How to defeat the Coalition

There is enough energy in the public's opposition to the cuts and the marketisation of public services to frustrate and split the UK's Coalition government. But this will need a forensic approach.

The hundreds of thousands of people who marched through London on Saturday were a powerful testimony to the strength of opposition to the coalition government's cuts agenda. Afterwards, the differences between those involved in parliamentary politics and those involved in direct action could lead both groups to think  'these are the times that try men's souls.' Such tensions are inevitable. The important lesson I think should be drawn is that this must not distract from the pressure on the coalition.

In a useful analysis of the social make-up of the march, the BBC's Paul Mason suggested that many of the marchers will have been former Liberal Democrat supporters. If so it bodes well for Labour's hopes of monopolising the progressive vote in England at the next election.

Yet a strategy based on that prospect risks betraying the passion and urgency of last weekend's demonstrations. Worse, it passively concedes the cohesion of the coalition rather than attempting to undermine it. But only a strategy of dividing the coalition partners offers the hope of successfully resisting the cuts agenda (reversing it is rather more difficult and distant).

The size and energy of the march suggests that there is a much larger public that wants to see the defeat of the coalition's economic strategy. But a defeat of the Coalition requires a forensic analysis that identifies the different elements in its make-up and a nuanced approach to dealing with each of them.

The coalition is the product of two main factors. The first was the raw parliamentary arithmetic that made some form of government primarily dependent on Conservative and Lib Dem votes inevitable. The second, was the balance of forces within each of the partners, which made it possible for a radical government with an ambitious agenda to emerge from such apparently weak foundations, and impose itself as if it was not a coalition, as Eunice Goes argues.

It is well-known that a key aspect of this was the rise of the free market Orange Book tendency within the Liberal Democrats. According to James Crabtree, the Orange Book originated in a meeting of its two co-editors at the Lib Dem conference in 2003:

David Laws, who had in 2001 replaced Paddy Ashdown as MP for Yeovil, met party donor Paul Marshall for a quiet drink. Laws was a former banker who had made enough money to retire at 28, going on to work (unpaid) in the party’s policy team in the mid-1990s. Marshall’s career had been almost the reverse: once a parliamentary researcher to Charles Kennedy, he went on to run a hedge fund and become a key Lib Dem financier. Neither man saw themselves as hostile to the party’s social-liberal traditions, but were seen to be from its market-friendly centre-right—and both were worried about the direction the party had taken under Kennedy.

Marshall is also the chairman of ARK Schools, an education charity which is among the largest sponsors of academy schools, and he has been a key influence in laying the foundations for the coalition's education policy.

In 2005, Marshall bankrolled the launch of a new thinktank CentreForum, which sought to create a Cameronite/Blairite/Orange Booker consensus for the marketisation of education. In 2009, CentreForum produced a report arguing that Michael Gove was not going far enough. A Very Conservative Revolution called on the then opposition Conservative spokesman to introduce "'big bang' liberalisation", allowing private providers to make a profit out of operating state schools, and lifting the cap on university fees.

This agenda would prove to be a better guide to Liberal Democrat policies in government than the plan to abolish tuition fees that Lib Dem members voted for.

For the Orange Bookers, as with their Cameronian counterparts, the coalition provided the opportunity to carry out their plans despite a relatively poor electoral performance. That weak legitimacy has induced urgency rather than caution.

Talks on an agenda for the second phase of the coalition began last autumn between senior Tories and Lib Dems at CentreForum. Progressives need their own plan to ensure that second phase never happens. Any such strategy must embrace a number of key principles.

Progressives should:

1. Fragment the Coalition, not reinforce it

A centripetal strategy, which seeks to tie the Lib Dems more tightly to the Tories risks doing the coalition whips' jobs for them, perhaps even making a second term viable.

Weakening the coalition requires a centrifugal approach that drives its constituent elements apart. Once the need for such a strategy is understood, as it was implicitly in the run-up to the tuition fees vote, a variety of tactics, from conventional parliamentary lobbying to direct action, can contribute to the overall goal.

2. Understand the internal politics of the Lib Dems

The 2010 election handed Lib Dems a key strategic position in the current parliament. Yet beyond the opprobrium deservedly heaped on Nick Clegg, they still haven't received the attention that position deserves.

Treating the Lib Dems as a monolith risks alienating potential allies while allowing those most responsible for the coalition to escape the scrutiny they deserve.

3. Organise across party lines

Compass has been roundly criticised for opening up its membership to non-Labour members. Yet its genuine record of dialogue with the Lib Dems means it is in as unique position to engage those progressive voices who are actually best-placed to affect the coalition's agenda. That said, it must be at least as robust in approach to the Orange Bookers as it has been towards the right of the Labour Party. 

