Happier times when coallition was a Rose Garden. Source: Getty
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Elections this May will punch a lot of coalition bruises

Europe is half of the problem. Council seats being contested were last filled in 2010, when support for Tories and Lib Dems was highest.

Elections to the European parliament on 22 May will be unusual to the extent that the run-up will include rather a lot of arguing about Europe. Naturally, Ukip wants to keep Brussels in the frame. Nigel Farage has made it his explicit ambition to cause an “earthquake” at Westminster by mobilising public euroscepticism behind his yellow-and-purple banner.

On this occasion – and in reversal of old reticence – the Lib Dems will also be running explicitly on their attitude to Europe, which is rather more enthusiastic than Ukip's. (The thinking behind this potentially hazardous gambit is the subject of my column in the magazine this week.)

Live TV debates between Farage and Nick Clegg will give the campaign more prominence than past MEP ballots. All of which means even less attention than usual is being paid to local council elections on the same day. But the interaction of the two votes will be interesting – and potentially problematic for the two coalition parties. If Ukip succeeds in mobilising a lot of well-motivated Brussels-bashers there is a good chance some of that Farageism will also be expressed as council losses for the Tories. 

That is why some Conservative associations, with the tacit support of MPs, are effectively campaigning for a split ticket. They know some of their members are determined to register a protest vote on the MEP ballot paper and will hear efforts to sell them Cameron’s EU policy as a provocation. So instead the message is: “by all means have your fun with Ukip in the euro election, as long as you stick with the Tories for the council poll.”

For the Lib Dems, there is another problem unrelated to Europe. The council seats up for grabs are the ones that were last filled in 2010, on the same day as the general election. That was a high tide of support for Clegg’s party. They are also largely metropolitan seats, including London boroughs, where the Lib Dem vote will have come disproportionately from those of the party’s supporters who once fancied it as a leftwing antidote to New Labour. They have abandoned Clegg in droves.

In other words, the council elections on 22nd May could represent a quite forensic probing of Lib Dem electoral weakness; a punch on the party’s most tender bruises. One senior figure in the party recently told me he could not imagine a worse combination than European elections on the same day as a contest to defend the 2010 council gains a year before the next general election. One reason for advertising a pro-EU position so vigorously in the campaign is that it at least provides a principled cover for the massacre. That is, Clegg can tell his demoralised troops that they took a beating for something in which they genuinely believe – which feels marginally better than being beaten up as David Cameron’s hapless lackeys.

Judging by recent precedent, yet more of Clegg’s councillors will be culled and, after some low-level grumbling, his party will carry on stoically towards the general election, like soldiers in the First World War marching stoically out of their trenches towards enemy machine guns. There is in the Lib Dem ranks now a kind of martyr’s pride at this capacity for rolling self-sacrifice in the name of coalition. As one Cleggite MP puts it: “It’s magnificent and ghastly at the same time.”

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.