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Coalitions versus “Majorities”

May 6, 2014

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.




19 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2014 2:28 am

    “The economy was practically crippled, having collapsed by over 7% in 2008, the biggest contraction of any major country.”

    It occurs to me that it is a nonsense to measure GDP in terms of a depreciating currency. If British GDP was measured in eg Euros (and a moving average), it would be a better measure, showing the economy actually collapsed around 15%.

  2. paul vickers permalink
    May 7, 2014 7:25 am

    The relevant figure is not national GDP, but ‘GDP per capita’: if the population rises by 10% and GDP by a similar amount, no-one is, on average, any better off, whilst the increased demand for schools, hospitals, and roads, means everyone feels WORSE off.

    Then there’s debt – government, corporate, personal. The net worth of an average citizen has to deduct any increase here from any changes in GDP – after/ all, increased government debt means higher taxes for decades to come – merely to pay the interest.

    Taken together, the average UK citizen is around 24% worse off today than they were in 1997, will be over 30% worse off by 2020 (when the deficit might, just might be zero) and will be well over 50% worse off by the time the ‘due around 2020’ recession is over.

    Housing bubbles cannot conceal reality: the State is too big, too inefficient and successive governments have used increases in Welfare spending to bribe voters, rather than spending our taxes on improved infrastructure.

    Time for a sea-change in British (Western?) politics, with the long, long over-due recognition that Marx/socialism is as doomed as Canute was, when compared to the irresistible force that’s Darwinism.

    ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ is far from a pretty sight, but it certain achieves economic growth and national prosperity.

    As China is demonstrating.

    • May 9, 2014 1:30 am

      Thanks for your reply, Paui.

      “The relevant figure is not national GDP, but ‘GDP per capita’: if the population rises by 10% and GDP by a similar amount, no-one is, on average, any better off, whilst the increased demand for schools, hospitals, and roads, means everyone feels WORSE off.
      Then there’s debt – government, corporate, personal. The net worth of an average citizen has to deduct any increase here from any changes in GDP – after/ all, increased government debt means higher taxes for decades to come – merely to pay the interest.”

      I agree. So there are at least 3 significant ways in which GDP is a misleading indicator of economic growth:
      1. Trends in currency devaluation/appreciation.
      2. Population increases.
      3. Net debt of govt and private entities.

      Although probably the least significant over the last 6 years, growth per capita is at least reliably measurable and should be the one reported/tracked.

      “Taken together, the average UK citizen is around 24% worse off today than they were in 1997, will be over 30% worse off by 2020”

      This sounds implausible. Can you show your working, please?

      “(when the deficit might, just might be zero)”

      Fat chance. Chance of a debt spiral is probably 20% though.

      “Housing bubbles cannot conceal reality: the State is too big, too inefficient and successive governments have used increases in Welfare spending to bribe voters, rather than spending our taxes on improved infrastructure.”

      Some truth to this. A small, temporary diversion from eg housing benefit into fixing up some of the worst estates would have more of an effect on the worst cases of poverty in this country. But it would hurt child (relative) poverty so they won’t do it.
      On the other hand, it may be that Working Tax Credits boost GDP through encouraging employment.

  3. KEVIN YORKE permalink
    May 7, 2014 8:25 am

    You can believe all of the above but the fact remains that this Coalition Government has failed and has failed miserably. I told you in 2010 just after you formed the Coalition with the Tories that this would be the end of the Lib Dems as an electoral force and the amount of stick I got for expressing my views from the sycophants that follow both you and the Lib Dems was disgusting.

    I stated back then that the Lib Dems had done fantastically well in getting their share of the M.P.’s increased and Nick Clegg was riding on a crest of a wave and this time the Lib Dems had become an electoral force in British Politics.
    However all that went to Rat Shit once you got into bed with the Tories and any public support you had almost evaporated overnight. And the reason why I stated that back then was because although the Tories won the bigger share of the vote they still didn’t have enough seats to form a majority. So the logical thing to do from the Lib Dems view point bearing in mind the increase support you had from the election was to let the Tories govern with a minority Government and it can be summarized that within two years that Government would have collapsed and another General Election would have been called.

    The public would still not have trusted Labour again and the Tories would have been out on their ears so to speak, leaving the way for the Lib Dems to further increase their share of the vote and consequently the number of seats in Parliament. Not enough to form a Government granted but it would have given them greater leverage in forming a more cohesive and inclusive Coalition with Labour.

    But Cleggy Boy wanted power at all costs and couldn’t wait to play King Maker with the Tories and was prepared to ditch virtually every single principle into touch to get that power.
    Now you have a discredited Government despite the spin you put on it. The Lib Dems a laughing stock around the country, despised by the majority of Tories in Parliament and despised by the voting British Public.

    If you seriously think that the Lib Dems will maintain or increase their vote in the next election then Stephen I’m afraid your seriously deluded mate which is a shame really as Bristol has got a really good M.P. who cares passionately about his constituents but alas people are fickle and I’m afraid that the Lib Dems as a Political Force will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

    All you had to do was wait two years and the Lib Dems would be in Government with Labour, stronger as a party, stronger as a Government and stronger in respect with the majority of the British People. Think on.

    • May 9, 2014 1:39 am

      If the LibDems had bottled it, they would forever be known as bottlers instead of what their reputation is now.

      There have been many benefits to LibDems in govt including the £10k personal allowance.

