Indeed, in this seemingly blissful, warm, honeymoon period ["...Clegg and Cameron, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-...."], there are reasons to suspect that the circumstances of our hung parliament forced the Tories into an accommodation with the third largest party that may well be a good thing for our democracy. The new Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, have been at pains to emphasise that they want to develop a "new politics" which will put party differences aside in the national interest. Intriguingly, this was never the language of Cameron during his election campaign - but was a frequent feature of Clegg's campaign speeches, including his interventions during the leaders' debates.
What seems to have happened, at some level, is that the public's largely assenting response to Clegg's condemnation of petty party political disputes and power plays, manifesting in the reality of a hung parliament, proved to everyone that the British public is generally fed-up. They want something new. They want our leaders to stop their petty squabbles, and to work together to deal with the mess we're in, instead of constantly pointing fingers about who threw the most garbage.
The new coalition government potentially opens up a new space for progressive political activism and lobbying. While there's no reason to get all utopian about this, we shouldn't automatically dismiss the positives that seem to be emerging. The new coalition has put together a pretty interesting set of policy proposals, and if they stick to even half of them, I'd say we're in for an interesting ride. The test will be in whether they do indeed stick to them - and for civil society to continue to exert pressure on government to make sure it remains consistent with its most progressive policy pledges, while reforming those policies of doubtful utility.
Let's look at some of the best pledges on the table (don't worry, we'll look at the crap stuff afterwards). These pledges, however, shouldn't just be taken at face value. Some of them are long-term, and the government will need public pressure to keep up the momentum in getting them done. Some of them are unspecified, and the government will need expert input and public pressure to compel them to be specific about targets and how to reach them. This means it will be our job over the next years to keep up the pressure to get government moving on these pledges:
Not addressing the deficit by simply increasing general taxes - yet. This is a good thing. In times of recession, increasing taxes on the public in generic fashion would strain households, debilitate consumption, and slow productivity exacerbating economic contraction.
Scuppered Labour's planned increase in payroll tax - linked to above.
Scrapped the Tory plan to raise the death tax threshold to 1 million pounds ($1.48 million) over the next parliament, instead adopting the Lib Dem plan to raise the personal tax allowance to 10,000 pounds. Caveat: it's not with immediate effect, but is long-term, with the new government pledging "steps each year towards this objective".
Substantial increase in the personal income tax allowance from April 2011 - benefits to focus on lower and middle classes.
Imposing a banking levy - the idea being curtail uncontrolled massive bonuses and make the industry more competitive. It's not clear, however, what exactly this levy will be, nor how far this levy will go - will it apply to all speculative financial transactions? We'll need to exert significant pressure here to make this an effective policy.
The government will explore the prospect of instituting a loan guarantee scheme and/or for net lending targets for nationalised banks.
No clear decision, but the government at least will establish an independent commission to investigate whether to separate retail banking from investment banking - an interim report is slated to be out in a year. Again, civil society pressure along with independent and critical expert input will be required to ensure that this commission is truly independent, and that meaningful action is taken swiftly - the longer we wait while unrestrained speculative activity dominates the banking system, the more our economy is at risk.
Introduction of five-year fixed-term parliaments - option of dissolution with at least 55 per cent of House votes.
Referendum on the alternative vote (AV) system. See this link
for a run-down of various systems. Of course, AV falls far short of what the Lib Dems were originally calling for - proportional representation (PR, or more technically, STV - or single transferable vote). I'm not entirely convinced that a major electoral reform such as PR is really a viable solution to our broken parliamentary system in any case, but it's worth noting that most theoretical criticisms of PR are very weak
. We do, of course, need to think about unintended consequences - with now over half a million votes (increasing by 1.83 per cent), would a system of PR have given the thugs
at the BNP some seats in the Commons?
A wholly or mainly elected House of Lords - probably with long single terms of office. Not clear where or how this is likely to go. It all sounds great in principal - but the reality is the Lords are not the real obstacle to democracy in this country. The fundamental obstacle is the indelible link between money and politics
in liberal capitalist democracies - a structural problem that needs to be brought urgently to the table to genuinely reform British politics. My other concern is that the due to the Whip system, MPs are pretty much forcibly cajoled into towing the state/party line on policy. The Lords, in contrast, are always not so easily subjected to such direct state manipulation, which is why they've often shot down the government's draconian anti-terror bills
An end to child detention in immigration centres.
