I was surprised to hear David Cameron admit on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show (BBC TV) that “no-one gave us a mandate on how to run a coalition”. How true, how very, very, true.
No one party won the 2010 General Election. As a result, two parties, quite legitimately, decided to form a coalition government. Nothing wrong with that, in principle. But the coalition has decided to go much further on both deficit reduction and public sector reform than either of them promised during the election. Instead of 2+2=3 (a compromise government) we seem to have ended up with 2+2=5 (a more radical government than either promised).
Now there is nothing wrong, in democratic terms, with this coalition agreeing a more radical path. They have an argument (not one I agree with, but it is legitimate) that at least the deficit reduction part of what they are doing was necessary. There is however little or no justification for arguing they have a mandate for their public services reforms. Hardly any of them were put to the voters, especially not the NHS reforms or tuition fees.
It is quite clear that at least the Conservative part of the coalition are embarked on a radical reform of the British state. They want to not only permanently downsize it, but also to fundamentally change it in what they call a “post bureaucratic” direction. That is a perfectly legitimate aim – but one for which they have no mandate.
The coalition government seems to suffer from an interesting form of hubris – they think that simply because they are a coalition of two parties they represent “the national interest”. If they have agreed something, it must be somehow “right”. This is of course nonsense. Internal “real politic” between the coalition partners does not necessarily equate to what the nation wants, or supports. The coalition parties – especially the Liberal Democrats – are going to find that out in forthcoming elections.
Nor does the fact that the Tories and Lib Dems have agreed between themselves that this will be a a five year parliament in any way ensure it will be. Much of the media have been dazzled by the parliamentary arithmetic into believing this is a fact. Hang together, or they will hang separately, as some commentators have put it. But this ignores the realities of political pressures and “events”.
Margaret Thatcher had a sound parliamentary majority and a stunning record of success, as did Tony Blair, but it didn’t help either of them survive. And neither of them were trying to hold it all together in anything like the pressure cooker of massive cuts and radical change that this coalition is attempting. It may not be easy to see how it will all come apart, but the chances it will are better than the chances it won’t.
Which brings me to 2012 (or maybe 2013). By the the worst of the financial, fiscal and economic crisis will be over. People will be asking, is this (cuts and change) the direction we want to be going? They will be saying, we didn’t vote for a coalition that has strayed so far from anything they put to us at the election of 2010. And it is quite likely they will be saying, we want a vote.
They may choose to endorse the direction of the coalition, or something else. But my guess is that people will not be willing to wait until 2015 to have a say.
The pressure points between the tectonic plates of politics are fairly obvious – the majority of voters in the UK are generally social democratic, in its broadest sense, and not liberal democratic (which appears to be the programme of this government), and they will soon realise this government is taking them somewhere they didn’t vote for in 2010.
Rather like earthquakes, it is hard to predict where they will burst out – but under the sort of pressures this government is creating, they will. I was wrong in saying prisons would be the first place where riots would happen – but only by a few weeks.
The Conservative right is getting increasingly unhappy with the coalition. So are the Liberal Democrats grass roots. Both are starting to think about the post-coalition future and when the next Election will be – and how to divorce. Ironically, it is only the Labour opposition that is sanguine about the coalition running the full five years. They may be in for a rude shock – turn up the heat on pressure cookers enough and…….
A sensible opposition – parties and others – would not be threatening strikes but starting a campaign to say simply – get a mandate. You – the coalition – do not have one for what you are doing. By 2012 we’ll be out of the ‘danger zone’ (if we were ever in it) – so seek a mandate. Ask the people what they want – confront them with a clear choice. You support “recall” for individual MPs, how about applying it to yourselves? Or has the hubris of power convinced you that simply because you agree amongst yourselves that is “the national interest”?