In Defence of Coalitions

Just to get the emotional stuff out of the way – I’m still angry with the Liberal Democrats for enabling five years of cuts that went too far too fast, the regressive policies they’ve enabled, and the legacy they’ve left as they’ve imploded. But I’m most annoyed with the line peddled, most recently by Andrew George, that the electorate have punished them for going into government. Because though I’m angry about at what the 2010-15 coalition have done, that’s not because it was a coalition.

I want defend coalitions. I’ve always liked the idea. Or, to turn it around, I dislike the idea that someone who is passionate and knowledgable about a particular policy area, who is recognised by the electorate for this, and returned to the House of Commons, may not be able to utilise their expertise in government because they are of the wrong political stripe – even if on the policy matter they care about they are ideologically close to the governing party’s position. Of course, that’s not just me – Gordon Brown made a (rather unsuccessful) attempt at a government of all the talents.

I also dislike the idea that a government can be formed, as today’s, solely from a party for whom barely a third of the electorate voted. Proportional representation, and the kinds of agreements and pacts that are associated with it, ensures a government is drawn from representatives of at least half of the electorate.

This idea that the LibDems were punished for going into government is strange and silly. Why are the LibDems so special? Their coalition partners also went into government – and they don’t seem to have been punished. The Tories weren’t punished for going into government in ’79 either. In fact, neither Labour nor Conservatives have ever lost 6 out of every 7 of their MPs for going into government, which one or other of them has done at every single election for almost 100 years.

Maybe this is an allusion to the fact that the LibDems have always done rather well as a party of protest. That’s allowed voters to project their aspirations on them – as a young party of just 27 years, formed of a marriage of convenience from tribes of quite distinct philosophical origins, it’s always had a rather fuzzy identity (something which, perhaps, enabled the rise of the Orange Bookers’ revival of classical liberalism leading to the realignment that made the austerity coalition possible). As a party of protest, it is liberating not to be burdened by a coherent ideological underpinning. In government, it’s a recipe for confounded expectations.

I heard a LibDem commentator explain that “the public aren’t used to coalitions”. But if they were, they’d be in an even better position to see that the real problem here was using the coalition as a smokescreen to pursue policies that were at odds with those they’d campaigned on. The electorate would surely still want to punish them – wouldn’t they see even more clearly that they’d failed to gain major policy concessions, or take senior government positions? If the public were used to coalitions, they’d have seen successful coalition parties who clearly stated their priorities, drove hard bargains, and focused on ensuring they were delivered. The LibDems received too little, spread themselves to thinly, and in trying to pretend they were influencing all aspects of government became tainted by all the policies they enabled.

As a result, the LibDems have reaped the worst general election result in their short history. Nick Clegg believes that history will judge the party kindly. I believe history will judge Nick Clegg to have made the second major mistake in the history of the LibDems – the first being Paddy Ashdown’s failure to try for electoral reform as part of a pact with New Labour in ’97. Going into government was not his mistake – it could, in principle, could be the brave move he wishes it was – his mistake was setting his sights too low, and striking the wrong deal. If the LibDems had secured electoral reform either in 1997, or in 2010, as they might easily have done, they really would have changed the political landscape.

It has been the one consistent and unifying belief in the party – the need for constitutional reform. And that need is something that is as apparent as ever, even as the LIbDems have withered away. I’m not optimistic, but I hope that the electoral system does get reviewed – because in government, coalition is a strength, not a weakness. Coalitions occur anyway within all political parties as factions attempt to unify and share their political strength – the alliance pact from which the LibDems arose being just one example – but the multi-party landscape that has emerged in the past decade should offer the voter a chance to chose more directly the constituent parts of their emergent government, which should then be able to claim a mandate from over half the electorate – if only the electoral system reflected those choices, rather than being part lottery.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

4 thoughts on “In Defence of Coalitions

  1. You are putting your point very well, much better than my disjointed thoughts below. I would however ask you to comment on:

    a) why it was that the Labour Party didn’t support the Constitutional Reforms proposed in the last Parliament – was it solely fear of the Boundary Reforms that would have followed? If so, it was a self-interest (shared by both major parties) that has rebounded on them most seriously as they see their share of the vote not be reflected in seats.

    b) the fear/punish thing from a different perspective, being …

    LibDems in constituencies where the Conservatives were in second place had a very poor defence against the argument – “you might as well vote for us, we’re the same thing now?”, and

    LibDems in constituencies where Labour was in second place – “you have to vote for us to get rid of the Tories”

    … that’s why the “punish” argument has validity. I can’t see a coalition with a minor party ever again until proportional representation is enacted.

    c) just a reminder that it was Beveridge (a Liberal) who was the architect of the Welfare State. Getting a bit fed-up with Labour claiming all the credit for “our NHS”. Please also don’t forget Lloyd George’s introduction of a National Insurance scheme.

