Business and Management
Submitted By tomhayter
How has Coalition Government affected Party Politics in the U.K?
The arrival of a coalition government formed between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party in 2010 has affected UK party politics in various ways, the nature of which is looked into below.
The governing of a country by a coalition of two political parties with differing political stances will involve negotiation between and some degree of compromise on behalf of the two parties. This is necessary in order to come to some form of agreement on key policies, such as those affecting the economy, unemployment, crime, environmental concerns, welfare, law and order and education, amongst other policy areas. The agreements reached are also, to a certain degree, in a balance of compliance with key political beliefs or philosophies of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in terms of their respective guiding principles on areas such as social justice, the appropriate degree of state intervention and the importance of equality and availability of opportunity within society.
The rise to power of a coalition government has made Consensus politics a key feature of UK party politics, since the nature of a coalition involves broad agreement on most basic policies between the two major political parties forming the coalition; the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The ability and will to negotiate and agree is of key importance if a coalition is to be able to govern effectively, in an organised manner and reach agreements that are felt to be most in the interests of the society it governs; a key principle of democracy.
Consensus politics refers to a process whereby decision makers seek to find a wide level of general agreement within the political community before attempting to bring forward proposals; a process which occurs currently within the parties forming the coalition. So, the duration of the coalition government is likely to be a period of few major political conflicts between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, and an overall lack of strong ideology in the politics of either party. So it can be said that the rise to power of the Coalition government has also brought about an emergence of Consensus politics within UK party politics.
This text looks at the way party politics has been affected by the coalition government. Party politics refer to actions or political behaviours motivated by what is best or right for the political party, rather than for the people of society.
In forming a coalition with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrat party has been forced to modify or even abandon some of its policies as part of the process of compromising with its senior partner. Losing some of their policies is seen as a price worth paying for being part of government. In other words, the actions of the Liberal Democrats in this circumstance were determined by what would most promote the agenda of their party. This is despite the fact that, by being in a coalition, they would not be able to implement the policies and govern in a way they believe would be best for the people, to the extent that they would wish. For UK party politics, this shows that parties will place the obtaining of power and government office above adherence to their political philosophies and beliefs.
The coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties also has the effect of making these parties more closely associated in terms of how they are viewed in the eyes of the electorate. Any unpopular decisions made by the coalition government will be seen as being the responsibility of both coalition parties. Vice versa.
The main opposition to the current coalition government is the Labour party. The fact that it is now in opposition against a government comprising two political parties effectively allows it to place both parties in the same ‘basket’ so to speak when criticising policies and decisions made by the coalition government. The same view could be taken by the electorate. This would not be the case if there was say, a mono-party Conservative government. In this situation, Liberal Democrats, (although admittedly not in government office) would be free to adhere strongly to their political principles which distinguish them from the Conservatives and not risk losing voter favour in the next general election on the account of coalition policies that prove to be too unpopular, which may not entirely have been their doing or what they would have wished for. It is therefore in the interests of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to make the coalition government ‘work’. If the coalition turns out to be unpopular, it will bring down the re-election chances of both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, come the 2015 general election.
