The Liberal Democrats have long been one of the most interesting political forces in the United Kingdom, providing a forward-looking alternative to the traditional two-party system with intriguing policy proposals over the years such as free dental and eye checks for all adults and the proposal for free higher education. The 2010 general election was a breakthrough for the Lib Dems, with the party entering national government for the first time in its history as a result of a hung parliament.
It seemed at the time to be, and still does today, an unlikely marriage: the Conservative Party forming a government with the Liberal Democrats, a social liberal party, under the leadership of Nick Clegg, who now serves as Deputy Prime Minister. After four years in office, I feel that it is worth asking this question: how successful have the Liberal Democrats been in putting their ideals into practice?
During its time in government with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have presided over the implementation of controversial policies such as a tripling of student fees and cuts in welfare benefits; bitter pills to swallow for a party that championed the abolition of tuition fees and the replacement of various benefits with a guaranteed “Citizen’s Income” during its long years in opposition. Nevertheless, in observing the record of the Liberal Democrats in government, I have found that the Lib Dems can point to policies such as an extension in the coverage of free school meals, the restoration of the link between pensions and earnings, and a big expansion in the number of apprenticeships as evidence that their time in office has enabled them to implement a number of positive reforms. The free school meals policy will help save money for squeezed households, while the change to the pension indexation formula will help to improve the incomes of pensioners in the long term. These measures, however, are arguably overshadowed by the numerous cuts that the government have introduced, or are planning to introduce in the near future which are expected to increase the number of people in Britain living in poverty over the remainder of this decade, according to predictions by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
The debacle over Lords reform, with David Cameron having promised Nick Clegg as part of the Coalition agreement that reform of the House of Lords would take place - and then abandoning this promise, could have been a wakeup call to the Lib Dem ministers to encourage their Coalition colleagues to implement social liberal policies reflecting the ideals and aspirations of party members, such as recent Lib Dem proposals for extended free childcare provision and expanded housing construction, in return for their support. Lib Dem ministers could also exert pressure on the Treasury to clamp down on tax havens (with an estimated 21 trillion American dollars stashed away) and reverse the decision to reduce the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% at a time of austerity and reduced real incomes, which to me puts the lie to David Cameron’s oft-quoted and dubious assertion that “we are all in this together.”
The policies of austerity that the Liberal Democrats have had to stomach in contradiction of their social liberal principles also demonstrate the difficulties of making compromises when in coalition with another party of a differing ideology. It also makes me wonder if it may have been better to have held a repeat election rather than for the Lib Dems to enter into an administration dominated by the Conservatives, given the dramatic fall in the party’s standing in opinion polls since 2010.
Taking all this into account, should one dismiss the Lib Dems as a relevant force in British politics? Based on my findings, the answer to this question is no. Although opinion polls have shown support for the Lib Dems to be far below the 23% it won in the 2010 election (with many actually putting the party in fourth place), it’s current poll ratings of between 5%-10% suggest that the Lib Dems could still garner enough public support and win enough seats to once again hold the balance of power. With Labour holding a slight lead, I am convinced that there is the possibility of the Lib Dems supporting a minority Labour government after May next year. However, it is also possible that the Coalition could continue in its current form, albeit with greater concessions won by the Lib Dems and the implementation of a more progressive programme for government. I believe that the enactment of such a policy agenda would not only benefit the Liberal Democrats in demonstrating their progressive credentials, but in bringing about a greater degree of social and economic justice, would be for the betterment of the British people as a whole.
By Vittorio Trevitt