The new politics of coalitions

Since the result of last Thursday’s election became clear, the leaderships of all three major parties have acted diplomatically to reach a workable outcome.

Our guest writer is Andy White, research analyst at the Electoral Reform Society

Here we find ourselves, trapped in the dreaded hung parliament scenario, and despite some nightmarish predictions from our tabloid fortune tellers – economic collapse, societal breakdown, nuclear apocalypse – things seem to be ticking along okay. Since the result of last Thursday’s election became clear, the leaderships of all three major parties have acted in uncommonly diplomatic fashion to reach a workable outcome.

It is testament to the strength of our constitution that while David Cameron and Nick Clegg were busy hammering out a coalition arrangement, outgoing Chancellor Alistair Darling was meeting with European counterparts to agree a swift response to the Greek debt crisis. It was hardly the politics of inertia.

By the time Gordon Brown had handed over to his successor on Tuesday night, the public and press were already warming to the new politics of compromise and cooperation. The Tories are spinning the coalition as a “government in the national interest”, which seems a curiously empty boast until you consider that it is the first government since the Second World War that can claim in good conscience to represent a majority of British voters. Nearly sixty per cent of votes were cast for Conservative or Liberal Democrat candidates on 6th May. It is right that we have a government that broadly reflects this. But this was an unusual result under our “First Past the Post” system of elections.

But this was a freak result. Under our “First Past the Post” system of elections, hung parliaments are rare. Had the Labour Party polled as many votes as the Conservatives, they would easily have won another clear majority of seats in the Commons. We can safely ignore Tory claims that reducing the size of parliament or re-jigging constituency boundaries will somehow restore fairness to our elections. They are wrong, and this standpoint has been repeatedly disproved by academics across the political spectrum. First Past the Post will always deliver freakish results.

If we want “big tent” government in the national interest, election after election, we need to fundamentally reform the voting system. We need a voting system which affords each party the number of seats it deserves. The Liberal Democrats polled 23% of votes at this election, but won only 8.7% of seats. Under their proposed system, the Single Transferable Vote, they would have won roughly 25% of seats.

Unlike the oft-criticised system of pure proportionality we use to elect MEPs, the Single Transferable Vote retains a link between MPs and constituencies, and allows voters to choose favoured candidates from each party. It has been used in Ireland for the past eighty years and is popular with Irish voters.

Over the years, many arguments have been put forward for the preservation of Westminster’s Victorian voting system. Some of them have been absurd, such asDaniel Kawczynski MP’s claim that we don’t need it because his constituents don’t care (a ComRes poll suggests 62% of Britons would support a proportional voting system). But others, such as those tendered by the respected Conservative academic Lord Norton of Louth bear closer inspection.

Lord Norton argues that a hung parliament is a politician’s parliament, where policy is the result of post-election bargaining. He argues also that smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats get to “call the tune”. And he contends that far from enjoying a majority mandate, the present coalition actually commands the definitive support of not one single voter (there being no Con-Lib option on the ballot paper).

In light of recent developments, we can put Lord Norton’s argument under the microscope. Does it stand up to scrutiny? Let’s start with the post-election bargaining that is a feature of any coalition system. Aside from the rushed decision to introduce a 55 per cent dissolution resolution, the coalition agreement thrashed out by the two parties clearly takes as its basis the two party manifestos pitched to the British public before the election. All the policies announced so far have either been Conservative or Lib Dem manifesto commitments, or compromises lying somewhere between the two. They have not been conjured out of thin air.

As for the accusation that the Liberal Democrats have called the tune, we only have to look at the make-up of the new coalition to see that the Conservative Party is the senior partner. Indeed, the proportion of Lib Dem cabinet positions roughly reflects the ratio of Lib Dem to Conservative votes. This is how coalition governments are formed across Europe—in places like Germany, where Angela Merkel heads a similar blue-yellow cabinet, as well as in the Low Countries and Scandinavia.

The only one of Norton’s arguments to have some merit is his contention that First Past the Post makes it easier to kick out an unpopular government. It is certainly harder to vote multiple parties out of government than a single-party regime. But the implication that this expression of disapproval is impossible under other voting systems doesn’t concur with the evidence. Regime change in Germany, where a very proportional system is in place, happens just as frequently as it does in the UK.

Thanks to their foresight and equanimity, David Cameron and Nick Clegg look set to dispel many of the myths surrounding the issue of proportional representation. We might see that coalition governments can get things done. We might find that consensual politics can be decisive politics. And, after an era of presidential “sofa governments”, stage managed by the spin doctors, we can hope for a return to the collegiate parliamentarism of yesteryear. But without a reformed voting system this will remain the exception that proves the rule.

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