Overall, coalition government has affected UK party politics in a way that has seen development of consensus politics and the prioritisation of power and government office over parties keeping to their principles, beliefs and policy plans
In the past few years, there has been increasing speculation that the next UK general election will produce a Parliament in which no single party holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons. In common parlance, this is referred to as a ‘hung parliament, it is relatively rare for the Westminster Parliament to be ‘hung’ following an election; however, the probability is increasing due to the growth of third parties and the way that the electoral system translates popular votes into Commons seats. At regular intervals throughout the past two years, opinion polls have regularly predicted that the next general election is likely to produce a hung parliament. Although they are common in other democracies, hung parliaments have traditionally been viewed in the UK as unwelcome aberrations that produce short-lived and ineffectual governments. In light of the increasing likelihood of a hung parliament, the Hansard Society believes the time is right to explore what impact it might have on British politics. As a non-partisan organisation, we are neither ‘for’ nor ‘against’ a hung parliament. We recognise that all parties seek to win any election they contest outright. However, as part of our promotion of effective parliamentary democracy, we believe it would be prudent to shed light on the issues that might arise in the event of a hung parliament. Our new book, No Overall Control?, contains chapters by distinguished academics, politicians and commentators on the key issues surrounding a House of Commons with no overall majority. It examines the history of hung parliaments in the UK, constitutional and procedural issues, lessons from other Westminster-style systems where majority governments are less common, and how a hung parliament affects the functioning of Parliament, the prospects for electoral reform and public opinion. This article provides an overview of some of the book’s key findings. THE UK’s First Past the Post electoral system has traditionally acted as a barrier to a hung parliament, as it usually rewards the party with the most votes with a disproportionately high number of seats. Westminster has not experienced a hung parliament since 1974, and there were only four others in the twentieth century after the following general elections: January 1910, December 1910, December 1923 and May 1929.4 However, both Vernon Bogdanor and David Butler note that majority governments may not be as predominant as we may think; for 34 of the last 100 years, Britain has experienced coalition or minority rule, with the latter. This fact has perhaps been eclipsed by a decade of Labour majority government and large Conservative majorities in the 1980s. However, outside Westminster, other British political institutions are rapidly learning to adapt to a situation in which no political party achieves a majority of seats, as it is increasingly common in the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales as well as in local councils. Moreover, the likelihood of a hung parliament has significantly increased in recent years due to the decline in two-party dominance and changes in the relation between seats and votes. During the past 50 years, the number of MPs from outside the two major parties has increased from one per cent of Members to 14 per cent. As David Butler explains, ‘the no-man’s land between a clear majority for one side and a clear majority for the other has expanded more than tenfold and so has the chance of a hung parliament. landslides are smaller than they used to be and narrow majorities have become narrower.’ He cites the calculations of Rallings and Thresher which demonstrate that there is a six per cent no-man’s land between a clear Conservative majority and clear Labour majority which would result in a hung While the electoral system currently favours Labour, boundary changes in 2007 have reduced its majority by around a half, giving the party only between 30 and 40 seats more than the other parties rather than the 64 seats they enjoy at the moment. Thus, even a small swing against the incumbent party to the opposition would see Labour’s overall majority disappear. Yet, while it may be relatively easy for the Conservatives to deprive Labour of their majority, it will be more difficult for them to secure an overall majority, as they would need to win over 42 per cent of the popular vote. This is no easy feat, considering that Labour clearly won the last election with only 35.3% of the vote.
A hung parliament makes it more challenging to form a government following a general election, as it may not be obvious who should be appointed the prime minister. Each hung parliament in the past has produced a slightly different outcome. However, one of four things will generally occur: Formation of a single-party minority government with outside support and operating on an agreed programme, Formation of a single-party minority government living day-to-day, Formation of a majority coalition; Dissolution of Parliament. In Westminster, single-party minority government rather than coalition has been the rule, generally by the party which has won the highest number of seats (even if by a very small margin). At no time during the twentieth century did the leader of the second largest party become the prime minister. During this period, coalitions have only emerged from war or economic crisis; Disraeli’s oft-repeated remark that ‘England does not love coalitions’ has been born out thus far. However, the same cannot be said for Scotland and Wales.
In contrast to some other political systems, British constitutional arrangements do not require the prime minister to resign immediately after an election that produces a hung parliament. The convention is that he or she is free to remain in office until losing the confidence of the Commons. As Vernon Bogdanor remarks, support in the Commons can mean that the government commands the support of a majority; however, it can also mean that there is no majority in the Commons against it. This convention has served to facilitate minority governments and discourage coalitions. The incumbent prime minister has three options in the event of a hung parliament: resign immediately, or only resign if defeated after a vote in the Commons or solicit support from other parties and only resign if it is not forthcoming . Some authorities also maintain that the prime minister can legitimately ask the monarch for a second dissolution of Parliament following a hung parliament, though this is controversial and has never happened—and would involve a considerable political gamble.
