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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20 Responses to “The new politics of coalitions”

  1. House Of Twits

    RT @leftfootfwd The new politics of coalitions: http://bit.ly/b123VT

  2. cim

    “Unlike the oft-criticised system of pure proportionality we use to elect MEPs, the Single Transferable Vote retains a link between MPs and constituencies”

    So do list systems. This is dependent on the number of representatives per constituency, nothing more. Indeed, the North-East European region has fewer MEPs than are generally suggested for STV constituencies. The MEPs lack a constituency link because the number of people per MEP is very large.

    I agree that the ability to pick a particular candidate is a strength of STV over closed-list systems (and in the ability to spread a vote between good candidates of different parties, an advantage even over open-list)

  3. [email protected]

    How can the current ConDem government be called a true national coallition government when the combined Tory and Lib Dem vote amounts to only 60% of the popular vote. Surely a truly national coallition would have included the Labour Party. It does not feel right that the party with the smallest number of votes is wielding an inordinate amount of power which is all out of proportion to both their popular share of the vote and seats. Yes Labour lost the election and lost 90 odd seats but Labour still managed to hang onto 258 seats. The Liberal Democrats did lose seats after all!!!! Because of the deal betwwen the Lib Dems and Conservatives, I wager that it will be the Tory right sniping at the sidelines who will bring the government down.

  4. Mr. Sensible

    Sorry Andy but I just do not agree.

    I do not support a change to the voting system and, if we have a referendum I will be voting against it.

    I am normally situated on the left, but on this I am more Conservative.

    The fact is, if you get this sort of coalition politics and backroom deals going on all the time, you may not get what you voted for.

    How many Liberal Democrats voted for the Married Couples allowance?

    In fact, I dare say a fair few Lib Dems particularly in Lib-Con marginals voted against those kind of policies.

    But those policies they still got.

    This is an advert against PR and coalition politics.

  5. I agree with Mr Sensible

    First of all we do not have a hung parliament. We have a coalition government which came as the result of a hung parliament but the coalition is remedy. Financial instability did set in during the uncertain hung parliament days but this coalition came
    about to ease the situation – which it has managed to do, despite having no money left In the coffers (for some reason the Labour Party finds hilarious).

    But I do agree with Mr Sensible, despite myself being inclined more to the right, I do recognise the need for reform in the places that it is necessary, I.e recall of Mps and open primaries but electoral reform is crazy.

    PR claims to make every vote count, but it does not. The voters no longer have a say in who should form the goverment, that power is taken from them entirely. We know who was almighty in our hung parliament and it wasn’t the electorate! It was mr clegg who had the power to form a government at his discretion despite his party coming 3rd and doing worse than at the previous election!

    Also PR destroys policies. Many who voted LibDem did so because of their views on top-up fees, trident or the Euro, and I voted Conservative because I wanted the big society, little constitutional reform and protection from being engulfed by Europe, unfortunately thanks to the freak of fptp and the lovechild of PR none of us got what we wanted! We have a deal which only suits the politicians!

    People really need to look closer at the implications of PR before branding it as an entirely fair system’

  6. Kurt

    The new politics of coalitions | Left Foot Forward http://bit.ly/9JWRm5

  7. Modicum

    Mr. Sensible wrote:

    “The fact is, if you get this sort of coalition politics and backroom deals going on all the time, you may not get what you voted for.”

    The fact is that under “first past the post” the people do not get what they voted for. The last time that a majority of voters got the government they voted for was 1931. In every single election since then the prime minister who has assumed office has been opposed by a majority of voters.

    So, for example, the people did not vote for Thatcher and her radical policies, but that’s what they got.

    The fact of the matter is that voters are diverse in their opinions, so there is usually not one single manifesto that a majority of voters support. In that scenario it is impossible to give a majority of voters precisely what they voted for. So a solution is needed.

    The very crude method currently used to give carte blanche to whichever party has the largest minority of seats in parliament. That party does not have the support of a majority of voters. It may not even have come first in the election (because FPTP occasionally produces completely freakish results).

    Yet that “winning” party is allowed to govern as it wishes no matter how radical its policies or how strongly opposed they may be by the majority of voters.

    A saner system is that when there is no majority for any one party manifesto then the representatives of the majority get together and negotiate a compromise. No-one will be entirely happy with the package that emerges, but this is the only way of coming up with a compromise that roughly reflects the sentiments of the majority. Under the current system we get the preferred policies of 30%-40% of electorate.

    I also don’t think there’s any real evidence that smaller parties have undue influence in coalitions. In every coalition I’ve ever seen the smaller party is the junior partner; it gets fewer and more junior cabinet positions, and it accepts a legislative programme that mostly reflects the preferences of the senior partner.

  8. Marcel Duda

    The new <b>politics</b> of coalitions | Left Foot Forward http://goo.gl/fb/J3SC8

  9. james kirk

    The new politics of coalitions | Left Foot Forward http://bit.ly/c6J8UK

  10. james o kirk

    The new politics of coalitions | Left Foot Forward http://bit.ly/c6J8UK

  11. Casey Vanderpool

    The new politics of coalitions | Left Foot Forward http://bit.ly/cGoxt1

  12. I agree with Mr Sensible

    It’s not about how much power the losing party is given in a coalition, it’s about the power they have
    to decide the government.

    At the moment fptp produces majorities after most elections and whoever has that majority can govern. So whilst disproportionately the seats don’t match the votes, the public still to some degree decided on the government.

    With Hung Parliaments, the power to decide government is wholly removed from the electorate. You say you cannot see undue influence yet we could equally have a lib lab or lib con government at the moment and it was
    Nick Clegg, not the electorate, that chose our present government.

