Coalitions of this sort can be effective, and do not automatically amount to ‘weak’ government; however, national coalitions are not a long-term option.
Whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s poll, the long-run decline in the Labour/Conservative duopoly – as shown in a recent Democratic Audit paper – points to an increasing likelihood of parliaments with no overall majority in future. Consequently we need to start thinking more creatively about the different possible permutations of party pacts and coalitions that could emerge.
At present most interest is focussed on the idea of the Liberal Democrats working with either Labour or the Conservatives; and there is some discussion of the parliamentary role the non-English parties might play under a minority, one-party government. The idea that Labour and the Conservatives might cooperate does not seem to be countenanced.
Could it happen? History suggests that politicians from the two parties can coexist around the Cabinet table, if only in exceptional circumstances. Drawing on past examples, in particular the coalition established under Winston Churchill in May 1940, some tentative suggestions can be made about such an arrangement:
• Conservative/Labour cooperation would have to be within the broader context of a ‘national government’ that included other parties as well: the Liberal Democrats; perhaps some non-English parties; maybe the Greens, if they gain parliamentary representation.
• Such a coalition is likely to come into being as a response to a national emergency. In the First and Second world wars, the precarious military position was the trigger; while in 1931 (and perhaps 2010?) there was a sterling crisis.
• Parties being brought newly into government may require the resignation of the incumbent prime minister as a condition of their entry, although the replacement can come from the same party, as did Churchill in succession to Neville Chamberlain in May 1940. There is no clear rule that the new prime minister has to be a party leader.
David Lloyd George was not the Liberal leader in 1916, nor was Churchill in 1940 – in other words, there are no constitutional barriers to someone such as Alan Johnson or Harriet Harman taking over as premier immediately; could Gordon Brown follow the example of Neville Chamberlain, who carried on as leader of his party (and a member of Churchill’s War Cabinet) after being removed from No 10, until a new leader was found?
• Divisions within a ‘national Cabinet’ will not necessarily be along party lines. Churchill received valuable support in his determination to fight on in 1940 from his Labour colleagues, while Conservative ministers were inclined to enter into peace negotiations. There may be splits within parties, as occurred for the Liberals during the First World War and Labour in the 1930s. Perhaps a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition could bolster its ‘national’ credentials and cause problems for the Conservatives by offering Kenneth Clarke a senior post.
• Some kind of division of responsibilities between parties might be wise. For instance, Labour could take responsibility for economic recovery; the Liberal Democrats for constitutional reform; and the Conservatives for waste elimination.
A final point can be made. Coalitions of this sort can be effective, and do not automatically amount to ‘weak’ government. But are likely to be time-limited. As the crisis they were formed to address subsides, so does the willingness of the various parties to cooperate. National coalitions are not a long-term option.
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