In the title of its May 2010 General Election manifesto, the Conservative Party extended an Invitation to Join The Government of Britain. In the event, when only 36.1% of voters accepted that invitation, it was the 57 Liberal Democrat MPs who joined forces with the Conservatives in coalition to, in David Cameron’s words, “form a new kind of government for Britain”.
In a recent interview on the BBC Daily Politics, Liberal Democrat schools minister David Laws claimed: “If you look at our what was in our manifesto last time, I think that we’ve probably delivered more of our manifesto in this government than even the Conservative party.”
However, the coalition has not governed on the basis of a conflation of the two manifestos, but on the foundation of its 2010 Programme for Government.
In their foreword to that programme, David Cameron and Nick Clegg claimed boldly that: “this coalition has the potential for era-changing, convention-challenging, radical reform.” They claimed to have found “a combination of our parties' best ideas and attitudes has produced a programme for government that is more radical and comprehensive than our individual manifestos.”
In short, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition would be greater than the sum of its parts, an ideological coalition of the willing, not a political marriage of convenience.
Who got what
Befitting its status as the senior coalition partner, contributing 306 of the coalition’s original 363 MPs, and both the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer, the Conservative Party provided the the primary inspiration for the programme for government that ensued from the negotiations between the two parties.
With its mantra, “We’re all in this together”, the Conservative manifesto had promised a “plan for economic recovery and growth”, “a strong society”, and “radical political reform”. It also set out eight “benchmarks for Britain”, against which the people of Britain could judge “the economic success or failure of the next government”.
But the coalition’s programme had also drawn substantially on the Liberal Democrat Manifesto’s “four steps to a fairer Britain”. These had been “fair taxes that put money back in your pocket”; “a fair chance for every child”; “a fair future creating jobs by making Britain greener”; and “a fair deal by cleaning up politics”.
Upon the basis of the coalition’s record in office, the Liberal Democrats can legitimately claim to have delivered – at least in part – on the first three steps.
On fair taxes, the income tax threshold has been raised to £10,600, but, at £42,385, the threshold for 40% taxpayers is now £10,380 below where it would have been had it kept pace with inflation, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. VAT has also been increased from 17.5% to 20%. This does not necessarily seem fair, when the top rate of tax on incomes exceeding £150,000 has been cut from 50% to 45%.
A fair chance for every child is being delivered in England through the pupil premium policy which now gives schools extra money for children eligible for free schools meals, but class sizes have not been cut. Neither have the banks been broken up to ensure “a fair future”.
Another failure for the Liberal Democrats has been in relation to their pledge to deliver “a fair deal by cleaning up politics”, following the 67.9% vote against the introduction of the alternative vote system in the May 2011 referendum and the absence of the promised elected House of Lords.
However, it was the Liberal Democrats' failure to honour the manifesto pledge for England to “Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each” which has proven to be the single most damaging consequence of coalition.
The manifesto claimed “the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times”. In government, with the publication of the October 2010 spending review, the Liberal Democrats discovered their overriding commitment to fiscal austerity meant this change was deemed unaffordable. Although 21 Liberal Democrats voted against the increase, and a further eight abstained or did not vote, 27 MPs, including Clegg, voted for the increase. It was not until September 2012 that Clegg formally apologised in a party political broadcast.
Neither party has delivered
The Conservatives have also failed in their central economic policy objectives. These were “eliminating the bulk of the structural deficit”, creating “a more balanced economy”, and ensuring “the whole country shares in rising prosperity”.
The structural deficit has not been eliminated, and reducing it remains a key part of the Conservatives' 2015 campaign. There has no been no re-balancing in terms of the balance of payments, nor a re-balance between London and the south east. And the IFS points to a slow recovery in household incomes and that the poor have fared worse.
That failure is probably the principal reason why the electorate has remained as reluctant, as it was in May 2010, to vote for the Conservative Party in sufficient numbers for it to secure an overall majority at Westminster.
With a coalition on the cards again for the next government, a capacity to compromise on, and in some cases jettison, manifesto and election pledges will play an important role in any negotiations.
The fact that all the major political parties have already made extensive and frequently conflicting promises on public spending, taxes and benefits means that such negotiations are likely to be more complex and take much longer than the 22 days of May 2010.
What’s clear is that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition failed to deliver “era-changing, convention-challenging, radical reform."