The first peacetime coalition since the 1930s is now coming to an end. Even as a Labour supporter, one has to concede that while it’s been far from perfect, this coalition has surpassed all expectations on all sides of the political divide, and for that, it must be lauded.
Nobody said it would work. When the result came in in the early hours of Friday 7 May 2010, there was a feeling of general panic. Britain’s majoritarian first past the post system had delivered that most feared and European of governments, a coalition. Even on that hazy day with Dave and Nick in the rose garden of Number 10, there was still talk of political deadlock at Westminster and market instability. Nobody thought that this coalition, between the most unlikely of bedfellows, would last more than 5 seconds, let alone 5 years.
But last it did, and while it would be foolhardy of me to say all was rosy, this coalition certainly surpassed all of our expectations. Whichever side of the political divide you may come from, one has to look at these things as impartially as possible, and recognise that perhaps coalition is not as bad as we once feared.
Take the economy for instance. When the coalition came to power in 2010, it’s fair to say that Britain was in the doldrums economically-speaking – whether this was the fault of Gordon Brown or not is beside the point – what matters is that this government inherited a £167bn deficit in 2010 and will have managed to cut it by a third to £90.2bn by the end of this fiscal year. Government spending fell from 45.7% of GDP in 2010 to 40.7% yet it is clear that our satisfaction with public services has in fact risen. People are happier with their schools, hospitals, policing, and services for the elderly. In January of this year, The Guardian reported that public satisfaction with the NHS reached its second highest ever level in 2014, and student satisfaction with courses is at a 10 year-high. Whether you agree with austerity or not, this is a remarkable achievement, one many of us thought impossible in 2010.
Cuts have hit the poor disproportionately hard, although that being said, this coalition’s deficit reduction has been much more compassionate than many might give them credit for. The government haven’t cut as fast as they said they would back in 2010, lower earners paid more income tax under Labour than they do now, while higher earners have borne the greatest burden of extra taxes. Meanwhile, the personal tax allowance has risen to from £6,475 to £10,600 (although in fairness, this is very much a Liberal Democrat measure) and full-time workers earning the minimum wage pay a third as much income tax as in 2010.
In 2014, Britain was the fastest growing economy in the G7 group of nations, with growth at 2.8%, and in total, the economy grew 7.8% between the second quarter of 2010 and the last quarter of 2014. The employment rate for the three months to December 2014 was 73.2%, the joint highest since comparable records began in 1971. For these, one has to give credit where it’s due.
Of course, we can’t pretend that all is perfect with regards to the economy. Our budget deficit (5% of GDP) is still the second-highest in the G7 and the current account deficit is too high at 5.5% of GDP. Living standards have suffered and adjusted for inflation, wages have fallen every year since 2009. In 2014, food banks were used 1 million times, and levels of homelessness have risen 26% since the coalition came to power; in London that figure is 75%. British productivity is woefully lousy. French workers, despite their feeble economy, are 27% more productive than their British counterparts when it comes to GDP per hour, despite working fewer hours. Britain is a fifth less productive per worker than the G7 average, 40% lower than the US and one of the least productive in Western Europe. That being said, the coalition has made some good progress with regards to the economy, and despite there being many problems yet to address, we must pay credit to what has been achieved so far.
But success isn’t and shouldn’t be measured by numbers alone; the coalition has achieved much in other areas. Education standards have been sliding for years now, and although politically-toxic and damaging for his career, Michael Gove’s reforms should be given credit for trying to inject rigour into England’s schools. Even though the pace of change was too fast and the reforms were poorly handled, making the Department for Education the bane of teachers everywhere, these reforms were well-intentioned and showed a refreshing desire to bring about real change, instead of just chucking money at the system. The introduction of academies too, has also helped reinvigorate a staid and lacklustre education system. Although heavily criticised, one cannot deny that while tuition fees have gone up to £9,000, record numbers of young people are going to university, including women and a 10% rise in those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This too, is an achievement.
David Cameron should also be proud of the gay marriage act in 2013. Whether you agree with gay marriage or not, David Cameron promised gay marriage, and was able to tame the backbenchers and push through such a measure, at the cost of deeply dividing his party and grassroots conservative supporters. He should be admired for having the courage and conviction to do so.
But now we must look ahead to Thursday’s election. Who to support? Who to entrust the next five years of Britain’s recovery to? After reading the above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I would say the Tories, or at least another Tory-Lib Dem coalition. You’d be wrong.