Unfortunately nothing else to say here.
The "pupil premium", designed to raise school funding for poor children.
Introduction of a "Freedom" bill - not sure what this means, but it sounds intriguing and should trigger scope to explore how current legislation severely curtails rights and liberties, without really doing anything for our security.
Torpedoing Labour's pet-project of national identity cards, along with associated garbage like the national identity register and biometric passports.
Extension of Freedom of Information Act.
Review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
More regulation of use of CCTV.
This is all great, totally inconceivable under the previous government, and opens a space for civil society to call for a fundamental review of all the UK's anti-terror laws, as rightly demanded
by the parliamentary joint committee on human rights.
In theory - proposal for a large-scale long-term programme to develop a low-carbon infrastructure, with new investments in renewable energies, a green investment bank, and a smart electricity grid. Labour promised this, and even put forward a detailed if overtly conservative plan which they then proceeded to largely ignore - so we'll need to mobilise to ensure that the new government draws on the best expertise to design a meaningful plan to transfer as rapidly as possible to a zero-carbon economy.
Third runway at Heathrow airport scrapped, along with further runways at Gatwick and Stansted;
New plans for national high speed rail links. Wonderful, but only if the plans are fundamentally linked to 'greening' our national transport infrastructure.
I think it's fair to say that a lot of these policies, if implemented, could pave the way for very positive reforms. They're not enough, at the moment, to solve our problems. But they go well beyond what we've been used to. We'll need to work extremely hard to make sure that these aren't just forgotten in the heydey of day-to-day realpolitik.
Now I'm done gushing at all this wondrous stuff, you're probably wondering about all the crap stuff.
The crap is pretty obvious - foreign policy has not even made a dent in the coalition manifesto. We're still embedded in Afghanistan, and committed to accelerated defence spending in the context of the 'war on terror'. We're keeping and updating Trident, although we've been told that the government will at least try to ensure 'value for money'. We're full-set on course for massive budget cuts to address the deficit in short-term fashion, although, as I argued earlier, that's a serious error
derived from the conventional neoliberal economic model that got us into this mess in the first place, and will only deepen economic contraction. Plans for nuclear plants are to be put to parliament for ratification, when they really need to be jettisoned for being totally uneconomical, pointless from the perspective of EROI (energy-return-on investment), and fundamentally dangerous. There has been no discussion of intelligence reform, particularly on issues linked to 7/7, although the run-up to the inquest
in October is already bringing up hard questions about MI5's role. The scrutiny of the banks is also pretty weak - no recognition of the problem with the bank's quantitative modelling techniques which systematically certified junk financial products as 'safe'; nor of the structural problems in the monetary system which systematize debt. As are the proposals for 'cleaning up' politics - the financial power of vested interests over the party political system has been completely ignored in the coalition manifesto, which has focused instead on relatively pointless tinkering with 'reform' issues which are unlikely to empower people while disempowering the over-bearing influence of capital. And of course, despite the talk of moves to a low-carbon infrastructure - not the slightest word about the coming oil supply crunch, its root in the peak of world oil production, and the implications for urgent joined-up
So, all is not lost. In fact, there's much to be excited about, even as we ought to be thoroughly pragmatic about the reality of realpolitik and the dangers that even what's been pledged could well end up going down Whitehall's pan. The fight, therefore, is far from over. All areas of civil society, from environmentalists to civil liberties groups, from human rights campaigners to anti-war activists, from youth groups to social welfare and social justice NGOs, will need to carefully re-calibrate their strategies in order to target these issues in a holistic and joined-up way, to push government to do what it's promised to do in the best way possible, and to drag it out of the ongoing policies of destruction and self-destruction it continues to be institutionally embroiled in.
Here's to the "new politics" leading to an even "newer" politics, one that we can all buy into - not just the party-political coalition of the willing.