Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, announced to his party’s conference in Glasgow, that to remain in power he is ready to change coalition partners as often as voters change their government. The party, he says, has proved its fitness for continued office by the part played in ‘fixing’ the economy. Besides, being in coalition allows it to temper the policies of the main party of government, whichever that may be. The mission he mapped out was of a future in which his party would be in perpetual coalition in order to prevent the party with the most seats from acting as it promised voters. For Mr Clegg this is the ‘centre ground’ and a truly liberal mission.
While true that no single party won enough seats to form a majority government in 2010, Mr Clegg may be whistling in the dark about coalitions being here to stay. The evidence is that a majority of British voters do not like them, and the recent AV referendum which rejected a system of alternative voting (and the coalitions to which it might lead), suggested the electorate was unlikely to change its mind: voters want to know for whom or for what they are voting – just as they want to put a party out when the time comes.
That voters expect the party in power to honour its commitments, lies at the heart of democratic accountability. People’s votes translate into MPs to whom the government of the day must answer in Parliament and whose collective support it must command in the House of Commons. However, this simple balance of power between the people, their parliament and the government of the day is undermined when a minority party enjoys an effective veto over the majority party’s honouring its commitments to voters and country.
But the problem with Mr Clegg’s revelation about a promiscuous attitude to political partnering goes deeper: it corroborates a commonly held view that politicians are ‘in it for themselves’, that they are not to be trusted and that they are ready to trade belief, ideals and promises for a seat at the top table.
Indeed, in the example notable for the reticence with which it is now treated, that of the Liberal Democrat broken promise on tuition fees, there was good reason for the party to have held firm, in order that a proper settlement for Britain’s universities could be reached by discussions with the institutions themselves. Not only had their Conservative partner made no manifesto commitment, other than ‘consider’ the review on finances commissioned by the outgoing government, but it had also pledged to protect the freedom to pursue academic excellence.
People expect politicians, when returned to power, to do what they have pledged. Manifesto promises matter.