Examining The Coalition
Examining The Coalition
By Stephen Ho
I WAS WORKING the night shift at the News Associates office in Manchester when I saw the unthinkable, the inconceivable, happen: The UK had a hung Parliament.
The papers and politicians had already prepared us for this outcome: a double dip recession, the loss of our Triple-A economic status and unemployment for all.
But a month on David Cameron had enticed the Liberal Democrats into coalition government and Britain has not, as yet, been destroyed in an economic conflagration.
Not even the loss of David Laws to an all too familiar expenses scandal has dented the coalition too badly.
So why was everyone so worried before the election? Why did people seem to think that a hung parliament and a coalition government would be the worst possible result?
Liberal Democrat MP for Manchester Withington, John Leech, believed that the hype caused by the media was largely unfounded.
He said: “It was more about the right wing press and the left wing press trying to frighten people into voting for the two old parties.”
However, Conservative MP for Bury North, David Nuttall, said that only time could tell on whether sections of the media were right to tout a coalition as bad for the country.
The formation of the coalition was certainly a surprise to most people.
Mr Leech said: “I was surprised that the Tories didn’t decide to form a minority Government, this is what I expected would happen.
“Labour made it very clear that they were not interested in any sort of coalition, and so the only options were a Tory minority government or a Tory - Lib Dem Coalition.”
Mr Nuttall said that he was also not anticipating a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
This cannot be because coalition governments are unheard of in British politics, as Britain has had a number of coalition governments over the years.
Dr Andrew Russell, Senior Lecturer of politics at Manchester University, said: “We have had a few more coalition governments than most people would routinely credit.
“In recent years we’ve had the Lib-Lab pact in 1976 and John Major required a coalition of sorts as he needed the help of Ulster Unionists during his administration after the Conservative rebellions over the Maastricht issue.
“However, the current government is the first formal coalition we have had for some time.”
Including minority governments that heavily relied on the backing of smaller parties, the UK has had 17 coalition governments out of 65 in the last 130 years.
However, many have not had much success.
The Labour-Liberal government in 1976 led to economic decline, a successful vote of no confidence in the government from the Liberal Party, Margaret Thatcher coming to power and 18 years in opposition.
Under James Ramsay MacDonald the Labour Party went into coalition governments with the Liberals and the Conservatives. This led to a nine month government in 1924, the humiliation of losing 236 seats in the 1931 election and MacDonald being expelled from the Labour Party.
Even as far back as 1806 the coalition government set up by Lord Grenville was derogatorily called the ‘ministry of all the talents’.
In November 2009 senior Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke had warned against the dangers of a hung Parliament during the economic crisis.
He went so far as to say that he would prefer a Labour majority government to a minority Conservative government.
It is easy to see why Mr Clarke would feel that way, as the academic history suggests that minority and coalition governments are weak and harmful to the economy and to the parties that form the coalition.
However, it cannot be overlooked that Britain has turned to coalition governments in times of crisis.
During both world wars, the Great Depression and even the Napoleonic Wars Britain has had coalition governments driving the country.
Since Britain was on the winning side in these wars and managed to emerge from the economic crisis in the 1930s you could argue that a coalition government is exactly what the country needs in this crisis.
Dr Russell said: “Coalition is the default option during a crisis and there is a lot of evidence that it is what the people want during these times.”
In this country coalition government is seen as weak because it dilutes the ability of either party to pass laws it wants, creating an absence of coherent policy.
It also means that usually there are delays, especially on tough decisions, and compromises which can produce inferior results.
However, coalition government has worked for other countries and at a more local level in the UK.
Dr Russell said: “I always thought that the argument that coalition government is weak is fatuous.
“Look at the stable governments in Germany and the Netherlands as opposed to the majority governments in Italy and Greece.
“At a local level in the UK there are many examples, even in the Scottish Parliament Labour and the SNP have worked together for years.”
Despite all this there was still a general feeling that a majority government would be preferable to the possibility of a coalition.
Mr Leech said: “I would have liked to have seen a majority Lib Dem Government with a full Lib Dem programme of reform.
“Unfortunately that isn’t what the electorate voted for and so there have to be compromises.”
He added that he was happy with the influence that the Liberal Democrats had been able to have on policy so far.
Mr Nuttall was even blunter about his preference of government.
He said: “I would have preferred to see an outright Conservative majority but we are where we are.
“I hope that in the future General Elections the Conservatives win enough seats to govern alone.”
It is to be expected that a politician will want his party to have a majority government but Dr Russell believes that this thinking goes deeper.
“I suspect that it’s the culture of a nation that drives the ability of a coalition government to function,” he said. “In Belgium coalition governments have been unstable and Italy voted for the removal of Proportional Representation back in 1993 to get more majority governments.
“The United Kingdom doesn’t have the cultural support of coalition government and our system reflects that as it can only really work with two parties but the reality is we have more.”
So can the coalition of 2010 survive the rigours of government? Culture and history is certainly not on its side.
The fear for most coalition governments has usually been on the side of the larger party, as the smaller party has what is known as ‘Blackmail Potential’ – the ability to threaten the existence of the government by withdrawing its support.
Dr Russell believes that the Liberal Democrats have severely curtailed their own Blackmail Potential which actually means that the government will be stronger as a whole.
“The Liberal Democrats don’t have much Blackmail Potential because they are imbedded in every facet of government,” he said. “Usually the smaller part of a coalition is given control of certain aspects of government like health or education but the Liberal Democrats are so ingrained in Parliament that they cannot distance themselves from its decisions.
“So I believe they will last the five years because neither party will particularly want to call an election early.”
It seems that as voters we have less to worry about than we first thought, certainly in terms of having a stable government.
The coalition is committed to working for a fixed term of five years, the economy is still troubled but steps have been taken swiftly and there seems to be as yet no whiff of anti-coalition feeling inside Parliament.
What happens at the next election is another matter and it may be the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have more to fear from the outcomes of their deal.
Dr Russell said: “It may be difficult for the Liberal Democrats to convince the electorate that they are separate from the Conservatives.
“It will be interesting to see what the next election brings.”