Sunday, 16 May 2010

The UK's Coalition Government

There has been much ink spilt since the inconclusive result of the recent UK general election and the country is now returning, after a season of high political fever, back to a more gentle normality. However, given my previous posting, just prior to the election, presenting the contest in certain philosophical terms, it is worth adding a brief comment on the outcome.

Certainly, when I wrote my previous posting, I did not anticipate the outcome that has emerged. Like many senior members of the Liberal Democrats I anticipated, in line with the opinion polls, that they could overtake the Labour Party as the main opposition. The actual outcome of the election did not produce such a result. Instead, despite improving the percentage of their vote and increasing their total overall vote, they in fact lost ground in terms of representation in Parliament. The Labour vote did, however, collapse to an historic low producing an arithmetical outcome which did not follow expected political logic.

Given this situation the improbable became the inevitable and the Liberal Democrats are now in coalition with the Conservatives. It is not possible to comment in great detail on this given that the negotiation agreement issued does not cover the full range of policy and is particularly quiet on foreign policy. However, the relationship of this agreement, such as has been made public, to my earlier argument for a "progressive" politics is what I wish to review. In the earlier posting I pointed out many failures of the last Labour government and, given its lamentable record on civil liberties, there are good reasons for being pleased it has passed into history.

I used a guideline of social justice to assess what is "progressive" and on some of these measures the agreement, as published, does not meet these. So, for example, in regard to higher education, the best policy commitment of the Liberal Democrats was for the scrapping of tuition fees and a commitment to free education. This has been dropped with the adoption of the policy, highlighted by both the Conservative and Labour parties prior to the election, of listening to the outcome of a review into student finance. Since it is common knowledge that this review will lead to increase of fees this is a poor outcome masked only by the fact that Liberal Democrats will be allowed to abstain in a vote on the review should they find it unacceptable. Generally that is round one to a reactionary position.

A second point on which I laid stress was rebalancing of the economy away from such a large reliance on finance. In relation to this the agreement speaks of fostering of diversity in the banking sector and promotion of mutuals, both good ideas. Similarly the need for further regulation of the system is explicitly recognised though the details of this are again left to a review. More importantly, the commitment to ensuring credit to small and medium size businesses including consideration of a major loan guarantee and use of net landing targets for the nationalised banks are very good gains. There is still some question about detail of the latter so this second part could be said to be a qualified progressive victory.

Commitment to political reform was the next point I raised. Some unexpected features have emerged here with fixed parliaments being agreed for the first time, something which involves a major shift of power away from the executive. There is further to be a referendum bill on electoral reform in order to ensure a referendum can be held on changes to the voting system. Although the change will not be to a fully proportional system if agreed it still will mark an improvement on the present system. Further proposals are included for a "wholly or mainly elected upper chamber" on the basis of proportional representation. This is a major gain and, along with the commitment to fixed parliaments and the referendum on voting reform marks a progressive agenda for constitutional change.

The most major area of progressive improvement, however, is in relation to civil liberties. After years of intrusion by the Labour government there is to be a freedom bill that will repeal  the ID card scheme, the national identity register, and the outlawing of finger-printing at school without parental permission. The Freedom of Information Act will be extended, trial by jury is guaranteed, restoration of rights to non-violent protest, review of libel law, regulation of CCTV and the ending of the storage of internet and email records. This is a major achievement and marks a decisive progressive step forward.

On balance, then, the issues specifically identified in my previous posting have been addressed and given this the government does qualify for the title of "progressive", certainly by contrast to the Labour Party. This does not, however, mean that its rule will be uniformly pleasant given the cuts in public services it will most certainly introduce and, given that all parties had poor policies on higher education, we can expect a particularly difficult time in higher education. Foreign policy is also an area on which little has been said but in which it cannot be anticipated that there will be much that will involve ideals of internationalism. The result then should be one of guarded and mitigated welcome for this coalition but welcome it should still be.

Finally, looking back at my previous postings on the manifestoes of the political parties, I can point to the fact that in the posting on the manifesto of the Liberal Democrats, I drew out there that the logic of their claim that there needed to be a Council of Financial Stability, led to the notion of a National Government, precisely what has now been formed. Interestingly, in hindsight, this also chimed with the Conservative view, as expressed in their manifesto, of the need for a Office for Budget Responsibility, which has been now established but whose functions are similar to those of the Liberal notion of the Council of Financial Stability.

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