4. Engage with Social Liberals

The rise of the Orange Bookers has not gone without a response from within the Lib Dems, in the shape of the emergence of the Social Liberal Forum. That response may strike many in Labour as ineffectual, but it helped to make tuition fees a costly victory for the Government, and more recently has been crucial in thebattle against Andrew Lansley's plans for the marketisation of the NHS. 

The chair of the Social Liberal Forum David Hall-Matthews recently called for the Lib Dems to engage Ed Miliband:

Instead of tarring all Labour politicians with the same brush, Mr Clegg should be welcoming the changes that Miliband is attempting to make, and highlighting how he faces internal opposition. That would do two things: remind voters that the Liberal Democrats are still a liberal party, not merely an adjunct of the Conservatives, and expose Labour’s contradictions.

Given the weak position of social liberals within the coalition, Labour can justifiably regard this analysis as an inversion of the truth. Nevertheless, Social Liberal overtures should be responded to. To his credit, it's clear that Ed Miliband understands this.

The fact remains however, that the social liberals have yet to demonstrate they are a coherent enough force to have a real impact on the coalition's direction. If the Tories are allowed to impose corporate oligopoly markets on Britain's public services with Orange Booker support, the social liberals may find that their party's shift to the right is irrevocable.

5. Oppose the Orange Bookers

It is nevertheless clear that some Liberal Democrats are ideologically committed to the coalition's agenda. Despite their influential position, the Orange Bookers have important weaknesses. They are drawn from a remarkably narrow social spectrum, and the real circumstances of their rise without trace bear little relation to the new politics rhetoric that Clegg employed during the 2010 election. It is questionable whether Vince Cable, elevated to a virtual co-leadership position during that campaign, enjoys as much influence over the coalition's direction as an un-elected party donor like Paul Marshall. 

6. Strengthen the Lib Dems against the Tories

On many of the issues that Labour voters care most about, the Lib Dems have signed up to a market fundamentalist agenda with striking alacrity. Yet in some key areas, notably civil liberties and the rights of minorities, the Liberal Democrats, social liberal and Orange Bookers alike, remain a genuinely progressive voice. Where its a straight fight between Clegg and Cameron, progressives need Clegg to win.

7. Divide Cameronians and Tory traditionalists

Lib Dem 'wins' within the coalition will magnify the divisions within the Conservative Party. Cameron has made a virtue out of necessity, presenting the coalition as an opportunity to detoxify the Tory brand rather than an expedient that was forced upon him. Yet many of those tagged 'mainstream Conservatives' by Tim Montgomerie, resent the implementation of Lib Dem policies and regard them as the price of Cameron's electoral failure.

Attacks from the Tory right have proven particularly troublesome for the coalition. The Telegraph, still stirring the pot this weekend, forced the key resignation of David Laws in May last year.

On occasion some Tories have even made common cause with progressives, as a handful did over tuition fees.

8. Isolate the core of the coalition

At the core of the coalition is a small group around the party leaderships, who have more in common with each other than with their own activists and still less in common with the public who will feel the impact of their cuts.

The make-up of this group can be gauged from the membership of the Coalition 2.0 talks at CentreForum as reported by the Mail, the Guardian and ConservativeHome. There was not a single woman among the named participants, and the only non-white male was a Conservative, the Bromsgrove MP, Sajid Javid. 

There was a clear effort to achieve buy-in from the Conservative right, with the inclusion of Tim Montgomerie and Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson. By contrast there was no similar attempt to reach out to social liberals. The Lib Dem representation of David Laws, Chris Huhne, Paul Marshall, Julian Astle and Tim Leunig was a roll call of Orange Bookers, with the only conceivable exception being the equivocating Huhne.

This a narrow and unrepresentative group whose commitment to 'big-bang' marketisation predates the financial crisis. If anything it represents an attempt to reassert the market fundamentalism which brought that crisis about.

9. Build an alternative coalition

If Lib Dems see their long-term future in an alliance with the Conservatives, the coalition's majority in the current parliament will be secure. However, the more Lib Dems look to an alternative alliance with Labour, the harder the job of the coalition whips will be.

Given the experiences of 1997 and 2010, both Labour and the Lib Dems know that there can be no guarantees and the parliamentary arithmetic will dictate all. Yet laying the groundwork for a new coalition is crucial for progressives in both parties.

For Labour it offers the surest way to weaken David Cameron. To the Lib Dems it offers the chance to avoid long-term co-optation by the Tories and ensure their future as an independent force.

10. Win the Alternative Vote referendum

A Yes vote in the alternative vote referendum would fulfil many of these strategic principles. It requires a progressive alliance between Labour and the Lib Dems that could foreshadow a future Miliband government. It would also weaken the Prime Minister and anger the Tory right in ways that could shorten the life of the current government.

About the author

Tom Griffin is a Ph.D researcher at the University of Bath and a freelance writer. He is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.