This year’s UK party conference season has been concentrating minds on the next general election, even though it is two years away and over the blue horizon of the independence referendum. Each party wants to form the next government in May 2015 but the tormenting question is: what happens if no one party has a majority in the House of Commons?
Most people, of course, want one party to win outright – 67 per cent, according to the latest opinion poll (ComRes for ITV). But, as we all know, it is not what happened at the last election, and the Liberal Democrats seem to believe it is not what will happen at the next election. They have a Rousseau-like belief that it is the general will of the people to see parties “working together” to form a consensus government.
It is not, however, what the opinion polls are saying. Again according to that ComRes poll, 51 per cent of voters want the largest party to rule. And that makes sense to me. As Alex Salmond demonstrated in the Scottish Parliament from 2007- 2011, a minority government can rule well, last the whole term and be successful, as judged by the people at the following election.
Of course, he had to win a majority in parliament for any new law and for his budget. So he had to accept that the Edinburgh trams went ahead, that there should be a thousand more police on the beat, that there was not enough support for a local income tax. On each of these issues, an open debate took place in parliament. And when there is no overall consensus in the country for one particular philosophy, then this is how political business should be done, issue by issue.
But there’s a curious fashion among politicians these days for coalition governments. The Germans are putting one together as I write, so too are the Norwegians. The Italians, the Irish, the Belgians and at least 20 other countries are keen on coalitions. Only, however, as a last resort and because no one party can win the support of most of the people.
Coalitions are dangerous things. They can fall apart at any moment. They can push through unpopular measures. They concentrate power in the secrecy of the cabinet room rather than in the directly elected parliament. They lead to incoherent trade-offs of one policy against another (eg free school meals/tax breaks for married couples). They can lead to a small party staying permanently in government as it forms coalitions with first one major party and then another. (This can be dangerous for the small party concerned, as the Free Democrats have found in Germany and the Liberal Democrats may be about to find out in Britain in 2015.)
In fact, the Liberal Democrats are the very party that can ensure that we do not have a coalition next time, by promising in advance that they will not enter a coalition with either the Conservatives or with Labour. And I would argue it would be to their advantage. First, it would be a popular stance, likely to win them more votes. Second, it would allow them to say they are breaking the mould of tribal British politics and instead introducing “issue politics”. And third, it would be underlining the power of parliament over the executive…governments propose but parliaments dispose.
Some people say minority governments are unstable. So are coalitions, of course. But we now have fixed term parliaments in the UK and Scotland which make multiple general elections less likely. In the event of a no-confidence motion being passed in parliament, it’s more likely now that another leader from the same largest party would be invited by the Queen to form a government. In any case, why should there not be another election if MPs cannot agree on a government?
Some people say a minority government cannot get anything done. What they mean is that it cannot get its own way all the time. And why should it? It doesn’t mean the country descends into chaos. Ministers would run the administration day-to-day, assisted by their civil servants and systems already in place would continue…budgets, laws, quangos, local governments etc. On major issues, a minority government has to go out and win a majority of MPs for what it wants to do.
Some people say minority government and issue-by-issue politics leads to a decline in political parties and the rise of maverick independents. But there is no reason why this should happen. Campaigners would still need to organise into teams and to work on a local level. And they would still gravitate towards a particular political philosophy…building on earlier traditions. And each party would still put forward a general manifesto on which it would hope to win the popular vote outright.
The advantage of staying out of coalitions is that parties would not have to compromise their election pledges. They could vote in parliament along the lines of their manifesto, without bringing down the government and causing a political crisis.
Some people say minority governments cause uncertainty. Not if the system is that the largest party forms the government on the morning after an election. There is no week of coalition haggling to unsettle the financial markets. And people would be able to form a pretty clear view of which way parliament would vote on each issue. Coalitions, in the end, are a conspiracy by the politicians against the voters.
And it’s not that minority government has not been tried. Norway has had three minority governments since the war, Canada has had 11. In Australia, Julia Gillard ruled for three years with a minority government. Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan both led minority governments for a time. John Major’s government was a minority – if you exclude the Ulster Unionists. Labour in Wales have formed the administration without an overall majority. And, as mentioned, Alex Salmond showed how it could be done in some style.
The Liberal Democrats argue that by being in government they have achieved more of their policies than being outside it. I doubt it. Many of the changes they claim to have won would have happened anyway…raising the income tax threshold, investment in early years education, linking pensions to the “triple lock” of earnings, prices or 2.5 per cent. They claim to have “tamed the Tories”. But we still have austerity in the form of deep cuts in public spending and we have a British veto on a treaty to bring financial stability to Europe.
It would have been easier for the Liberal Democrats to block Tory excesses by linking up with Labour in the Commons on issues such as university fees, NHS reforms, or the spare room subsidy.
The Liberal Democrats will probably live to regret their panic in May 2010 and their leaders’ wish to rush into government. I don’t quite understand politicians’ weakness for ministerial power, when they could have real power as MPs, and a much easier life. They can still see their ambitions fulfilled for a mixed economy, full employment, decent public services, local decision-making, protection for our human rights, care for the environment etc through a parliament with a real say on all executive action.
End the coalition conspiracy now.