Is 75% of the Coalition Agreement drawn from the Lib Dem manifesto? Alas, no…

by Stephen Tall on June 28, 2012

One of the key justifications for Lib Dem involvement in the Coalition — one which has comforted many party members through the first two difficult years of being the junior partner in government with the Conservatives — has been the finding that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto appeared in the Programme for Government (commonly known as the Coalition Agreement). This assessment was based on research by UCL’s Constitution Unit, and published a year ago in their interim report on ‘How Coalition Government Works’ (PDF).

However, UCL has now updated their assessment, as Robert Hazell & Ben Yong note in their book, just published, Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works. While it’s still the case that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto did make it into the Coalition Agreement, they have re-calculated how much of the Coalition Agreement can be considered to be Lib Dem and how much can be considered to be Conservative. And the news that will disappoint Lib Dems is that only 40% can be considered Lib Dem:

… we had not applied the same level of rigour in coding the two parties’ manifestos. By using different coders, the treatment of the Conservative manifesto was stricter than the treatment of Lib Dem pledges. If we had teated the Conservative manifesto in the more generous terms applied to the Lib Dems’, we would have concluded that a greater percentage of the Conservative manifesto made it into the Programme for Government.

Moreover, that analysis only showed how much of the coalition parties’ respective manifestos made it into the two coalition documents. It ignored the fact that the Conservative manifesto was much longer (approximately 550 pledges) tha the Lib Dem manifesto (well over 300 pledges). Put differently, it took no account of the proportion of the PfG that could be considered ‘Conservative’ or ‘Lib Dem’. That was addressed in our later analysis, which shows that the proportion of the coalition agreements which can be classified as Conservative is higher, because of the larger size of the Conservative manifesto.

Finally, the outcome of the initial analysis focuses solely of what the Conservatives and Lib Dems gained as separate parties. The blunt results may be subject to misinterpretation, and ignore the possibility that some agreement pledges could be both Conservative and Lib Dem: that some pledges might be compromises; and that some pledges may come from outside the manifestos altogether (as the second analysis shows, this comes to over 10 per cent of the PfG).

Learning from the the problems that arose from the first analysis, a second, more nuanced analysis was done in the second half of 2011. … This produced a different set of figures. The PfG was roughly 75 per cent Conservative in its content and 40 per cent Liberal Democrat: a victory for the Conservatives. (Appendix 1, pp.213-14)

So while we used to think 75% of the Coalition Agreement was drawn from the Lib Dem manifesto, the reality is somewhat more modest at 40%.

Four brief points to make arising from this:

    1) The authors of the study themselves acknowledge that even this second analysis cannot be perfect: classifying and counting pledges will, to some extent, always be subjective: ‘what counts as a pledge? … how much of the pledge needs to be there for it to count as included?’

    2) It’s worth remembering that when we surveyed party members about the Coalition Agreement at the end of May 2010, some 86% said we were moderately-to-very happy with it.

    3) One lesson for the Lib Dems in the future is to be much better prepared for government. The Tory manifesto contained 550, generally quite specific, pledges; the Lib Dem manifesto 300. Traditionally, the criticism levelled at the party has been that it has too many policies. It is probably more accurate to say that we don’t have enough policies which are sufficiently developed to run with in governmentan important point my co-editor Mark Pack has made before: the Lib Dems need to get a whole lot better at thinking about short-term policy steps which move us towards long-term policy goals.

    4) Even if the later realisation that the Coalition Agreement is less Lib Dem than previously supposed is disappointing, (i) let’s not forget that the Lib Dems have 57 MPs compared to the Tories’ 306 MPs, so a 40%/75% split isn’t so bad (and yes, I realise the popular vote at the general election, 23%/36%, was closer), and (ii) 40% of the Coalition’s Programme for Government being Lib Dem is roughly 40% more than has previously made it into any government’s programme in post-war British politics.

Editor’s note (28/6/2012): I have updated my post to better reflect that the revised figure of 40% refers to the proportion of the Coalition Agreement that can be considered Lib Dem, while the 75% figure of the Lib Dem manifesto being included within the Coalition Agreement remains accepted.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.