Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The Odd Couple: Coalition government in Britain

By Mark Bevir

David Cameron and Nick Clegg

Britain has its first coalition government for over 60 years. The Conservatives won 306 parliamentary seats, Labour 258, and the Liberals 57, with various other parties picking up the remaining 28. No party has a majority. Possible scenarios then included a minority Conservative government, a minority Lib-Lab coalition, and, what we have got: a majority government based on a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberals.

The defeated Labour Party is Britains left-wing, social democratic party. The Conservatives are the right-wing party. The Liberals Democrats are the center party, but they are far closer to Labour than to the Conservatives. Currently, the leading issue in British politics is how to reduce the public deficit. The Conservatives favor cuts in public spending; the Liberals, like Labour, talk of fairer taxation. On many other issues, the Conservatives and Liberals are even further apart than are the Conservatives and Labour. The Liberals are the most pro-European; the Conservatives, the most skeptical. Liberals are the most supportive of the environment and devolved power; the Conservatives are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Why did this odd couple form a coalition? The key factor surprising as this may sound was that they both fell short in the election.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg
Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg during their first joint press conference. Crown copyright

Before the election, the Conservatives must have been hoping to form a majority government. Falling short, they could have formed a minority government, but minority governments rarely last long. By entering a coalition with the Liberals, they have created a more stable and potentially effective government. The Liberals still struggled as a third party in a first-past-the-post electoral system. Their only hope of growth lies in electoral reform. They were attracted into a coalition by the Conservatives offer of a referendum on proportional representation (PR).

Why did the Liberals not form a coalition with Labour? One possibility is that Labour refused to do a deal on PR. Another is that the Liberals found themselves boxed-in. Before the election, the Liberals said they would open talks with whichever party got most seats, and that was the Conservatives. A case could be made, moreover, that the voters had expressed clear dissatisfaction with Gordon Brown, and the Liberals may not have wanted to seem to be shoring-up an unpopular Prime Minister. Besides, a Lib-Lab coalition would still have been a minority government with only a dubious claim to greater legitimacy than a minority Conservative government.

So, the Conservatives offered the Liberals the key concession of a referendum on PR and the Liberals went for it. There is a sense of desperation on both sides here.

The Liberals look desperate for PR. Before the election, the pundits were telling us that the Liberals prospects looked rosy: their leader did well in the debates, and they were picking up disgruntled Labour voters. Yet, the Liberals actually saw their number of parliamentary seats fall. They must have concluded that they will remain marginal to British politics unless they get electoral reform. Was the mere promise of a referendum on PR sufficient to outweigh their distaste for so many Conservative policies?

As for the Conservatives, they are presumably betting on the British public voting against PR in any future referendum. I think that is a safe bet. But why would they take the risk of breaking up an electoral system that so strongly favors them as one of the two main parties? Well, they have barely defeated a very tired Labour Party that had been in government for 13 years, was led by a notoriously dour and uncharismatic leader, and was tarred by recent economic crises. They must be thinking that if they cannot win outright under such circumstances, they may struggle ever to do so. Was the specter of permanent minority status sufficient to outweigh their distaste for PR?

The sense of desperation around the coalition government may be the clue to its significance. Like all coalitions, it will be unstable, and is unlikely to last the full five years of the current parliament. However, the real significance of the coalition lies in what it tells us about the state of British politics. The Liberals loss of seats underlines their marginal status. The Conservatives failure to win a majority underlines the strong and entrenched presence of an anti-Conservative majority among the electorate.

When the new coalition government fails, Labour will hope to capitalize on that majority by picking up Liberal voters who are repulsed by their new Conservative allies. In the meantime, Labour can replace the extremely unpopular Gordon Brown, refashion its message, and avoid direct responsibility for the increased taxation and cuts in public spending needed to address the deficit. In the long run, Labour may turn out to be the real beneficiaries of the odd couples marriage of convenience.