The suggestion by Grantham and Stamford MP, Nick Boles, that for the next General Election it might be advantageous for Conservative and Lib Dem candidates to fight as coalition candidates has caused a predictable stir. Broadly speaking I agree with Nick; I find it difficult to see how we are going to convince the public that after working together for five years we then go our separate ways. It all hinges on what the public mood is as we approach the Election.
I am a committed Conservative; a member of the Party since 1974, a councillor for a quarter of a century, 15 years as a constituency agent and now the newly elected member for the constituency that bears the name of my home town – Cleethorpes.
After the awful Blair/Brown years I desperately wanted a Conservative government but it was evident during the campaign that though the country shared my wish to be rid of the Labour government it was hesitant about whether or not to commit fully to the Conservatives. Our first-past-the-post voting has a strange way of delivering what the voters actually want – in this case a Conservative-led government but in partnership with the Lib Dems. My experience talking to my constituents – as I was on a street stall last Saturday morning – confirms my belief that there is widespread support for the coalition and if we succeed in restoring the country’s finances, as I’m sure we will, then the country will want to re-elect the coalition.
One thing is certain – if the coalition were to break up before its term expires then the party responsible for the break will be punished by the voters.
One of the reasons that I have come to this conclusion is that in North East Lincolnshire – the unitary council on which I continue to serve until my term of office runs out next May – elected a Conservative/Lib Dem administration in 2003. This came about as a result of a deal between the two parties to carve up the wards so that we could remove a disastrous Labour administration that had run the Council’s finances into the ground. So bad was the situation that following the elections special support had to be given by the Government and we were swamped by government accountants and advisors trying to help sort out the mess.
In the 2003 all-out election the Labour Party went down from 22 seats to seven and a Conservative-led joint administration took control. I can’t be certain that what subsequently happened locally would be translated to the national scene; but I caution those who think that the public would be so gullible as to accept a situation come 2015 which – after a period of government which, even if only moderately successful – saw David Cameron describing Nick Clegg as a loyal and supportive Deputy Prime Minister at the same time as a Conservative candidate was trying hard to oust him from his seat in Sheffield Hallam.
Back to North East Lincolnshire Council: I joined the Council’s cabinet; all went well. There was one single overriding aim – to return the Council’s finances to a stable position (does this sound familiar?). We introduced drastic spending cuts. For the following two years (we now have annual elections) Conservatives and Lib Dems didn’t oppose each other. In 2006 we bowed to pressure from our most fervent supporters and decided to fight each other; tensions between the two groups heightened, and eventually, in 2009, we Conservatives decided to leave the coalition. This was a mistake; we mis-timed our exit.
The most noticeable feature of elections once hostilities resumed between the parties in 2007 was that the electorate said (and this was very evident on the doorsteps) ‘you’ve done a good job, so why are you fighting each other?’ They followed this through at the polling station by re-electing the incumbent irrespective of party. Both ourselves and the Lib Dems expected to win certain seats but failed to do so.
We cannot know what the mood of the country will be when we get into the last year of this parliament but if, as I suspect, the Government has restored the nation’s financial position, and delivered most, if not all, of the coalition programme then the electorate will say, just as they did in our corner of Lincolnshire, well done, we will re-elect our local coalition representative.
Matthew Parris, in his Times (£) column on September 18th, pointed out that, even if desirable, the parties, particularly at local level wouldn’t go along with it. What if candidates had been selected, etc etc? Well, it would be messy, there’s no getting away from that. As I mentioned earlier, it is our most fervent supporters who are most opposed, but it’s the wider electorate that matters.
A diktat from the Party hierarchy would be a disaster and kill the possibility stone dead. Centralising the party structure has led to much disillusionment at Association level. (I hope that the Localism agenda will include devolving power from CCHQ). What could and should happen is that where there is a sitting Coalition member the two parties should be encouraged to talk to each other at constituency level and consider whether or not it was sensible to look at the possibility of having a single candidate. If they were brave enough to go public and consult their electorate they might find it was widely welcomed – and that just might mean that David Cameron was in Number 10 for much longer and surely that is the prize we should all be working towards.