Despite what’s written above, I am no cheerleader for the Conservative Party (or even the Lib Dems for that matter); I never have been and I never will be. Being a Labour supporter does not mean I have to criticise and oppose every single thing this government has done; I should be allowed to recognise as objectively as possible, what has been achieved these past 5 years and I have done so. I recognise that this coalition has much to be proud of with regards to the economy, but equally, much to be ashamed of. And that’s why I’m hoping for a Labour government, or at least, a Labour-led coalition. The coalition has made some good progress, but it’s time for Labour to continue it.
Last week, The Financial Times criticised Ed Miliband, saying, “Mr Miliband is preoccupied with inequality.” Mr Miliband should be proud of such an accusation; wanting to deliver an economy where everyone reaps the rewards is by no means a bad thing, and I am extremely perturbed why the FT should think it so. Inequality is one of the three biggest dangers facing Britain at this election. The Scandinavian countries, those with the lowest levels of inequality, frequently top global lists of happiness, good health, low crime rates etc. Inequality poses a danger to our economic growth in that it seriously limits disposable income and hence, consumption. We need an economy where all have enough money to save, for security, and to spend – that’s what will lead to greater economic growth and yet more inequality reduction.
Mr Miliband promises deficit reduction, but at a more moderate pace which makes more sense than what the Tories’ ideologically-driven plans contain. Labour’s plans for wealth redistribution are moderate and won’t lead to an exodus of talent and entrepreneurs as Francois Hollande’s 75% top rate of income tax has done across the Channel; returning to the 50p tax rate and a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than £2m is perfectly reasonable. As The Economist correctly pointed out, “the annual mansion tax on a £3m London house would be only £3,000, a fraction of the levy on New York property.” The FT may chuck their label of being “preoccupied with inequality” at Mr Miliband’s feet as something to be ashamed of. Mr Miliband should pick that badge off the floor and wear it with pride.
I mentioned earlier three grave dangers facing Britain at this election, inequality being one of them. The second is the breakup of the union. The rise of the Scottish National Party north of the River Tweed causes many constitutional headaches, and it is looking increasingly likely that Labour will not be able to govern without the SNP. If as some polls predicted, the SNP gain all of Scotland’s 59 seats, the complications that that causes at Westminster are the least of my worries. The question now is not if Scotland will become an independent country, but when. If the SNP win Holyrood again in 2016 as they probably will, it is likely that they will push for another independence referendum, and the result would be very different. By this logic, I should switch my vote to the Conservatives to avoid the dreaded Labour-SNP “coalition of chaos.” However, that is not so. The Conservatives throughout this election campaign, have done nothing but to stoke the fires of separatist resentment, both north and south of the border. Oddly, Mr Cameron has not run a positive campaign, highlighting the aforementioned successes, but has waged a war of negativity and fear, stoking mutual hatred in England and Scotland, leading to the rise of English nationalism and the even uglier Scottish nationalism. Furthermore, I fear that a Tory-led government would push Scotland towards the exit. A Tory government would give Nicola Sturgeon the opportunity to exploit anti-Tory feeling in Scotland, and hence, make her offer of another independence referendum if her party wins Holyrood in 2016 more legitimate. Tempers north of the border are already frayed; another Cameron-led government may prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. That’s why I cannot support the Conservatives.
Finally, the third danger which faces this country on Thursday, and the deciding reason why I cannot possibly support Mr Cameron’s party, is Europe. Should the Conservatives win, Mr Cameron has promised an in-out referendum in 2017, and I fear this would lead to Britain heading for the exit. As this YouGov poll shows below, it is far too difficult to predict what the national mood will be like in 2017, and I, like many, suspect that Mr Cameron will fail in his attempts to renegotiate our relationship with Europe, especially with such stiff opposition from the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. A British exit from the EU would be a disaster for Britain and Europe, and for a party which likes to portray itself as the most economically responsible, it is an astonishingly foolish and short-term view. Mr Cameron is playing with fire and he will end up getting his hands burnt. It is for this reason too, that I believe that a Labour government would be the best for Britain.
The past 5 years have seen Britain in unfamiliar territory, politically and economically. For all of its flaws, this coalition has had its fair share of successes in steering Britain through these murky waters and has laid the groundwork for a strong, recovering economy. Labour is by no means perfect and of course there will be problems under Labour just as there would be under any other government. However, it’s time to say “thank you very much” for what this coalition has achieved, and try a new approach, building on what is already there. In my view, Labour’s plan is the best plan for Britain, one of responsibility, caution and fairness, and that’s why on May 8, I hope to wake up to a House of Commons painted red.