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Expert Comment: The Politics of Coalitions

Downing Street Monday 20 April 2015

Senior Lecturer in Politics, Dr Michael Holmes examines at the politics of coalitions as we increasingly look to be heading for an election with no clear winning majority.

The most recent edition of PSA News, the newsletter of the Political Studies Association, contains the results of a poll of British political scientists about the coming election. They point to one thing: this will be an incredibly close-run election, with the Conservatives and Labour “virtually inseparable” in terms of both votes and seats. This in turn means that there is a real likelihood that no party will win an outright majority in parliament, and that the UK might be returning to another coalition government.

The word ‘coalition’ is regarded very negatively in the UK, but this flies in the face of plenty of evidence. Coalition governments are found in the majority of democratic countries, and while of course there are some bad examples – no political system yet devised can prevent bad politics! – there are many very successful examples. For example, stable, prosperous and thoroughly democratic states like Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Austria have been dominated in the post-war years by coalitions. So coalitions can be a very effective means of governing a country.

The problem in the UK is the lack of knowledge about coalitions. This means that parties are reluctant to try them – and are badly equipped to make them work. This has been evident in the outgoing Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, which showed three fundamental flaws in terms of ‘good coalition’ behaviour.

First of all, the parties did not enter into the coalition with a great deal of enthusiasm. Particularly on the Conservative side, it was seen as an unfortunate and temporary aberration, not as a natural form of government. Second, the parties never really thought the arrangement y would have to be renewed, and that is something that can be crucial to making a coalition work well – if you don’t think you might need your partner’s support again, there is no incentive to treat them fairly and respectfully. And third, the two parties did not consider any form of pre-election pact.

Specific political skills and awareness are needed to make coalitions work well, and British parties simply do not have those skills – not yet. But the outcome of the election in May might mean that they will need to go one stage further in their education about a very common and effective form of government.

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