By Richard Lofthouse
Published just ahead of the 7 May general election, The Coalition Effect 2010-2015 is a 650-page door stopper featuring 22 chapters and an even greater cast of writers. It is a notable attempt to measure the performance of the first coalition government in Britain since the 1930s, and as such could conceivably influence how you decide to vote.
Strangely, I found one of its more compelling chapters to be the one about Labour. Pity Ed Miliband! My eye was immediately caught by a timeline that graphs the public view of how well an opposition leader has done. Unsurprisingly, Tony Blair (St John’s, 1972) did very well in the years 1994-7. Callaghan and Smith did surprisingly well, all things considered and perhaps because of their short tenures. Kinnock’s nine-year stint was a reasonable performance until the end, when he slid. But the two trajectories that simply plunge are Michael Foot (1980-83), who almost exits the graph itself, and Ed Miliband (2010-15).
At the end of 2014, Miliband was almost as low on the graph as Foot was in 1983, the data being drawn from IpsosMORI Political Monitor monthly polls of at least 1,000 British adults.
In a telling re-quote from Jonathan Freedland writing in the Guardian last September, Miliband is described as an excellent analyst but a poor leader:
‘Miliband doesn’t want to be Britain’s senior tutor but its Prime Minister. With just eight months to go, he doesn’t yet look the part.’
The ‘senior tutor’ reference is a jibe at Miliband’s Oxford background – he read PPE (Corpus, 1989).
The same chapter strays fleetingly into seeming partisanship when the authors describe last autumn’s briefly rumoured eviction of Miliband as ‘a typical Labour shambles’. I suppose this is where we can forgive this type of book its uncertain tense and occasional lapse into excitement. ‘Contemporary history’, after all, is the art of writing about the present in the past tense. It will take a bit longer to get further and deeper perspectives about this coalition.
The authors of the Labour chapter, Guy Lodge and Illias Thoms, do consider in their conclusion that Miliband might conceivably win the election, yet turn back to page 542 and ‘there were things that could have been done better. Basic errors were made.’ We have already been told that Miliband is no Lloyd George. The authors cannot convince themselves that Labour stands a chance in this election. One could definitely take that as some sort of electoral prediction.
Of course, if we return to the coalition itself, the headline summary of the editors is that it was understandably preoccupied with the economy and did a half-decent job amidst extreme global circumstances. Cameron and Clegg and Osborne restored economic growth (or, we could say that economic growth returned – given how much rested on global events), and conspicuously failed to eradicate the deficit, quietly replacing the pledge with a ‘long-term economic plan’ that would require, guess what, a second term of government to deliver.
This is where individual chapters become invaluable for restoring a sense of balance, and only then are we reminded to what extent politics is a series of short-term expedients to keep various dread decisions at bay. Dieter Helm’s piece on energy reveals a whole string of deep failures; Howard Glennerster’s analysis of NHS reforms suggests the same, depending of course partly on your point of view. The coalition played a good role in the Ebola crisis but failed completely at electoral reform.
Possibly the most depressing part of the book concerns the overall sense of Westminster flagging. MP expenses scandal aside, some of the coalition’s biggest aspirations withered away quickly. Remember the Big Society? Meanwhile, the biggest political fact of the whole Parliament was the rise of challenger groups — whether UKIP, the Greens or the Scottish nationalists. They did not arise because of any coalition effect, or the view that coalitions don’t work very well in the British system. They arose, says this analysis, because of a deeper sense of discontent with Westminster politicians for being ‘out of touch’.
If you take the brainiest ministers and the opposition leader, they were typically in for a rough ride in the period 2010-15, and often for the wrong reasons, or for reasons that were right but which showed the entire business of British politics to be at a low and lowering ebb.
Cameron, under the influence of a new strategist, Lynton Crosby, took no time at all in demoting or banishing anyone who registered the slightest discontent with the public. Former Education Minister Michael Gove (LMH, 1985) is the outstanding example, and the most obvious casualty of the 2014 reshuffle. ‘Gove achieved the unwanted double of being recognized and disliked by the public,’ notes Peter Preston citing the Times. He adds, ‘It wasn’t a matter of whether his reforms were good or bad.’ David Willetts (Christ Church, 1975), the former Minister for Universities and Science, got similarly treated, again one suspects because of his reputation for being formidably and luminously bright.
They come across from this account as too gifted and insightful to withstand the cruder energies now circulating in Westminster. You could add Miliband to their company, in the sense that he is obviously a very bright man given to razor-like insights that don’t always translate into being ‘liked’. But it’s difficult to generalize and there is a much deeper history of the British public distrusting intellectuals, and intellectuals making poor or uncharismatic leaders. The fact that they all studied at Oxford is mostly coincidental. So too did Osborne (Magdalen, 1990) and the Prime Minister (Brasenose, 1985), and the man waiting in the wings, Boris Johnson (Balliol, 1983).
The editors of this book and some of the contributors have Oxford connections of their own — Sir Anthony Seldon (Worcester, 1973) is a seasoned political writer and fellow of King’s College, London, and Dr Mike Finn (Exeter, 2007) was formerly a research fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, now at Liverpool Hope University. They should be congratulated for bringing to bear such a serious yet lively account at such a critical moment in British politics.
As they make plain enough, there was not as much ‘effect’ from the coalition as pundits may have craved. Once there was a firm agreement in place, hammered out in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election, it just chugged along and continues to chug along, with the media condemned to vilifying or ignoring Clegg as suited them. In that dull but real sense, the coalition was a success merely because it survived, albeit mobbed as time wore on by the UKIP element.
I wonder if the electorate will go for more of it in May, or whether we’ll return from an economic crisis to business as normal and an overall majority. Either way, from this account, the coalition effect was no revolution: it just found its place in the scheme of things and presided over a wider sense of political decline.
The Coalition Effect 2010-2015, edited by Anthony Seldon and Michael Finn is published by Cambridge University Press.
London graffiti photographed by Daniel Weir, via Flickr, reproduced under Creative Commons licence. Book cover © Cambridge University Press.