Analysis: Lib-Con document

Agreement on economic issues made the coalition possible
Agreement on economic issues made the coalition possible

What does the Lib-Con policy document contain, and what does it say about the state of the parties?

By Ian Dunt

Today we were presented with one of the most radical and exciting set of proposals put before the British electorate since 1997 at the earliest. The Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition policy agreement is essentially a new manifesto, but one that is qualitatively different to any other in living memory. It contains, quite plainly, the policies of two parties, but policies that have been put together in a rather exquisite manner.

Areas where agreement exists have seen thorough and radical proposals built in. In exchange, both parties have been given space in certain areas. In the Tories' case, this saw them basically take control of certain policy areas, notably welfare and culture, media and sport. Lib Dem gains are usually more specific, but highly significant. Where points of contention have emerged, they have been cleverly sidestepped.

This process is generally well organised and elegant, with the exception of the Human Rights Act (HRA). The section on this contentious law - which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and is passionately supported by the Lib Dem s but opposed by many Tory MPs - is vague in the extreme. "We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties," it reads. If "all our obligations" go into the British Bill of Rights this is merely a semantic exercise - changing the name of the law to save Tory embarrassment but not doing anything about the specific clauses which create such controversial rulings from judges.

The coalition will say that this merely allows for more rights to be thrown on top, a move most defenders of the HRA would support. This certainly seems to be the case given pledges of a "mechanism" to prevent any future attempts to crack down on civil liberties. But the most controversial aspects of the HRA usually relate to the treatment of non-British citizens, such a foreign terror suspects who cannot be deported back to their country of origin for fear of torture or death. It is difficult to see how a British Bill of Rights would address this, seeing as the right in question do not pertain to Brits at all.

The Tory promise of a free vote on foxhunting survived the negotiations. Given that opposition parties will all probably vote against repealing the law, and that most, if not all, Tories will back it, the vote will give us an interesting indication of Lib Dem sentiment, and the success of the bill will rely on the conscience of individual Lib Dem MPs. If they are responsible for preventing a repeal, tensions between the coalition partners could become acute.

The Lib Dems also excused themselves from Tory policies on Trident, Europe, nuclear power and immigration, but not without gifts in return. The pledge to end child detention and stop the deportation of gay immigrants who could face violence in their home country are clear attempts to secure small, important victories, while allowing the Tories to pursue their grander macro policies on the topic of immigration. The child detention pledge raises all sorts of interesting questions, however. Who will take care of these children, given their parents will be in detention? They will now presumably be separated from their parents and put into social care. Some will say this is a worse eventuality. Expect this measure to open a serious debate.

Parliamentary reform and civil liberties are the big winners here, because both parties sign up to the agenda. It's clear that by finding policy areas where both agree, the Lib Dems have been able to push for a more radical series of proposals on the issues than we would have got from a majority Tory government.

The referendum on the alternative vote (AV) may be a disappointment to those wanting full proportional representation (PR), but the rest of the parliamentary reforms are some of the most wide-ranging and radical since the 1832 Great Reform Act. That was Nick Clegg's point in his keynote speech yesterday, and it is not an unfair comparison. Just as the Great Reform Act was a first step towards universal suffrage so a referendum on AV is a first step towards the eventual goal of PR. The extent of the proposed reform to parliament, including fixed terms, merits serious recommendation. It may not not quite match up to the introduction of democracy, but it is as impressive as any parliamentary reform in living memory. Similarly, the proposals on civil liberties will warm the heart of anyone with concerns in this area. They are thorough, comprehensive and without caveat.

Agreement was also found on education where the pupil premium - a policy both parties supported - will go ahead. The Tories appear to control welfare reform, giving the influential Iain Duncan Smith a free rein . The Lib Dems also allowed the 'big society' agenda through. It would simply have been too embarrassing for this to die given that Cameron made such a noise about it during the campaign.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has been left entirely to the Tories, meaning Jeremy Hunt's hawkish attitude to the BBC will clearly prevail. Ofcom can expect to lose some powers too. Similarly, Royal Mail will be part-privatised.

The ease with which the Lib Dems handed this neo-liberal agenda to the Tories indicates how willingly the party conceeded economic matters.

There were reports that Vince Cable anyway moved further to the Tory position on the deficit when the Greek crisis started dominating headlines. Regardless, public spending will be cut this year and the two parties appear to be reading off the same hymn sheet. As the debate becomes heated, this will be increasingly important. Neither party can afford a disunited government in the face of strikes and street protests.

The support for neo-liberal economic policies and a fiscal conservatism at the Treasury confirms one fear of left-leaning Lib Dem supporters: the Orange Bookers have won. The right wing of the Lib Dems is now in control of the party and the government. There will be some dismay at this, but supporters should remember that it was agreement in this area which allowed so many of other important Lib Dem policies to win through.


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