When the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came together in the summer of 2010 to form a coalition government there was a great deal of speculation about the future of the British political landscape. We were entering into untrodden ground. No-one knew for sure exactly what it would mean for the two governing parties or for that matter, for the only remaining party of opposition. The coalition is now two years old and a look at the latest Ipsos MORI Political Monitor has some clear indications of who the public think is benefitting from this new era of coalition politics.
Much like any new relationship the coalition experienced a honeymoon period with the public willing to believe the Conservative-Liberal Democrat partnership would be good thing for Britain – 59% said the coalition would be good for the UK just a few days after its formation. Indeed around six in ten Britons expected the coalition to be good for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party. For the conservatives the benefits were obvious, having not managed to win a majority they would still form a government and see their leader become prime minister. For the Liberal Democrats the picture was mixed, while Nick Clegg and others hoped to the party would be seen as a credible party of government, benefitting from the experience of office others have since warned that they faced electoral extinction.
Public opinion is now almost exactly mirrored from those heady days of May 2010 with around six in ten believing the coalition has been bad for Tories and the Liberal Democrats (58% and 62% respectively.) And what of the hope that the Liberal Democrats will gain credibility from being in office? That has yet to materialise, in September 2011 just one in four people said the Liberal Democrats were fit to govern, twice that number said the same of the Conservative Party.
Two years in and the tensions are becoming more obvious. Interestingly, Conservative voters are more likely to think the coalition has been good for the Liberal Democrats than for their own party. Similarly one in four Conservative voters think their coalition partners have too much influence in government, though one in five think they do not have enough. Unsurprisingly over half of Liberal Democrats think they do not have enough influence compared to just 3% that say they have too much.
So what about Labour in all this? Hilary Benn, shadow communities and local government secretary, told the Ipsos MORI event at the Labour party conference last year that the coalition has made it difficult for Labour to be heard as the media focussed on coalition differences rather than what Labour’s view is. Back then Labour only had a very small – albeit consistent – lead over the Conservatives in the polls. The picture is different now, with the May Ipsos MORI Political Monitor showing a 10 point Labour lead and around half of the public think the coalition has been good the Labour Party – presumably in part because of the government’s recent ‘omnishambles’. Ed Miliband now has the highest satisfaction ratings, (or perhaps more accurately the least negative) of any of the three leaders – by virtue of remaining constant against the decline in Cameron’s ratings.
On the economy – the number one issue of concern to the public – Labour has closed the gap. Late last year the Conservatives held a 10 point lead over Labour on economic credibility – a key metric to watch over the course of this parliament. Given the importance of the economy, and its status as the raison d’être of the coalition, perceived economic competence will be vital to electoral fortunes. Following a poorly received Budget, when six in ten people said it would be bad for them personally, the Conservatives and Labour are neck-and-neck on being seen as having the best policies to manage the economy.
The coalition has had its ups and downs for both the governing parties and the opposition. Labour will be keen to maintain the large lead they are currently enjoying – while building a credible and positive alternative on the economy and Ed Miliband still has some way to go in convincing voters (including Labour’s) that he is the right man to walk into No 10. While the coalition partners will need to turn around what has been a bad few months and the Conservatives will be keen to regain economic credibility.
Tom Mludzinski is deputy head of political research at Ipsos MORI. He tweets as @tom_mlud