Coalition is not “Britain’s new normal”

Coalition Governing Could Be Britain’s New Normal Despite Liberal Democrats’ Troubles (from the New York Times)

This article claims that the “successful” Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition that was formed after the 2010 election has changed British attitudes to coalitions, which it says we previously “associated coalition governments with the unstable, revolving-door politics sometimes seen in Continental Europe”. It quotes one Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary, University of London, as saying:

All the dire warnings given before the general election, particularly by the Conservatives and by the press, about a coalition being chaotic and messy and making Britain ungovernable do not seem to have come true … Most people appear to accept that it could become the new normal.

It also says that relations within the coalition are “civilized”, in contrast with the previous Labour government “when officials were prone to feuding”. Both Paddy Ashdown (from the Lib Dems) and Kenneth Clarke, “a centrist Conservative cabinet minister”, admit that their views had been changed as a result of being in the coalition, the latter saying that the Tories “have delivered more than we probably could have delivered as a single party in government”.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding about why Britain does not usually have coalition governments. It is not because the British public mistrusts them; it is because the electoral system translates simple majorities into absolute ones, with each seat going to the person who received the biggest number of votes, not requiring an outright majority (in 2005, for example, Labour won a majority in Parliament with just 35.2% of the popular vote; the Tories in 2010 won a slightly larger proportion than that, 36.1%, but it did not translate into a Parliamentary majority because of where those votes were). In parts of Europe, there is a system designed to give proportional representation, such as parliamentary seats with multiple members, or regional lists (i.e. the party puts up a list of candidates for a large area, and as many of them get seats as befits the party’s proportion of the vote). A mistrust of European coalition politics is part of the reason why there has been a reluctance to institute proportional representation; another is that extremist parties also benefit (and even end up in ruling coalitions), while in the UK parties like the British National Party have never won Parliamentary seats although they have won council and European Parliamentary seats (this, however, is also because anti-fascists devote much effort to exposing their rifts, their criminal backgrounds and the lies in their campaign materials). In addition, the two main parties oppose proportional representation because the present system favours them; abandoning it would mean there would very likely never be another Labour or Tory government again.

The present coalition has hugely damaged many people’s expectations of what any future coalition will deliver, because the Liberal Democrats have caved in to almost all the Tories’ demands, extracting a few concessions such as a referendum on a change to the voting system (though not to PR) and some civil liberties matters (although even here, they have caved in again since, as the proposed new law on third-party political campaigning before elections demonstrates). Kenneth Clarke represents an old and dying pro-Europe tradition in the Tory party whose position has been strengthened by the coalition; today the party is dominated by its Eurosceptic wing and in a single-party Tory government, Clarke would be in the wilderness. The Liberal Democrat MPs have reaped a lot of personal benefit from the coalition; their number of ministerial posts is greatly out of proportion to their numbers, and they all get higher salaries than normal MPs (those in the Cabinet get more still).

The Liberal Democrats know very well that many of their voters voted for them because it was the sole alternative to the Conservatives who had a chance of winning in their area, and there is a huge sense of betrayal among many of these people that their votes were sold, effectively, to a radical Tory government that rules in favour of the rich. Many of these people will never vote Lib Dem again; they will either return to voting Labour, as they did in the 1980s (even if they have no chance of winning, as they will see voting Lib Dem as voting Tory), or support smaller parties like the Greens. They know very well that there is a good chance of many of them losing their seats in 2015 and that an early election means the same thing. They are not rocking the boat with the Tories because, again, it is against their personal interests to do so. It is irrelevant that some of them have realised the Tories do not eat babies; what they do is run vindictive campaigns against poor and disabled people so as to cut back on essential services, including legal aid which enables ordinary people to secure their rights under the law. The Lib Dems have proven themselves capable of doing all this, so any moral high ground they may have thought they had over the Tories has been proven to be an illusion.

The article does not mention other factors that may influence the outcome of the next general election: specifically, how successful UKIP are in 2015. The last Labour landslide in 1997 happened in part because the Tory vote was split with the Referendum Party, whose sole policy was a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, and this reduced the Conservatives’ vote without gaining the RP a single seat; although UKIP will win some Labour voters, they play to sympathies that are more typical of Conservative voters. With fewer traditional Labour votes going to the Lib Dems and even some who voted Tory last time having got more than they bargained for, this could easily strengthen Labour. However, it’s still two years until the election and there is the Scottish independence referendum to come before that (a Yes vote there would certainly strengthen the Tories in England as Scottish politics is dominated by the Lib Dems, Labour and Scottish Nationalists). None of this, in itself, points to a hung Parliament and there is no reliable guarantee of one unless two parties present an alliance before the election, which we have also been told will not happen in 2015.

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