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The Politics of Coalition

By James M Heather, on 15 October 2012

The Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London.

We are almost halfway through the first coalition government that the UK has had in more than 70 years, which seems like an appropriate time to reflect on its successes and its failures.

Thankfully, Professor Robert Hazell (director of the UCL Constitution Unit) and his Research Associate Ben Yong spent the entirety of 2011 doing just that – roaming the halls of Whitehall and Westminster to rack up an impressive number of interviews with all manner of ministers, journalists and civil servants.

Their work was recently published in The Politics of Coalition and, last Wednesday, both authors presented a quick run-down of some of the key findings in the book.

The talk gave great insight into the inner workings of our current government – and how coalitions differ from the majority governments that we’ve experienced recently – which perhaps might not surface through other channels.

Professor Hazell started the seminar by talking us through the actual mechanics of the coalition and how the Lib-Cons have tweaked the formal and informal cabinet machinery to ensure fulfilment of the coalition agreement.

For instance, much of the formal framework that fell into disrepair under Blair was rejuvenated, while several of the committees set up at the outset of the coalition have met infrequently – some virtually never since the first few months of government.

This isn’t to say that the governance is lacking, rather that the bulk of the work has migrated into a number of informal groups that have sprung up within the coalition, wherein relevant senior members of both parties work in close collaboration to thrash out the business at hand before channelling their results to the formal arenas.

This model is exemplified by the top dogs themselves: the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister typically meet once per week.

As a government, the coalition is fairly strong; what it wants, it gets, having a majority in both Houses of Parliament.

However, being a mix of politicians from different ideologies, it also suffers from record numbers of backbench rebellions from both parties – more, in fact, than any other postwar administration, a trend which they foresee worsening in the second session. The coalition gets away with the rebellion, however, as it’s occurring within and not between parties.

A great deal of the talk centred on using the information discovered to put together guidelines for future potential coalition governments.

For the larger parties involved, one need only emulate the Tories, who (in this analysis) have made a political success out of this government.

The smaller party has the rougher deal and needs to get scrappy in their negotiations to ensure that they end up with the support they require. Such a party also needs to plan the strategy of their contribution to a government, as highlighted in one of the examples given.

In the UK coalition, the smaller party went for breadth of impact, with junior ministers in almost every governmental department (slightly fewer after the reshuffle). However, these ministers have an extremely tough time of it, being islands of yellow adrift in seas of blue.

The other option, of course, is to aim for depth, and choose a small number of departments to fill with your own members and leave the rest to the larger party, as frequently happens in Germany.

The biggest surprise of the talk for me arose during the questions at the end, when it was asked whether future coalitions should be subject to provisions for ideological cohesion between the partaking parties.

The assertion was made that most Lib Dem voters would be more inclined to align themselves and their politics with Labour. However, in an analysis overlaying the three party manifestos from the last election it turns out that there was actually far more overlap between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems than either party showed with Labour.

They also made predictions for the future of this coalition, and for coalitions to come. They say that this government will go all the way through to May 2015, as neither party would benefit from leaving early.

The Conservatives get all the kudos from being the benevolent larger party (while still getting their way), and the Lib Dems need to make the most of their platform to have any hopes of staying as the pivotal third party by the time the next election comes around.

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