The last General Election gave us something we haven’t had since the end of World War II – a coalition government. And it looks like we may well get another one next time round.
This means that voters will have to take the political parties’ manifesto promises with a larger than usual pinch of salt. Not because they’re promising things they’ve no intention of delivering, but because they may have to barter away their promises in order to form a coalition government, a government of compromises.
So, when analysing the possible policies of a future government, we have to consider how coalition partners will affect policy – what will the hybrid policies be?
Many situations are fairly easy to predict. The Conservatives have promised an in/out referendum on EU membership if they win a majority and Cameron has said it will be a deal breaker in any coalition agreement. But the pro-European Liberal Democrats are extremely unlikely to enter a coalition if it meant an in/out referendum, they have said they would only have a referendum if there is a new treaty. So, no in/out referendum if we get another Con-Lib coalition. And certainly not if we get a Lab-Lib coalition.
Entering the realms of abstract fiction for a moment, if Ukip’s recent election successes translate into similar success in the General Election (highly unlikely given that people tend to vote differently in local, European and general elections – not that you’d know that from recent news coverage) and the Conservative vote holds up or increases (quite likely based on current polling trends) it would be conceivable that the Conservatives could seek to form a coalition with Ukip (conceivable, just about, but likely to cause uproar in the more moderate parts of the Conservative party). A Con-Ukip coalition would certainly seek a referendum (not that it would affect me personally; I would have fled the country well before the ink dried on that particular coalition agreement).
So, the position on the EU is easy to predict, fairly black and white. But some polices are more shades of grey (the colour, not the book). What would a coalition mean for taxation, for example? Well, we could probably rely on a Lab-Lib coalition to introduce a 50p rate of income tax. Labour has promised this already if they have a majority, and the Liberal Democrats are not exactly opposed to it – in 2013, Liberal Democrat delegates voted by a majority of just four (224-220) not to pledge to reintroduce the 50p rate. Another Con-Lib coalition would do no such thing, of course. Same goes for a Mansion Tax – highly likely under a Lab-Lib coalition, highly unlikely under another Con-Lib coalition.
As with last time, the formation of a coalition is likely to be determined by the Liberal Democrats picking a side. So what will they be demanding? Well, under the current coalition the Liberal Democrats have tried to put their stamp on certain policies – the Pupil Premium being their flagship education policy, for example – so they will be keen to ensure that any coalition maintains these policies. They also have a lot of work to do to win back some of their supporter base, many of whom felt that they sold out too much in order to join up with the Conservatives in the current coalition, which will mean they need to push for more concessions out of any coalition with the Conservatives. However, the Conservatives would face major opposition to this from their backbenches, who will not take kindly to Cameron yet again failing to gain a majority.
Many in the Conservative backbenches feel that the Conservative-led coalition was not sufficiently Conservative led, with too many Liberal Democrat policies making it through. They also feel that they were left out of the decisions about forming a coalition last time and so may well insist on a vote over any coalition agreements. Making a coalition with Labour by far the most promising route back to Government for Nick Clegg, but raising real questions about what Cameron will be forced to do if his party is once again the largest party in a no majority Parliament.