What struck me most about Clegg’s apology last week is that he did not apologise for breaking the tuition fee pledge. instead he apologised for having made a pledge in the first place. He should not have done so, he said, because the Lib Dems had identified no means of paying for free university tuition, and – this is the interesting part – since the Lib Dems can only come to power as part of a coalition, they would never be able to guarantee that their policies could happen.
This latter point raises many issues about the role of smaller parties in the Westminster political environment. We have two big parties, similar to many other countries, which means that all the other parties will only govern in coalition – also similar to many other countries. But what’s different here is that we’re unused to the idea of coalition and don’t seem to like it very much. The Lib Dems are regarded by many as a sell-out party, allowing Conservatives to implement policies they disagreed with in their quest for power. But surely any small party that forms a coalition could be accused of the same thing? Compromise and trade-off is essential to a coalition agreement, so you would have to wave through policies you don’t agree with at some point or other, in order to get your own on the agenda.
What do Green Party supporters who criticise the Lib Dems see as their own future? They are not keen on messy compromises, it seems to me. Does that mean that they are resigned never to form part of a national government? Maybe so. I asked Caroline Lucas that question recently and an genuinely interested in what the response will be.
Many people approve of the Green Party because they feel it means a wider range of political viewpoints and different ideas being put forward, which is surely a positive thing. Occasionally when we have challenged the role of the Greens, we have been accused of wanting to restrict politics to the big players and elbow everyone else out. I don’t feel that way about it. I think that most political challenges deserve more than two responses, and I remember the 1980?s as being a time when politics in the UK was unhealthily polarised between the two parties. But I do have to wonder, if you have no intention of trying to govern, what is the point of developing a political manifesto and spending so much time campaigning at all?
I don’t really have any answers to this. Although I don’t like the coalition government we have, I’d like us to be able to do coalitions in some form. But with the decisive referendum vote against AV and the current fate of the Lib Dems, we seem a very long way from being able to countenance coalition. And in that context, I think it’s right to question the contribution of smaller parties, particularly when they campaign so hard against parties with which they have so much in common.
Tracey Hill is a Member of Brighton, Hove and District Labour Party.You can follow her on Twitter @TraceyMHill. This blog post origianlly appeared in Tracey’s own blog, http://redreflections.wordpress.com