Akash Paun began by explaining the key findings from his recent IFG report, ‘A game of two halves: How coalition governments renew in mid-term and last the full term’, which identified two main challenges at the halfway point of coalitions.
First, the initial coalition agreement can be overly binding and act as a constraint on innovation. To tackle this, he argued, an honest and open assessment of what has worked and what hasn’t is needed. This may not necessarily require a new coalition agreement, but government should at least publicly reaffirm its top priorities.
Second, natural electoral cycles mean that as we approach 2015, both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives will feel more pressure to distinguish themselves. Paun cited examples from Germany and Scotland where smaller coalition partners have been able to increase or maintain their support by securing popular and high profile policy wins while sticking closely to their larger partners’ policies on other large and often painful policies. This approach allows smaller parties to secure a strong identity while also gaining a reputation for governing competence.
Tim Farron argued that pulling out of the coalition would represent the worst of both worlds: the Liberal Democrats would lose governing competence as well as many of its natural supporters. Moreover, the Liberal Democrats must last the distance to show that coalition government and a pluralist approach to politics can work for Britain. Indeed, there was broad agreement across the panel that the coalition must last until 2015. He also suggested that a formal ‘Coalition 2.0’ would not be sensible, but agreed that it would be worth taking a stock check of progress on the government’s reform programme. He also warned of being overly concerned with the agreement, as most of government’s work requires reacting to events as they happen.
The Lib Dem president argued that the Lib Dems must stay in the centre, moderate yet radical. He believes that that David Cameron’s green husky project has failed because the right of his party is still angry that they did not win the election outright. Despite this, he stated he was comfortable in coalition with the Tories because, as an obvious marriage of convenience (rather than the potential Ashdown-Blair ideological union), the coalition protects the party’s identity.
CentreForum research associate Steven Tall echoed Farron’s thoughts on the dissatisfaction of the Tory right and put this down to a lack of internal democracy. Whereas the Lib Dems voted on the coalition agreement and have a mandate, the Tories never consulted their members which has led to distrust. Tall argued that in spite of disaffected backbenchers, the two parties can work together for clear policy wins including cleaning up politics and banking.
Jeremy Browne described himself as unashamedly ‘Proalition’, which he sees as good for Britain and good for Lib Dems. The country benefits from strong government; Browne recounted a conversation with John Major in which the former Prime Minister opined that the current government is stronger than the Conservative government over which he presided. Coalition is also good for the Lib Dems, Browne argued, because it is the first time in his life that Lib Dems have been able to implement their policies. Rather than being commentators, the party is now a participant, and rather than being protesters, it now wields power.