The Habit of Coalition

Rainbow Over WestminsterI’ve been reliably informed that around about the time of Gordon Brown’s departure from Downing Street, a rainbow briefly appeared in the skies above Westminster. I haven’t seen a photograph or a video clip of the phenomenon, yet I believe it. Whether one has faith in a diety or not, it doesn’t stretch matters too far to suggest that there is a natural order which works towards achieving an equilibrium: a hint from circumstance or the weather is perhaps a perceptible outcome of this cosmic balancing act. The car crash which occurred at the launch of the last round of Labour posters could have been one such demonstration, the heavens providing an outburst of colour at the end of an era may have been another.

At my university, the shift in the natural order has led to a widespread sense of relief. With the departure of Peter Mandelson, the higher education sector feels, albeit temporarily, that the grip around its neck has slackened. The Prince of Darkness has been replaced by Uncle Vince; yes, the future remains uncertain, but at least the deeply offensive Labour manifesto, which labelled universities a “global export business”, is now consigned to the recycle bin. We will still have to contend with budget cuts, and Lord Browne’s report on the future of Higher Education looms omniously in the near distance. However, at least there is the comfort that our agenda will no longer be dictated by what the super-rich friends of Mandelson require, no doubt requested at cocktail parties held aboard giant yachts cruising beneath the warm Mediterranean sun.

There are other benefits. While I dislike this particular political configuration, I see this an opportunity to pick up wholesome political habits. The terms “Liberal Democrat” and “Conservative” do not raise a smile from me (to say nothing of the sickeningly saccharine talk of a “bromance” between Cameron and Clegg): the word “Coalition” does.

Coalition! The word in this case is neither a noun covering up a series of shenanigans, nor a historical term which indicates a necessity born of crisis: it looks like both parties mean it. Upon reading the news this morning, I discovered that Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Central, has been appointed as an education minister, and Steve Webb, a man of the Liberal Democrat left, was given a post in the Department of Work and Pensions. Neither could be said to be particularly friendly to the Conservatives, and yet they have been granted offices of state: these are just two examples. The cabinet has weaknesses to be sure: there are so few women, the Conservatives still retain the most influential posts, Theresa May is a homophobe and frankly not up to the job of Home Secretary, but overall it is remarkable. That old mongrel known as British politics has performed a new trick: it fetched pluralism out of an inconclusive result. As a consequence, we have joined most of the rest of the world and found out why they do things the way they do. Historically, we have had a peculiar vanity about handing all power to a single party, as if absolutism somehow makes our system healthier and stronger. Coalition, if it is enshrined in repeated practice, will upend this strange logic which is alien to so many of our European partners.

Good habits are beginning to jell already: the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have not only shared ministerial posts, more importantly, they have agreed a common programme. They’ve even created a means for solving inter-party disputes, namely a committee which will meet in secret: while I understand the libertarian impulse for these discussions to be held openly, a modicum of privacy is perhaps the price of pluralism. Furthermore, constitutional reforms appear to be on the way which may make coalitions happen more frequently: the alternative vote system for the Commons, an elected House of Lords based on proportional representation, are proposals which bode well for all those who believe that politics should not be about one voice being raised above all others, but rather the coming together of different views into a salubrious synthesis. In this model, partisan rancour is not ended, but stilled in the national interest. Discussion and genuine debate predominate over spin. Ideas separate themselves out from marketing.

The benefits of coalition, however, should not be read as an endorsement of this Government: while the form is to be lauded, the substance is another matter entirely. It is a shame, however, that Labour apparently doesn’t understand what’s happening. Last night, David Miliband began his tour of “lost” constituencies by stating that Labour aspired to be the voice of the centre and centre-left, as if all faction could somehow be best subsumed within his party’s confines. He’s lost the plot and missed the point: as a nation, we have more choices and voices to represent us than ever before. The system should reflect this and the outcomes of that system should be equal to what an increasingly diverse society demands and requires. Any potential Labour leader should be wholeheartedly embracing this paradigmatic change for a future coalition with much improved content is possible. In my mind’s eye, I can easily see a smiling Caroline Lucas walking down Downing Street, holding an overstuffed folder and pausing only briefly to wave towards the cameras as she proceeds to take up a post as Deputy Prime Minister serving alongside (for the sake of argument) Prime Minister Cruddas. Adrian Ramsay could be a minister for Climate Change, Darren Johnson could take up the portfolio at Transport. No doubt Greens and Labour would argue, they would debate, they would compromise, and in the end they would represent a majority, and we would move on. Miliband’s mildly pathetic statements, and the utterances of other Labour figures suggest that all they want to do is to rewind back to 1997 and do it as quickly as they can. I suggest that is not going to be possible. I also believe that Labour will continue to falter so long as they hang on to this outdated dream. If they continue to cling to it to the point of absurdity, they may find that their self description as “New Labour” will be seen as ever more ironic; in which case, they will be a national joke. But perhaps the natural order demands they spend a period in purgatory: according to Biblical legend, God condemned the Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf to wander in the wilderness until the generation that done wickedness in His eyes were consumed. Who can say how long the Labour Party, which fell to its knees before the gilded altar of Mammon, is likely to wander in the wilderness of its own making. No doubt it will end, but perhaps the outmoded members of “New Labour” generation will need to be consumed. If so, we will be the better for it.

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