Coalitions: What are they good for?

To me at least, it feels like this article belongs almost 5 years ago, when the coalition government first arrived in office, I remember sitting in the car listening on the radio to that announcement, and of course having no idea what it meant, more concerned with my Nintendo DS than who was going to run the country for the next five years. But what I do remember is the mild sense of panic that descended on the country at the prospect of a coalition government.

By Matt Smith
“Who let Clegg out of his box again?!” (Photo: Lib Dem Voice)


Five years later there seems to be less trepidation about a coalition, but they still seem to be talked about like this negative thing that will slowly destroy the country. But are coalitions all that bad?
Google’s dictionary function describes a coalition as “a temporary alliance for combined action, especially of political parties forming a government.” This works as long as you consider five years to be “temporary,” which I suppose to some it is, but as five years is more than a quarter of my lifetime, and given the long-term consequences this government’s actions may have, I would argue that although coalition governments may be technically temporary, the ramifications of it are not, especially since some of them are now law.

Take for example every students favourite ranting topic, tuition fees. In 2011 the coalition government changed the way tuition fees work, raising the cap from £3,000 to £9,000. The result was several months of protest and a lot of grumpy teenagers looking at the prospect of being £27,000 in debt from the age of 21. Despite Nick Clegg’s best efforts to apologise (and the remix from The Poke) a lot of people still remain very angry about this, and we’re seeing this in the polls (well the Lib Dems are feeling it instead, rather like someone is repeatedly punching them in the stomach, in a similar way to how they clobbered half their voters). 

The Greens polling the same as the Lib Dems? If that doesn’t worry Clegg, I don’t know
what will. (YouGov)
This drop in Lib Dem popularity has got to be at least partly due to what many see as a betrayal of their voters, and demonstrates quite clearly that coalition governments are just as accountable to their voters as any other. Or does it? The Conservative party are arguably equally responsible for this bill, yet their popularity has not suffered at all as a result of the change, despite the fact it was not a manifesto pledge, and notably fewer of their MPs objected. This is an issue because it means that when two or more parties are in government, one can take the blame for something that they are all responsible for, undermining the idea that government is accountable to the electorate.

However the tuition fees incident also answers another of the worries about coalitions; it disproves the theory that coalitions never get anything done. One of the constant issues raised by those sceptical about coalitions is that the differences between parties will always win through, preventing anything getting done and resulting in the government simply falling apart. The fact that the coalition not only managed to stay together throughout the tuition fees incident but through the remaining five years underlines the point that maybe coalitions are not as unstable as some think.

This is further evidenced by looking at many of the European states. The vast majority of these states use electoral systems which produce coalitions far more often; they are the definitive norm. Germany for instance, which most would agree is in relatively good economic shape, currently has a coalition, and their electoral system has a habit of producing them. From this, it’s reasonable to assume that coalitions are not disastrous for the health of a country, as the Tories and the Lib Dems are desperate to assert.

Denmark and even Northern Ireland have systems in place to ensure that government is either a minority or a coalition. Denmark in particular has a very small parliament and its system of proportional representation means that the seats are spread between many parties, leading to the acceptance of compromise as a political necessity. The current Prime minister’s party holds 44 of the 179 seats, making it the largest party in the parliament, however it clearly does not hold enough seats to pass it’s bills on it’s own, therefore relying on agreement with other parties. Northern Ireland also uses a similar system, with a power sharing system ensuring both of the main voting groups, unionists and nationalists, are represented in a way that will maintain cooperation.
Coalitions also promote compromise within governments, and this has the potential to make more balanced policies by moderating and diluting more extreme parties. This is particularly true with coalitions where one partner is the majority one (conservatives) and the other is the small, often forgotten minority party that provides that much needed majority in order to form a government. Whilst this seems rather unfair at times for the Lib Dems who get bossed around by their Conservative coalition partners/ruthless overlords, it does mean that they hold a surprising amount of sway within government. This is because they hold just enough seats to block a bill if they feel like it, and this in turn forces the other party to listen to them and to come to some agreement, something that is not present in single party governments.

All of this debunks the idea that coalition governments don’t get anything done and are not an effective alternative to single party ones. So why do they have such a bad reputation? Why did 2010 cause so much media panic? Well one theory would be that it’s simply because we haven’t had a coalition since World War 2, and this idea of change and the unknown is worrying for people. Questions immediately arose such as ‘how will the House of Lords react?’, and the only way those questions could be answered is by waiting to see. Now we’ve had five years of coalition, there’ll be much less fuss if 2015 turns out similarly, and personally I don’t think we’d be worse off if it did.

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