In Britain’s constitutional monarchy, the sovereign has retained a variety of ancient personal prerogative powers. In the event of a hung parliament, three potentially come into play: inviting someone to form a government, dismissing ministers from office and dissolving Parliament. Although convention dictates that the sovereign must act impartially and, whenever possible, upon the advice of a responsible minister, the circumstances of a hung parliament may force her to exercise a certain degree of discretion which has the potential to lead to accusations of political bias. For example, she will have to choose who to appoint if the incumbent prime minister resigns immediately or is defeated in the Commons. It is for this reason that some have called for reform of the sovereign’s personal prerogatives. The Fabian Society’s Commission on the Future of the Monarchy called for dissolution of Parliament to be strictly regulated by statute and for the appointment of the prime minister to be a matter for Parliament. It has been suggested elsewhere that the Speaker of the House could appoint the prime minister. However, after years of reflection on the role of the sovereign in the event of a hung parliament, Vernon Bogdanor has come to believe that it would not pose any constitutional problems for the Queen. This is because he thinks the fundamental convention of parliamentary government—that government must retain the confidence of the House of Commons—would remain unaltered by hung parliament. There is no reason why negotiations between the political leaders should involve the sovereign. Even if the sovereign was involved, she would remain a facilitator, not a negotiator. Bogdanor asserts that hung parliaments serve to expose the fundamental, yet rarely discussed, principle of parliamentary government: that a government depends upon the confidence of Parliament. Hung parliaments have not been uncommon in parliamentary democracies overseas, including in other Westminster-style systems. The experiences of the devolved institutions of Wales and Scotland, as well as Canada are instructive. In these contexts, hung parliaments have produced surprisingly stable governments with few of the dire consequences usually suggested. WALES
Since the Welsh Assembly’s establishment in 1999, both minority administrations and coalitions—some very unlikely—have been more common than single-party majority administrations. The proportional electoral system in Cardiff—the Additional Member System (AMS)—is much more likely to deliver coalition or minority governments than Westminster’s First Past the Post system. Coalition governments have proved to be more workable and stable than minority administrations (or majority administrations founded on a tiny majority). However, political parties in Wales have been reluctant to form a coalition; negotiations to form one, following the 2007 election, took over two months. To everyone’s surprise, they resulted in the least likely of combinations: Labour–Plaid Cymru. Roseanne Palmer, Stephen Thornton and Mark Crowley conclude that the clear message from Wales is that political parties in the UK can adapt to a system where single-party majority government is the exception rather than the rule; if push comes to shove, all parties have demonstrated a willingness to cooperate in forming coalition government. However, while party elites are gradually adapting to multi-party government, everyone else—including party members, the public and the media—is ‘still trying to play the game according to the old Westminster rules’. Like the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament has predominantly had coalition or minority government since its establishment in 1999, again due to its use of the AMS form of voting. Indeed, it was designed to do just this in order to forge a more consensual ‘new politics’. For the Parliament’s first eight years, Labour and the Liberal Democrats governed as a coalition. James Mitchell suggests that the experience was not all that different from majority government. Parties remained cohesive and mostly obeyed the whips. From May 2007 onwards, however, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has governed as a minority government with support from the Green Party that does not quite amount to a traditional confidence and supply agreement. Mitchell feels that the new minority government has the potential to significantly alter Scottish politics. The old distinction between being in and out of power is blurred with minority government, and all parties, if they play their cards well, can influence the public policy agenda. Mitchell concludes that the experience of the Scottish Parliament demonstrates that ‘new institutions alone do not result in new cultures.’ However, as in Wales, the parties themselves do not seem to have quite grasped this.
On the whole, a coalition government has had affects, but is also a very common happening in the world of UK politics.