Coalition Government in the UK

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Nick Clegg is often criticised for appearing too close to David Cameron. Are there no differences, people ask, between the two men who are supposedly bartering over our country’s future? We all remember that press conference in the garden of number ten last May when the two leaders looked like old friends, and, more recently, Clegg’s ‘bigoted woman’ moment when he was caught making a private remark that he and Cameron do not disagree on enough [1]. You could simply put this down to Clegg being a secret Tory all along. There may be elements of truth in this. Clegg has certainly always been on the right of the Liberal Democrats as part of the so-called Orange Book crowd. However, to dismiss him as a Conservative may be a little extreme. After all, if he was, why would he not have just switched party? Had he done that he would probably be Prime Minister now.

I think the main reason why the two men feel the need to appear so close is that fact that the British system simply does not lend itself to coalition government, and Clegg and Cameron feel the need to convince the British people that the government is as stable and united as any single party government. The convention of collective ministerial responsibility dictates that all ministers must publicly back and defend government policy. This is problematic in a coalition as ministers are obliged to stand by policy that everyone knows they do not agree with. The coalition agreement tried to amend this to some extent by specifying areas on which the two parties would agree to disagree, the most prominent of which is the upcoming referendum on changing the voting system. But the fallout from AV may demonstrate why this convention is important. The increasingly vicious debate between the coalition partners damages public opinion of the government and leads to speculation about its long-term stability. Bearing in mind that stability was one of the main justifying factors for the Liberal Democrats going into coalition, particularly with the less-than-reliable economic climate, there is something to be said for government keeping a united front.

Secondly, British politics is based on conflict, not consensus. The House of Commons is designed to accommodate the government and opposition in a two party system. The seating arrangement, as well as Prime Minister’s questions, encourages conflict, and party leaders can almost never be seen to agree on an issue, no matter how similar their views are. Remember the mockery Gordon Brown was subjected to for ‘agreeing with Nick’ in the last election? When two parties enter into coalition in British politics they effectively go from having to disagree on everything to having to agree on everything. A similar culture of conflict can be said of the relationship British governments tend to have with the electorate. Generally speaking, as people decide they no longer approve of the government of the day, their support switches to the other main party, which is then elected and holds power until the enthusiasm of the public shifts back the other way. This is problematic for the third party who will inevitably suffer the shift of opinion away from themselves when in government, but cannot rely on it shifting back in their direction again in future. A single party can always be held to account for the government’s actions. British people are used to having parties in conflict and a single party in government, so a situation similar to the one currently in the UK does not fit comfortably with people’s expectations. In a system where hung parliaments are as rare as in the UK, when they occur people don’t know how to react or who to blame when things go wrong.

The British electoral system is one that excludes smaller parties, meaning that in the event of a hung parliament it can generally only become a question of who the Liberal Democrats will support. It also means that coalitions are rare, so when a hung parliament does occur it is a shock to the system. In countries where coalitions are commonplace, they tend to have a wide range of parties represented in parliament such as in Germany or Brazil [2].

So what can be done? There is no quick solution that would immediately adapt the British public and constitution to coalition government. The UK’s political system does not favour hung parliaments or coalitions, but both of these things are likely to become more common if current electoral trends persist [3].

A proportional electoral system may help as smaller parties would feature more prominently in parliament. A greater number of parties would allow for more varied coalitions as well as making hung parliaments more likely, so parties could adapt their strategies and behaviour for coalition in the long term. One of the strongest arguments for first past the post is that it creates strong governments with Commons majorities. If this is no longer happening, then a proportional electoral system, which tends to facilitate more options in the event of a hung parliament, would be favourable.

Several of the challenges faced by coalitions simply arise from people’s attitudes, in and out of the political sphere, which will change over time. If coalition governments do, indeed, become more common, perhaps the British public will become more tolerant of compromise and adapt to the idea of two parties working together. There may also be shift in the way politicians respond to each other, looking for areas of agreement as well as disagreement, and stop disagreeing for its own sake.

As for collective ministerial responsibility, that is a convention that, again, may change over time. There are plenty of systems around the world in which it is perfectly acceptable for coalition partners to voice their disagreements. There is evidence of it being relaxed slightly with our current coalition government so in future it may be more acceptable for coalition partners to publicly disagree.

There is no single answer to the question of how to adapt the UK’s political system to coalitions, but some changes need to happen if coalitions are here to stay, both in the form of natural change and conscious, deliberate reform.

Article by Alex Chafey. Edited by Mariam Boakye-Dankwa.

More Information

[1] Mainwaring S (1993) ‘Presidentialism, Multipartism, and Democracy. The Difficult Combination’, Comparative Political Studies Vol.26 (2), 198-228.