How much influence the Lib Dems have and whether it is being used in the right directions is a separate debate, but anyone seeking to deny that that influence is there is simply being foolish.
I have also come to the conclusion that the coalition is not only working well enough to stay in existence but that it is also providing “good” government. By this I mean that many of bad practices of the New Labour years of “sofa government” have been banished. We are seeing proper cabinet government and a greater openness. The very fact that two parties have to discuss and have a say on major decisions is in itself leading to better decision making. I also detect that a greater and healthier role for parliament is beginning to emerge. It is early days and the picture is mixed. I am seeing infantile populism and rushed and ill thought out initiatives from some Tory ministers. But overall the trend seems to be positive. We will see if it continues.
So the coalition government is working, in some ways working well, and Liberal Democrats are influential within it. In the performance of Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister and the other Liberal Democrats who hold ministerial office I can see nothing to complain about. So, at the moment and aside from particular policy concerns, I am not losing any sleep over the Liberal Democrats role as part of the coalition. What is keeping me awake at night is the performance of the Liberal Democrats as a political party, but that is another argument for a separate article.
So I am content with the coalition so far. But that does not make me, yet, an enthusiastic and unconditional supporter. At this point I start to think about my list of specific policy concerns. There isn’t space here to go into each of them in detail but I will try to give a flavour of my thinking.
The biggest issue is, I suppose for everyone, the budget, deficit reduction and the economic situation. For me this is the area where holding your nerve becomes most important. While the debate around the “fairness” of George Osborne’s emergency budget has been pretty intense, and to my mind somewhat inconclusive, I am deliberately refusing to rush to judgement on the economic policies of the coalition.
I do have concerns. These are that the cuts are handled properly, made in the appropriate places and don’t do unnecessary damage to public services. That infrastructure investment, particularly green infrastructure investment, is maintained. I believe the danger of a “double dip” recession is real and that steps should be taken to avoid this. Finally, from the perspective of social justice, I want to be sure that the coalition’s economic policies are not only genuinely fair, but are seen to be fair. In particular, I don’t think the government has so far been tough enough on the banks.
However, and I may say more about this elsewhere, we are not yet at a stage where we can make a judgement about whether the new government is getting it right on the economy or not. There are many key decisions yet to come, so for the moment, I think it is wise to wait a while to see how things are worked through.
Outside of economic matters there is mixed picture. On foreign affairs I have seen nothing to object to. On the civil liberties agenda there has been much that is positive. I am not as worried about the moves made in education as some seem to be although I have some questions. I am more concerned about health, mostly because I question whether further big bang organisational reform is what is required at the moment. Something more organic would seem to be a better way to go. My two biggest concerns are firstly a fear that the political reform agenda will turn out to be too timid and secondly that an opportunity to pursue a really positive and radical reform agenda in local government is about to be missed.
To some the above may seem overly negative. Alternatively, I am sure others would describe me as an apologist for those who have “betrayed” the party and its voters. What I am trying to do, as a Liberal Democrat and supporter of the coalition, is to be open about my concerns and fears in the expectation that many of them will be answered, over time, in a positive way. In short, early days as it is, I believe the Liberal Democrats were right to enter the coalition and I was right to back that decision. What the coalition has to do now is deliver. So the argument is no longer whether the coalition in itself is right, it is now whether or not it can govern in the best interests of the country.