Saturday, September 8, 2007

At last! The antidote to hysterical talk of coalitions

The pamphlet “In the balance: coalition and minority government in Britain and abroad” from CentreForum is a welcome contribution to the debate on hung parliaments.

Earlier this week I pooh-poohed an article from Mark Oaten on a potential Lib-Con coalition. Perhaps that was unfair, given my welcome now for CentreForum’s opus. However, Mr Oaten has a book to promote and a career to kick-start. His article suggested commonalities between the LibDems and the Tories which I simply don’t think exist.

In contrast, the CentreForum pamphlet is more objective and authoritative. It takes a look at the structures of minority government and coalitions, using the recent examples of Wales, Scotland and Germany.

I am always very reluctant to enter into discussions about coalitions. That is often because such discussions have, historically, tended to be ridiculously simplistic and bordering on the hysterical. “In the balance” covers the various complexities of balanced governments and, from them, produces some very objective and sober conclusions. As such, the pamphlet is the antidote to those hitherto frenetic, conclusion-jumping debates about coalitions.

The pamphlet goes through the history of hung parliaments here and abroad. One aspect of history, which it highlights, is one which is often conveniently forgotten. John Major’s government was kept in power by the Ulster Unionists in 1996. Also, while Conservatives have slammed Brown’s use of advisers from other parties, the paper notes that Churchill did this in 1951 - with those awful Liberals, of all people!

“In the balance” relates some of the institutional structures present elsewhere, and absent in Westminster, which are essential in facilitating stable coalition government. In Germany they have fixed term parliaments which stop any shenanigans with the election dates (bliss!). They also have a system where the ousting of a government requires a “constructive vote of no confidence” – i.e. “the Chancellor can be removed from office only by the Bundestag if he or she is replaced by an alternative candidate in command of a parliamentary majority.” In Scotland they have had specialist, expert committees which have often provided “cover” for political parties to take action to defuse controversial problems.

The paper makes an interesting observation about the possibility of similar structures for Westminster:

In principle, Westminster parties could also set up such mechanisms. The potential difficulty is that a political culture which sees minority or coalition governments as short lived anomalies would have little incentive to build mediating institutions. This could potentially have serious implications for the viability of coalitions at Westminster.

“In the balance” also makes a point which is often forgotten in debates about hung parliaments – “minority government is a viable alternative to a coalition” – a point which is now receiving a timely demonstration, to some extent, by the SNP in Scotland.

The paper also interestingly highlights the importance of the public’s perception when forming governments after elections. If it is clearly thought that an existing government is “knackered” and that there is a popular view that they “lost” the election (even though the arithmetic may not be so overwhelming) then that perception plays a key role in what happens after the election.

Pulling all this together, the pamphlet concludes:

In the absence of significant electoral reform, coalition or minority governments are likely to remain exceptions to the norm in Westminster – although a continued long term decline in the standing of the two major parties and a more fragmented party system may make them more frequent than they have been since 1945. As such, the institutional structures and cultural norms which sustain coalitions are likely to remain absent in Westminster without a very conscious effort to put them in place, which, in something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, further reduces the viability of coalitions here. Nonetheless, the examples show that Westminster should not fear minority or coalition government. This form of government may introduce added complexity, and the need for certain new institutional mechanisms. But (our) essays show that coalitions and minority governments can produce both stable and productive governments, and may pave the way to a more consensual style of politics.

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