One of the most interesting questions of the next few years is whether or not we’ve embarked on an era of hung parliaments, minorities and coalitions. I’m not necessarily convinced: I certainly don’t think we’ve started a period of constant hung parliaments, and post-coalition Conservatives and a more liberal Labour might even reinvigorate the two-party system (at least for a while).
So Vernon Bogdanor’s piece in The Guardian covers important ground. Our current Coalition has caused enormous anger for many – in large part because of the sheer scale of the damage being done to public services and the welfare state, but also because people feel that ‘this isn’t what I voted for’. Liberal Democrat voters, of course, feel this way particularly strongly. Bogdanor is absolutely right that the formation of government mustn’t become insulated from the people.
I assume he isn’t being literal when he says that parties should be required to signal their intentions and likely concession in a hung parliament scenario. It’s not just impractical for parties to show their hand in advance (no party leader is going to throw away all their bargaining power before they even know how much they have); it’s actually vital, if coalitions are to reflect the election results, that concessions by coalition partners have some flex. In terms of democracy, the Lib Dems should expect to make more concessions if they win 15% of the vote than if they win 24%; and no formula can pin that down in advance. He does have an important point about preferred coalition partners: British parties have, morally if not pragmatically, something to learn here. It’s worth pointing out that Clegg, for all his faults, did stick to his pre-election commitment (‘the party with the strongest mandate – the largest number of seats and votes – has the first right to seek to govern’) on government formation: but in Germany or Sweden, for instance, parties make it quite clear who they will and won’t work with. A Swedish vote for the Moderates, Liberals, Centre or Christian Democrats will go towards a four-party, centre-right coalition; Green votes in a German federal election will help support a centre-left, Red-Green government. That makes the electoral choice clearer and it helps legitimise the coalition process.
But I would also question the implied account of what actually happened in 2010 and in previous elections: the notion that normally we elect governments directly, but that in 2010 the third party decided who governed Britain and voters were excluded. I don’t think Bogdanor thinks exactly this, incidentally, but it’s a narrative which informs the argument. It deserves some scrutiny.
At the heart of the case for coalitions is a sense that the largest minority party, which generally wins a majority under first-past-the-post (and usually would under AV too), isn’t necessarily in possession of a clear mandate to govern. I am not convinced that the Labour Party, which won 35.2% of the vote in 2005, was a ‘directly elected government’. Granted, political negotiation plays an essential role in delivering the government in hung parliaments; the government’s election is, in that sense, indirect.
But normally, the voting system just turns minorities into majorities for us instead. I don’t see that that’s a more democratic approach. I believe that when the voters don’t give any political party anywhere near a majority of the vote, a coalition government – a compromise between two positions – has a better shot at reflecting the balance of views of the public than a single-party government. Would a majority Conservative government be nearer the political centre of gravity in the UK than the Coalition, for instance?
I’m also unconvinced by the (implicit) analysis of what happened in May. The formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was absolutely bound up with the electoral arithmetic and with perceptions of legitimacy. 306 Conservative, 258 Labour and 57 Liberal Democrat MPs meant that a Lib-Lab coalition deal didn’t have a majority: and crucially, it was felt that the Labour Party had lost the election. The Liberal Democrat leadership feared the consequences of a ‘coalition of losers’: a government which many might deem illegitimate. Far from representing an overriding of the election result in the name of ideological agreement – even now, we need to bear in mind that most Lib Dem members, activists and even elected representatives would have found Labour a more natural partner – the resulting government was absolutely bound up with a particular interpretation of who won, who lost and what the electorate wanted.
Part of the problem with our debate at the moment, I think, is that all parties were evasive at best about what lay ahead. All three parties failed to outline more than a minority of their plans to tackle the structural deficit: all three parties emphasised ‘waste’, fairness and protecting the vulnerable. No one said that they planned to take an £18 billion axe to welfare benefits! Labour in government would have found themselves assailed by the same cries of ‘broken promises’.
Our present position isn’t an indictment of coalition government: it is in large measure the consequence of a belief, shared by all mainstream parties, that the people simply will not vote for frankness in a general election. I’m not convinced they’re wrong about that: but in any event, the fact that politicians are either too scared or too canny to face voters with unpalatable truths in an election campaign says very little about the merits of coalition government.