21 July 2010

Regardless of how long the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition lasts, long-term trends suggest that hung parliaments and coalitions are likely to become more common in future. In other words, the 2010 election result was almost certainly no fluke. So some thought is needed about how the political system needs to adapt to make a success of multi-party government. In a series of blogs, of which this is the first post, I will be addressing this subject.

According to Nick Clegg, the historic formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government signals "a permanent move to greater pluralism, diversity, and fluidity in politics" and a new era in which coalitions become the norm.

An alternative viewpoint has the Liberal Democrats facing a painful political squeeze between Labour and the Tories, or even being assimilated by their larger coalition partners. In this scenario, an early swing back to the two large parties and majoritarian politics may be on the horizon.

Institute for Government analysis of electoral trends over the past century backs the claim that the classic era of two-party politics lies behind us. In 1951, Labour and the Conservatives collectively took an incredible 97% of the vote, winning all but 9 of the 625 seats up for grabs.

The six decades since have witnessed a Liberal renaissance, the emergence of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and the rise of smaller movements such as the Greens and UKIP. By 2010, the Big Two had fallen to their lowest combined standing since 1918. When falling turnout is taken into account, Labour and the Tories have lost almost half the votes they managed to attract six decades ago.

What this all suggests, as psephologist John Curtice also recently argued, is that the 2010 election is highly unlikely to have been a one-off. Rather it is part of a long-term trend towards a more pluralistic if not fragmented party system, which makes hung parliaments more and more likely. Only the striking disproportionality of our electoral system has prevented this happening more frequently in recent decades.

But even if the trend towards greater political pluralism may be expected to continue in the long run, might short term political pressures result in a squeeze on the Lib Dems, to the advantage of the two larger parties?

There is some international precedent for such a phenomenon: in New Zealand between 1996 and 2002, for instance, two successive coalition governments ended with collapse and electoral disaster for the junior partner (as discussed here). Many LibDems in Scotland and Wales also felt they did not receive the political credit they deserved for their achievements while in office. But counter-examples abound too, such as the success of the German liberal party (the FDP) in maintaining its identity and its support in various coalitions from the 1950s to the present.

Recent opinion polls in the UK tell an interesting story. Before the election, a majority of voters (55%) thought a hung parliament would be ‘a bad thing for the country’. Today, 51% approve of the coalition agreement. However, it appears to be the Conservatives who are benefitting in terms of voting intentions among those who are favourable to the coalition, while Labour is also seeing its support rise as it capitalises on having no major rival on the Opposition benches.

But forecasting future election results just two months into a planned five-year term is surely a mug’s game. More productive must be to investigate how coalition government will work, what challenges the system is likely to face in the coming years, and how best these can be overcome.

These are the questions the Institute for Government has been addressing in its ongoing series of seminars – which has looked at the impact of coalition governance on civil servants, parliament, the media and political parties respectively. We will be discussing these issues further in a regular series of blogs here over the coming weeks.