True or false – ‘The Coalition’ of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that governed between 2010 and 2015 was the first coalition in Westminster since the Second World War.
If you confidently answered ‘true’, you’d be factually accurate – but wrong.
The idea that single party governments are not coalitions has been built for years on the observation of such governments rolling out their programme for government with near iron discipline. With the government whips ensuring that their MPs vote the way they are told, it is rare for government with a healthy majority (ie. more than 20) to lose a vote in the House of Commons. Indeed, as early as the 1950s one observer suggested it would be more economical to keep a pack of trained sheep that could be driven through the division lobbies in the appropriate numbers when a vote was required.
There are a number of rebuttals to this model, not least of which is the rise of independent minded and disobedient backbenchers being more prepared to rebel against the government. But for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on proposition which I believe to be true – that we are a nation of coalition builders.
Let’s be clear first of all what we mean by a ‘coalition.’ The narrow definition, typically used in political science, refers to two or more parties coming together to form a government. The parties have distinct beliefs and objectives, hence they do not formally merge, but for the purpose of being enable to accomplish at least some of their aims they unite behind a shared programme, compromise where they are able to, and agree to disagree where they cannot compromise.
You will notice however, that the narrow definition used where two or more parties form a governing coalition, applies equally as well in a broader context. It applies to every kind of political action, from the resident in your street looking to build support to oppose the closing of a local amenity, to the would-be party leader gathering support for their leadership bid. Success in politics looks like persuading people who wouldn’t ordinarily stand together to unite behind what they do agree with. Politics, by its very nature, is about coalition building. This matters, because ultimately choosing who governs us is not about ideological purity, but about building the broadest coalition of support – every majority government since the war has had to build a broad enough consensus to win the trust and support of the electorate.
Two particularly noteworthy examples are Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. While Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 was in no small part due to the personal appeal of Tony Blair, it was just as much because the Conservative Party was badly and publicly divided, and had retreated to their party base rather than appealing to the broad electorate. Mrs Thatcher meanwhile is only remembered for the “Iron Lady” image she cultivated of being a conviction politician. What is forgotten is that her first two terms were marked with distinct caution – her convictions steered her, but she knew she needed to carry enough of the electorate with her to win power. Her abandon of that caution, and a narrowing of her base, led to her downfall in 1990, as the Conservatives realised they could not win the next election with her as Prime Minister.
The exact same principle was seen in the coalition of 2010. It’s easily forgotten that Gordon Brown had the opportunity to stay in power heading a Lib-Lab coalition. On paper it should have been a no-brainer – while the Parliamentary arithmetic would have been tricky, the Liberal Dems were guaranteed a change to the electoral system, and probably would have been more ideologically comfortable with Labour. One of the main reasons that they ultimately went with the Conservatives was down to attitude – the Tories were willing to treat the Lib Dems as coalition partners, whereas Labour led with a series of demands and expectations. A government was formed by the party prepared to build a broad base.
What lessons does that give us for today? For one, we should take caution to presume that multi-party coalitions are necessarily a ‘broader base.’ I became convinced that the Tories would win after David Cameron’s party conference speech in 2014. The Prime Minister made a pitch to the whole nation, and continued to do so. The ‘Anti-Austerity Coalition’ (ie. Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens) was only a coalition in the narrow sense – in practice, all of the parties had a very similar platform, appealing to a very narrow section of the electorate. Part of the reason the Tories won was that the single party was a broader coalition than the actual coalition of left-leaning parties.
It also spells a warning for both Labour and the Conservatives. Some very interesting research emerged today showing that the Labour Party’s membership is broadly in agreement with the stance of those who identify as Jeremy Corbyn supporters. These supporters are deluding themselves however if they think they can be elected on an ideologically pure programme – not because the programme is unpalatable, but because the programme cannot appeal to a broad enough base of the electorate. Similarly, the Conservatives must remember to come back together after the referendum result. I think the media are premature to assume present divisions will fatally split the party – the Tories have been successful in winning elections historically by their capacity to come together and present a broad coalition for government. If they forget that and allow public disputes to arise, they may be in for an unpleasant shock.
It also serves as a warning for advocates of electoral change. Aside of arguments of fairness, the biggest argument made by those who favour a more proportional system of voting is that it is perceived to produce a more consensual style of politics. The rationale runs that as it is unlikely that one party will win a clear majority, parties must necessarily learn to work together in a coalition, producing more nuanced and compromised decisions than would be the case under a majority government. I think it is entirely fair to observe that it is not a case of a coalition system against a non-coalition system. Every political environment requires successful coalition building, and it is not necessarily a given that formalising this improves the quality of decision taking.
Finally, it should hopefully encourage us (and I include myself in this) to take a nuanced view of political parties. In recognising that the only non-coalition party has only one member, we recognise that when we say ‘Conservative’ or ‘Labour’ we are actually referring to a broad spectrum within those labels of political views, passions, and perspectives. It hopefully encourages us to be generous towards our political opponents, and to build our own coalitions to achieve succes.