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05 May 2011

What next for the coalition government?

This article is published in accordance with the Alliance's Basis of Faith; however, this is a comment piece and therefore is unable to reflect every detail and nuance of belief held by Alliance members. Comment pieces may express views on which there is a divergence of opinion or understanding among evangelicals

After the chaos and confusion of the referendum campaign to change the voting system, the final result was a bit of a let down. Not only did it come a whole day after the polls had closed, but the size of its rejection, by 68 percent of voters, meant the final declaration was only a formality.   

For many years a key feature of Liberal Democrat election manifestos was to change the way we vote for our MPs, and it was the lynch-pin in the coalition negotiations that followed the 2010 general election.  David Cameron made a big offer on the morning after the indecisive election result and risked the anger of his own backbenchers by proposing a referendum on switching from the current system to the Alternative Vote. 

For the first year of the life of the coalition there was one major thing that both parties agreed on and one thing that they had agreed to disagree on.  Plans to tackle the economic situation and reduce the deficit featured strongly in the early months with an emergency budget and spending review that reduced the amount most government departments had to spend.  The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were clear on their joint ownership of this project but equally clear that they sat on different sides of the debate over electoral reform.  The Conservatives backed the current system and would campaign for it to remain and the Liberal Democrats would throw all their resources behind the 'Yes' campaign. 

Even before the results had been counted, it had become obvious that Nick Clegg's gamble had failed. As the referendum date neared opinion polls showed shrinking support for change.  Coupled with significant losses on local councils up and down the country and further failure in Scotland and Wales, the final result which showed 69 per cent support for retaining our current system capped a difficult day for the Liberal Democrats.  The scale of the defeat, or victory depending on your perspective, and the fact it came in only the second nationwide referendum, has likely shut the door to electoral reform for the coming generation.   

With the Conservative vote remaining steady from last year's general election, and a small increase in the number of Conservative councillors, it was the Liberal Democrats who took most of the criticism for the government's actions.  This is perhaps unsurprising as those who voted Conservative last year did so in the understanding that they would embark on a programme of reducing spending and the inevitable cut backs this would entail.  Whereas those who voted Liberal Democrat may feel frustrated that aside from the chance to change the voting system the coalition government had not upheld their pledge on tuition fees, and they are likely to be less comfortable with the spending reductions implemented. 

So the result of the referendum means the Liberal Democrat dream of electoral reform has faded from sight, and this in turn may cause questions as to why they are in this coalition.  Yet the coalition is likely to remain secure. This is partly because the coalition's economic plans remain in their early stages and there are many other aspects of the coalition agreement that they will want to see fully implemented.  However, it is also about political strategy.  If the Liberal Democrats walk out of the coalition in the near future they will have turned their back on their first chance in almost a century to be a part of the government.  Not only would they not have the opportunity to redeem their reputation in the eyes of the public, but it would also damage their prospects for future coalition negotiations with either the Conservatives or the Labour Party. If the Liberal Democrats were to withdraw from the coalition in the near future it may well trigger a general election, and with the current level of support for the party this is not a prospect Nick Clegg would likely welcome. 

Having got through this first year, with the solidarity on the economy and the disagreement on voting reform, other policy debates will likely take place with these two pillars as the extremes of cooperation and conflict.  There will likely be other disagreements, namely over reforms to the NHS and changes to the House of Lords, but these will probably not reach the intense hostility that has been seen in the closing days of the referendum campaign.   

On the question of further constitutional reform it will be harder for the Liberal Democrats to argue for change in the light of this week's results.  Had the Yes campaign lost by a narrow margin pressure might more easily mount to compensate by accepting an elected House of Lords.  Yet with the final tally so comprehensive, despite on a turnout of only 42 per cent, that is now less likely.  It will also be relegated below discussions about the future place of Scotland in the United Kingdom now the Scottish Nationalist Party has a majority at Holyrood.  

There will certainly be an increasingly vocal group among Liberal Democrat and Conservative backbenchers when one side is seen to do better than the other, and it remains possible that one of the Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers resigns out of protest and gives stronger leadership to this dissent.  But an aspect of disagreement within government might be a refreshing change. 

Too often politics is presented by party lines, with spokespeople reading from a script and rigidly sticking to the lines that are given them. Maybe a coalition with differences at its heart will enable a more open process that recognises the complexities of policy making. Maybe a leadership that is committed to a bigger goal can provide space for disagreement and flexibility. Maybe the government can work for the good of the country, and put their disputes and factional agendas aside to serve the people who placed them in authority.