    With the Tories now able to introduce Boundary changes and gain 20 seats as a result, I fear for all of us. The irony is of course that the devolved parliaments DO have PR!! So England is now destined to be a Conservative nation.

    Labour need/must reform. Electoral pacts with the LibDems should be considered. we’ve been there before of course.

    Labour will only ever win if they are left of centre, not left – there’s an interesting map from Vaughan Roderick – – showing the graphical correlation between coalfields and labour seats post-2015. There are not enough additional seats for them to win anymore, and this base is in decline as well.

    You have, however, informed me about the “Orange Bookers” – something that I’d somehow missed completely – I have a facsimile copy (somewhere) of the original Yellow and Orange Books, I must try and find them.

    1. Thanks David. I’ll do my best to comment intelligently on those points, but…

      a) I’m not going to defend Labour’s record on constitutional reform. I think your incisive dig at the party over its motives is probably an allusion to a general half-heartedness or disarray on Lords Reform. I don’t know that it was as nakedly self-interested as being purely a way of blocking the boundary reforms. Maybe (but it wasn’t what stopped the boundary reforms anyway) Also, I don’t really see how it has rebounded. But on Lords Reform, Labour has a poor record. It started the job, but without knowing how it wanted to finish it, and inertia has left us with a half-baked, laughably peculiar system in which we see ‘elections’ for hereditary peers. It’s embarrassing. I do think the second chamber is hugely important, and I wouldn’t be sorry to see it challenge to commons a little more strongly (as many reluctant reformers warn it might). However, it does have to be done right. The 2012 bill was flawed. Labour did not vote against the bill, it voted against the programme motion. In practice, since we weren’t going to get improvements through, that meant choosing the status quo over the flawed alternative. On balance, I’d probably have preferred the flawed alternative, but it’s not necessarily an easy call.

      b) Maybe it’s not that different a perspective? As I say, I think they were punished, not for going into government as Andrew George bleated, but for both being drawn into a government where their influence was weak and for campaigning against the cuts they then embraced. That’s why they were identified as close to the Tories, with the consequences in both types of constituency contest that you identify. Maybe, just maybe, if the party reject Lamb and elect a Beveridge-group leader (Farron, being untainted by the coalition, would be the obvious choice) they can move back from the Orange Book fiasco, stop assuming private is always better than public, and get back to wielding some influence again, with 20-30 MPs, within the next decade. Maybe.

      c) I’m not denying Beveridge, or Lloyd George, or Gladstone. Or Disraeli or Churchill for that matter. There are great politicians, major and minor, in all of the parties. The people who are capable of thinking differently from their party, crossing traditional boundaries and forming new political allegiances. A minor but notable example was in the news today, the newly elected deputy-chairman of the Conservative party, Robert Halfon, who is a trade unionist campaigning for the party to embrace the movement.

      I think what you’re saying is about Labour’s natural base is similar to what I said, when Miliband was elected leader in 2010, about Labour retreating into its comfort zone. Though recent polls made me doubt myself, at the time I didn’t think we could win from there.

      So I agree Labour needs to reform, and, indeed, I cannot disagree with anything Tony Blair wrote this weekend.

      But though reform is vital, I take issue with ‘Labour will only ever win if they are left of centre, not left’. As Blair says ‘the centre is not where you split the difference between progressive and conservative politics’. I thought the LibDem’s miserably negative campaign in this election exemplified that thinking, with their ‘look left, look right, cross centre’ posters. They defined themselves in terms of what they weren’t. Rather than thinking of the centre as an arbitrary point on an imaginary spectrum, Labour should follow Blair’s advice: ‘The centre ground is as much a state of mind as a set of policies. It means that we appreciate that in today’s world many of the solutions will cross traditional boundaries of left and right. We need not just to be comfortable with this; but actively to seek out the alliances to embrace those outside our tribe as well as within it.’

    2. Oh, I’ve got to add to my response to a) now I’ve seen this fantastic listicle in which David Steel gives Clegg a thorough kicking.

      The House of Lords Bill was “destined to fail” he explains: “we desperately need a proper examination of how a reduced size senate could be elected by the component institutions of the UK (including the House of Commons) and thus provide a quasi-federal chamber able to tie in with home rule for the nations and an English Grand Committee for the Commons.”

      YES! That’s the kind of reform I wanted. Those were the days, when the LibDems really did have visionary ambitions for integrated constitutional reform.

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