Does it matter in our blasé, postmodern democracy whether political leaders keep their promises? The past few weeks have seen a bonfire of pledges—most dramatically the Tories abandoning universal child benefit and the Liberal Democrat leadership bowing to tuition fees. I think, on balance, both decisions are right; but what if they further damage that already frayed line of accountability between voters and voted-for? Tearing up major pledges to voters within weeks of making them in an election campaign is surely far more serious than a few bloated expenses claims. Moreover, these about-turns came on the threshold of the most radical deficit reduction plan since the 1930s—and one that the electorate explicitly rejected. There was a choice at the election between a radical cuts plan of £120bn over four years (the Tory one) and a more modest one of around £80bn (the Labour and Lib Dem one). A clear majority voted for the more modest plan, but we have been landed with the more radical one.
The argument that this has been made necessary by a more threatening economic situation than expected—the Vince Cable excuse—is obviously nonsense. Both the fiscal situation and economic growth have turned out better than expected since the election, not worse. No, the truth is that the more-radical-than-voted-for cuts and the torn up pledges are mainly down to the exigencies of coalition politics. This is what the critics of continental-style coalitions and defenders of the first-past-the-post-system have always warned us about: decisions tend to be based on intra-coalition bargaining rather than on commitments made to the electorate by a victorious party.
We live in a representative, not a direct, democracy and the connection between the electorate’s conflicting and shifting preferences and the decisions of governments is necessarily fuzzy. Notwithstanding popular cynicism about politics, most British voters are sensible enough to know that it’s more important to make the right decision than the pledged one. Indeed, one of the outcomes of coalition politics may be a superior content of political decision- making (more rational, less tribal) at the expense of its democratic form. The combination of coalition politics and fiscal retrenchment is certainly forging some innovative policy thinking that’s hard to locate on the old left-right spectrum: liberalism on prisons; scaling back the middle-class welfare state; reform of university funding. And not one voter was consulted on the most interesting policy initiative of all in recent months: £200bn of quantitative easing. I commend Faisal Islam’s cover story on how little we know about whether it is working or not.