    As you quite rightly said, no one manifesto suits everybodies needs, but coalition government policy doesn’t suit anybodies needs either! You seem to think that because there is compromise that it suits everyone? Well let’s evaluate this claim. Who wanted AV out of the Conservative Party MPs/voters? None? How many LibDem MPs/voters wanted AV? None!

    Compromise means we all lose out. We will be having a referendum on a voting system that nobody wanted. So again don’t claim it is an electoral system for “the people” it Is a system for the parties, namely the smaller ones.

  13. Party Rebel

    Political co-operation is admirable. But I can’t buy into the claim that 60% of the British public voted for this government. Neither the 11m Tory voters or 7m Lib Dem voters chose this outcome. If anything, the British public chose to elect a minority Tory government. One that would have had to genuinely engage with Parliament on every law and budget it needed to pass.

    Instead Cameron and Clegg struck a deal that worked in their own interests, justified by the dubious principle that only governments that can consistently outvote the opposition parties without the need to debate with them (however falsely obtained their parliamentary majority is) can govern. I posted on this topic here:
    http://leftcentral.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/oneman/

  14. I agree with Mr Sensible

    And I’m sorry but where did you find the 30-40% figure for the satisfaction of policies coming from a coalition government?

    Where Is this 40% asking for the AV system?
    Where is the 40% that demanded not getting rod of trident, but just having a good look at it?
    Where is the 40% that voted not for a sovereignty bill as proposed but a wishy washy “we might give you a referendum on powers to the EU, but then again we may not because it’s a coalition so you can’t blame us”

    that figure must be arbitrarily plucked out of the air. That or it’s the amount of people that don’t feel inclined to say they don’t support a government because they didn’t vote for it, as we would have with fptp – not because they actually wanted or want what the coalition is doing.

  15. Mr. Sensible

    Modicum, if i may say so, i think people who talk about XXX% of the popular vote need to remember that the UK is divided in to 650 constituencies. And in each constituency, the person who is most popular wins, and that is how government is formed.

    Whereas as others have said, in this situation the Liberal Democrats were the kingmakers, despite nick Clegg’s protestations to the contrary.

    And as I said, how many Liberal Democrat voters voted for the married couples allowance, an out-and-out cap on non0EU migration, ETC? Lib Dem voters in Lib-Con marginals aren’t going to know what to do come the next election.

  16. Democratic Society

    Noted: The new politics of coalitions http://bit.ly/c6J8UK

  17. SadButMadLad

    The problem is not about which voting system produces a better result. All voting systems have their faults. Some more than others. Before deciding on which voting system to use you need to decide why people vote and what the end result is.

    Part of the problem is that we have a party system to run the nation whilst we vote for local MPs based on what they do for the local community. So a MP for an unpopular party but who does a lot of popular stuff for his constituency gets voted in. Similary you might have a crap MP but because they belong to the popular party they get voted in. Another issue is that we don’t vote for the Prime Minister, it’s the ruling party who do this via their leader. So should we have a system that goes all the way to having a national system (eg full PR) or a system that keeps the local connection (eg STV or AV) or a system that has both (eg AV+).

    In deciding on which system to use, you need to decide if there should be a single winner or if a grouping of parties is better. Alternatively should there even be parties if aiming for a coalition result. The FPTP works best with two parties but not when there are more than three, but it is very divisive and can lead to governments with policies far to the edge whilst the voters might have been more centralist. PR (or STV) work better with multiple parties that cover the whole diverse range of political views. Someone can have political views on both the left and right at the same time, not everyone is an extremist. PR systems allows these middle of the road views to have more prominence.

    One final issue. We British are always doing something different to the rest of the world and saying that we are using the best system. If it was why does the rest of the world ignore us and use something else. They can’t all be stupid. 😉

  18. The New Politics of Coalition Government | Electoral Reform Society

    […] A version of this article appeared first on Left Foot Forward […]

  19. Modicum

    @Mr Sensible:

    “And I’m sorry but where did you find the 30-40% figure for the satisfaction of policies coming from a coalition government?”

    Sorry I should have been clearer. When I mentioned 30-40% I wasn’t talking about the current coalition. I meant the one-party governments that are usually elected under “FPTP”. If you look back historically the last time a one-party government had the support of a majority of voters it was 1931. Since then every one-party government has had a mandate from only around 30-45% of the electorate.

    Even worse, three times in the last century the party that came first in the popular vote did not win most seats, so the “losing” party took over the government. This nearly happened again in this election; if Labour had done only a little better in terms of votes then they would have “won” most seats, despite coming third.

    In a modern technological society I think we can come up with a more logical and reliable system.

    @I agree with Mr Sensible:

    “At the moment FPTP produces majorities after most elections and whoever has that majority can govern. So whilst disproportionately the seats don’t match the votes, the public still to some degree decided on the government.”

    This is where we disagree. The parliamentary majorities produced by FPTP are entirely contrived. I don’t think a government that lacks the support of a majority of voters (and that may even have come second or third in votes) really has a mandate to any degree.

    Personally I think single party government has certain advantages. But I wish those who dislike coalitions would admit to the manifest flaws of the current archaic system.

    As we’ve just seen FPTP doesn’t even guarantee no hung parliaments. In fact in some countries that use FPTP hung parliaments are common, and there’s evidence that under FPTP this recent election will be the beginning of a trend.

    If there is to be one-party government then it should be based on majority-rule. One alternative would be to directly elect the prime minister. This would have some disadvantages but it would be majoritarian and no-one could claim that the government hadn’t been chosen by the people.

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