Coalitions versus “Majorities”

The first week of May always brings a succession of political anniversaries.  Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the 2005 general election,of  personal interest to me as my first successful attempt to get into Parliament.  The 1st of May was the anniversary of Tony Blair’s first landslide in 1997.  Today is the anniversary of the 2010 general election, leading to Britain’s first coalition government in living memory.

On Twitter and elsewhere in the media the Labour victories in 1997 and 2005 are described as leading to “majorities” in Parliament of 179 and 66.  O f course, in terms of how people voted they should have been nothing of the sort.  In 1997 Labour’s vote share was 43.2% , hardly meriting a landslide of seats.  A comparison between the 2005 and 2010 general elections is telling. The Conservatives obtained 36.1% of the vote in 2010 but fell short of a majority of seats. In 2005 Labour secured just 35.2% of  the vote but won 355 seats and a comfortable Commons majority.

But the purpose of this article is not to highlight the fraud on the electorate that is our First Past the Post voting system. Rather, it is argue that a Coalition government has more electoral legitimacy and based on the last four years, can be more radical than single party government.

It’s been put to me several times over the last four years that “nobody voted for the Coalition” or that “this government has no mandate for…” Yet it was fairly clear in 2010 that people wished to see Labour ejected from power. They had dropped from 43% to 29% public support over their thirteen years in power.  The parties that formed the Coalition Government between them commanded 59% of the vote.  So the current government had more support, at least at the outset, than any “majority” single party government since 1945.

The Coalition has also been a radical reforming government, rivalling the 1945 and 1979 governments of Attlee and Thatcher.  The Lib-Con Coalition has reformed the personal tax system, schools funding, energy policy and has even achieved some constitutional reform, though not enough to satisfy Liberal Democrats.  The current coalition will have a stronger legacy after five years than the last “majority” government after thirteen.

Let’s compare the records of the Cameron-Clegg and Blair-Brown governments.

First the political and economic backdrop.  Blair came to power in 1997 with an enormous Commons majority, a growing economy and a budget surplus.  A dream scenario for a progressive government, you might think.  The Coalition also has a Commons majority but has to negotiate each policy.  The economy was practically crippled, having collapsed by over 7% in 2008, the biggest contraction of any major country.  The government’s finances were also hobbled, with one pound in every four being spent coming from borrowing rather than taxes. The deficit was worth over 11% of the entire value of the economy. Any government’s nightmare scenario, you might think.

On personal taxation and the gap between rich and poor the Labour government has a dreadful record, if you are a progressive like me.  To help the low paid Chancellor Brown introduced a lower rate of income tax of 10% and then in his last Budget in 2007 abolished it, to finance a general cut in the basic rate of income tax.  He no doubt thought it would be popular ahead of an anticipated Autumn election, once he had succeeded Blair.  I still recall the cheers from Labour MPs.  Only the Liberal Democrats criticised it at the time, though some Labour MPs later spotted the what had happened.  Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, Brown’s closest colleagues, now admit it was a bad decision.  At the other end of the income scale Labour kept the top rate of tax at 40% for all bar the last month of their 13 years.  They also allowed the very wealthy to claim top rate tax relief on £255,000 each year for personal pension contributions.  They slashed capital gains tax from 40% to 18%.  Not very progressive…

The Coalition has implemented the biggest change in the income tax burden since Lawson in 1988, who slashed the top rate of tax.  But the Coalition’s increase in the personal allowance of tax free income from £6,500 to £10,000 will give each tax payer a £700 tax cut in this tax year.  This tax change disproportionally helps the low paid and part time workers.  Adults on the minimum wage have had their tax halved.  A young person has been lifted out of tax altogether. This policy of course, comes from the Lib Dem side of the coalition.  The top rate of tax was 50% for the first three years and will be 45% for the remainder of the five year term.  The amount of pension relief has been slashed from £255,000 to £40,000 and CGT has gone up to 28%.  There’s been a huge effort to combat tax avoidance, with the government leading the world in a concerted effort, as well as tightening rules at home. The most progressive tax regime ever, unless you believe in punitive 1970s higher rates of tax, in some gesture politics emotional spasm.

Allowing most people to keep more of their own money, while asking the richest to pay more is the most immediately apparent change the Coalition has introduced, despite the difficult economic backdrop.  But there have been other changes that may have a long enduring positive legacy.  The pupil premium gives schools extra money for each child on free school meals.  Children from poorer families do less well in school and the extra money will help bridge the attainment gap as much of it is spent on personalised support in literacy and numeracy. In my Bristol West constituency some schools have over half the pupils on FSM.  The premium has also been used to enable every child to learn a musical instrument of their choice and for everyone in class to go on school trips.  In a decade I think we could point to the pupil premium doing more for social mobility than any education policy since 1944.

The Coalition has also attempted tackling another long term challenge, man made climate change.  It has set up the world’s first Green Investment Bank.  It is diversifying the electricity supply away from fossil fuels, though wind farms are unpopular with the Conservatives.  The contribution of our homes to carbon emissions is being cut by tougher building regulations for new houses.  Legislation is in place to retro-fit existing houses to reduce energy demand, though the “green deal” is yet to take off.

And what of the economic and fiscal backdrop?  The last Labour government turned a budget surplus into a yawning deficit.  The economy grew and then tanked; Brown did not abolish “boom and bust”.  The Coalition has reduced the deficit from about 11% to 6%.  Despite predictions by Labour of a “double dip” recession and 3 million unemployed the economy has grown, at first falteringly (against a worsening Euro Zone situation) and now strongly, the best in the OECD. Unemployment has fallen for over a year, is now below 7% and in Bristol is below its rate in 2010.

In the 2010 general election both the Tories and Labour said that coalition would lead to weak government.  This government has been anything but weak or indecisive.  It has taken the tough measures to set the economy back on top stable growth and to rescue the public finances.  On tax, education and energy it has been radical.  I could make similar claims for welfare reform, especially in pensions, or in public health and mental health.  Even a fixed term parliament, a seemingly minor constitutional reform, gives any government the time and space to enact a programme and is unlikely to be repealed.

Coalitions have more electoral legitimacy than single party governments.  And thus far, in this novel for Britain experience of coalition government, they can be far more radical and progressive than Labour governing on its own.