      It was also necessary for the LibDems to go into coalition to try and get rid of FPTP, the issue that guarantees Labour and the Tories power with ensuing arrogance and corruption. As such I believe that it is the most important issue. That they failed miserably is not something that could have been seen in advance.

      Whether the LibDems survive is up to the LibDems. Will they accept the loss of 20-35 seats as the cost of power or will they give up? I suspect that around 2019 and four years into an unaccountable govt, people will be missing the LibDems.

  4. Jen permalink
    May 8, 2014 12:00 pm

    Kevin – “I stated back then that the Lib Dems had done fantastically well in getting their share of the M.P.’s increased” – 57/650 is a decrease from 62. That and the laughable idea that the Tories would not have got a majority in October 2010 is perhaps why people disregarded the rest of your analysis?

    Moving to the original blog post – of course the Co-Operative Party’s MPs were what gave Labour its majority in 2005. They seem to have got far fewer co-operative values into legislation for their efforts than the Liberals have got liberal measures out of being in government this parliament.

  5. KEVIN YORKE permalink
    May 8, 2014 1:13 pm

    Thanks for the comment and reply Jen, really appreciate that, however I’m at a loss to understand exactly what you’re saying? Granted that the Lib Dems lost 5 seats from the 2005 election. My mistake and for that I apologise for not researching before I posted, however I am sure that their share of the vote went up in comparison to the 2005 to the 2010 election.
    Are you saying that the Tories would have won the 2010 election with a majority? Well the facts speak for themselves, they didn’t.
    And as for Co-operative values in legislation and Co-operative Party M.P.’s means absolutely nothing to me and it is not something I hear daily in the workplace or the pubs.
    The point I was making and of course I will be damned for saying it but no one likes to hear the truth…..The Lib Dems as an electoral force will all but be destroyed at the next election and for that you can thank Cleggy Boy for jumping into bed with the Tories and ditching his principles. Whether you agree or not, that is what is going to happen and your leader like I said in my earlier post has consigned your party to the dustbin of history.

  6. May 8, 2014 9:58 pm

    Kevin, we could indeed have stood aside in May 2010 and allowed the Tories to govern on their own. But that would have been a very bad government, damaging to the country, with far deeper budget cuts. We can debate whether it would have been to my party’s tactical advantage to have facilitated a Tory minority govt but I didn’t go into politics to play some game of political tactics. I’m in it to improve the life chances of people from poorer backgrounds, to green our energy and to anchor us in Europe. So yes, I wanted the Liberal Democrats to take the chance of putting some of our policies into practice at the earliest opportunity. I make no apology whatsoever for that desire and I think Britain will be a better place in 2015 because the Lib Dems were in government.

    • KEVIN YORKE permalink
      May 12, 2014 7:49 am

      You can’t cherry pick the policies that you think are good for the country Stephen without accepting responsibility for the policies damaging Britain. Good or Bad, you and the Lib Dems will be judged at the next election and like I said and in which you disagree, Cleggy Boy HAS PLAYED POLITICAL TACTICS, how else has he got in power!!!. Two years, that’s all you had to wait, two years. Now you would be in Government with Labour, stronger as a party and stronger in credibility with the British Electorate.

  7. May 9, 2014 11:33 pm

    In 12 months time you will realise that the country does not agree that Britain is a better place for having some Lib-Dems in a Tory government.
    Two things are a certainty: the Libs will be severely punished and will be lucky to have more than 15 MP’s and secondly, you will be looking for a new leader.

    • KEVIN YORKE permalink
      May 10, 2014 9:03 pm

      All is well David thanks to the policies of this great Coalition!!!!

  8. KEVIN YORKE permalink
    May 10, 2014 9:01 pm

    Didn’t the Lib Dems criticize the Tories prior to the 2010 Election and warned that they would put up VAT and that they were opposed to it? Did you stand on that promise not to raise VAT Stephen? Furthermore do you now agree that the Tories were right to raise VAT to their current levels and did you support it once you got into power in 2010? Also didn’t the Lib Dems and your leader (that total non entity Clegg) vow to cut the hated Tuition Fees if they got into power and now you and your party support their current raised levels?
    Whether you like or not mate, these promises you made prior to the election in which the Lib Dems made are remembered by the electorate and for your party then I’m afraid it’s curtains drawn in 2015. Politics is about conviction mate and not discarding those principles once you get into power.
    You will do well to remember that but alas power at all costs is going to be your parties downfall.

    • May 10, 2014 10:05 pm

      Can’t speak for Stephen, but VAT is a tax on consumption, and hence a lot better than income tax. Raising the threshold on income tax massively exceeds the VAT rise for working poor. This is in spite of having to cut public spending due to Labour wrecking the economy.

      LibDems still support reduction/abolition of tuition fees.

  9. KEVIN YORKE permalink
    May 10, 2014 10:10 pm

    Waronfreedom……what complete and utter nonsense.

    • May 10, 2014 10:41 pm

      You do realise that if you can’t produce a counterargument, you’re probably wrong.

  10. May 10, 2014 10:17 pm

    @Waronfreedom – “LibDems still support reduction/abolition of tuition fees.” – LOL, of course you do. You’ve conned the country once before. It won’t happen again.

    • May 10, 2014 10:46 pm


      What’s this “you”, business? I’m not a LibDem.

      Sadly, representative democracies encourage candidates to over-promise in order to get elected. They’ve all done it.

      • KEVIN YORKE permalink
        May 12, 2014 7:05 am

        David has raised a fair and valid point mate and is entitled to his opinion and I for one totally agree with him.

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