By Till Sommer, Senior Consultant, London
Unlike many other countries, coalition governments are (or at least used to be) the exception to the rule in British politics.
Traditionally Westminster only sees coalition governments in times of crisis so it is not surprising that many commentators did not expect the Coalition Government to last. However, after 4 years, 6 months and 16 days, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are still in power and even though they are not as chummy as when they staged a press conference in the Downing Street rose garden, this Government has defied expectations and stayed the course. The number of defeats in the Commons has been low and the accusation of a zombie parliament stems more from the introduction of fixed term parliaments than coalitions themselves.
Theoretically, the Westminster political system should not produce a coalition government, and it historically has not. However, it can be argued that the language of a two party system was outdated before 2010, and it is becoming ever more obvious that neither Labour nor the Tories are sufficiently popular enough to command large majorities. In an increasingly fragmented political system, with the rise of UKIP, it is likely that the UK electorate will return yet another hung parliament in 2015.
Being German, I find calls for a minority Government using a confidence and supply arrangement rather peculiar (do drop me a line @tillsommer if you want to know why). Taking aside the undesirable circumstances of fringe party coalitions pulling a Government too far in either direction or grand coalitions that completely marginalise the Opposition (neither of which are particularly probable in the UK in the near future), I would go as far as to argue that coalitions are not only the better alternative to minority party rule, but even to a majority Government. There are two main reasons for this:
- Coalitions can be more democratic and this is especially relevant in Britain’s first past the post system where large chunks of the electorate have little say in the final outcome if they have to vote in a safe seat, and especially if they support smaller parties.
- Coalitions can be more reasonable as they force coalition partners to make compromises and thus give less power to the extreme fringes that are present in all political parties.
There is of course the argument that coalitions can be hard to manage and that the need to find compromises slows down decision making. However, all parties are essentially made up of different competing factions in themselves and one only has to look at the previous Brown/Blair and Major Governments to realise that single party governments can be just as fertile an environment for infighting and ineffective decision-making as coalitions are purported to be.
From a purely self-interested public affairs perspective, coalitions are also more fun to work with. They provide a more diverse environment and make things less predictable – and we all like a challenge!