It is quite likely we are moving, hesitatingly and perhaps not in a straight line, towards an era of coalition governments in the UK.
This may seem a strange assertion given the current state of Party support in the polls, which would almost certainly give Labour an outright majority if they were reflected in an actual election. The third-party, Liberal Democrat, vote seems to have collapsed, mostly to the advantage of Labour which could aid them to 30 or more extra seats. The boundary changes – expected to help the Tories win 30 more seats – seem doomed. A Labour majority government seems distinctly possible.
But consider the longer historical trend – 60 years ago at the 1951 General Election the two main parties hoovered up 93% of the vote. By 2010 that had declined to 65%. Nor was this a fluke – there is an almost straight line drop in support for the two main parties. And support for a third ‘national’ party really doesn’t matter that much any more either – the third of the electorate that goes for other parties does so on a very fragmented basis. Nationalists, UKIP, Greens – all will probably benefit next time round too.
Only our ‘first past the post’ system preserves the dominance of the two main parties – without it we would have already been into an era of coalition governments decades ago. 2010 suggests we may have gotten there anyway.
However Britain’s political class clearly has a very long way to go before it fully embraces and understands these tectonic shifts. Many politicians in both Labour and the Conservatives are still yearning for majoritarian government. Amongst the Tories especially there is a delusional view that if they would just be more authentically Conservative they would burst through and win a majority. This is reminiscent of the 1980s Labour left who held similar, but polar opposite, delusions about how a left lurch would secure a majority.
In many ways the New Labour governments of Tony Blair, between 1997 and 2007, were the first coalition governments. “New Labour” welded together an alliance that encompassed neo-liberal radicals through to social democratic and even socialist elements. The genius of Blair was to be able to hold this fragile alliance together for so long.
The first “real” coalition – between two distinct political parties – has proved rather less stable. it has swung from a preposterously naive ‘love in’ in May 2010 through to fractious Royal Marriage status by the summer of 2012.
What is most strange is that the Liberal Democrats – the great advocates of constitutional change that would almost guarantee permanent coalitions – seem to have been thoroughly unprepared for the reality.
Their first fundamental error was to go for a sort of ‘national unity’ government which involved agreement on a complete programme for government and collective Cabinet responsibility with the Tories.
Their explanation for this – the idea we were in some sort of existential national crisis akin to Greece – was always specious. Even if it were true, why was the ‘answer’ not an actual National Government as in the 1930s or 1940s? No, this was a majoritarian project dressed up in coalitional clothes. The Lib Dems foolishly thought they could hammer out, and stick to, a joint programme for government for a whole Parliament. they were seduced into thinking Coalition meant coalescence.
After slightly more than two years the reality has dawned and the bitterness and conflicts have erupted. Already there is talk of when, not if, the coalition will break up. From both behaving like Childish lovers now both parties are trying to impose their Parent status on the relationship. Neither side can seem to get to an Adult-Adult transactional state – it is probably too late for that now.
(For those unfamiliar with the Parent-Adult-Child categories of transactional psychology – go read Eric Berne – Games People Play).
A coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats from May 2010 could have worked much better. If both sides had maintained their ‘adult’ status and more realistically agreed to differ on a whole range of policies, rather than trying to agree, or rather submit, to things they didn’t agree on, it might have worked. “Adults” would have agreed to differ on a lot more, made some compromises, and generally not pretended to ‘fuse’ into some mushy single entity. Unfortunately our institutional set up (e.g. collective Cabinet responsibility) made this even more difficult, but even that could have been challenged and changed to suit the reality. In future it will almost certainly have to be reformed into something more suited to coalition governments.
If our future lies in coalition governments – which it probably does – our political class has to get a much better grasp on how to play the coalition game.