Viewpoints: Is coalition politics here to stay?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside No. 10

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Deputy PM Nick Clegg says the Lib Dem party is committed to a full five-year term of coalition government. Business Secretary Vince Cable says it may break up before reaching full term. Is coalition politics here to stay?

Mr Clegg told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme recently that coalition governments will be more likely in future than traditional winner-takes-all politics.

"If we go back to the bad old days, not of coalition or balanced politics, but of either the left or the right dominating government on their own, you will get a recovery which is neither fair nor sustainable," he said.

But his Lib Dem colleague Vince Cable later suggested that the arrangement could break up before its five-year term is over.

So is coalition politics set to be a permanent feature of UK politics, or will it revert to traditional single party governments? Several experts give their views.

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Katie Ghose

Voters are behaving more like consumers... less loyal to one of the two major parties”

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Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

It's extremely likely, even under the current first-past-the-post system, that coalitions will become more common because voters have changed.

Voters are behaving more like consumers these days; they are less loyal to one of the two major parties, and they're more keen to support a wider range of parties and independents.

Independents and minor parties won a larger percentage of the vote - 12% - at the last general election than they ever had before.

So voters have changed and as a result politics is changing. And that is why we are seeing, and will see, more coalition governments at Westminster in the future.

Katie Ghose

  • Chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society
  • Former chair of the YES! To Fairer Votes campaign in the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum

It is still possible for one of the major parties to win outright but I think it is more likely that parties are going to have to share power going forward.

In the last general election in 2010, we saw that the vote share for the major parties combined was 65%; so it's because voters have changed that [those] parties will now struggle to win enough support under [the first past the post] system to be the sole party in power.

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Ryan Bourne

A party just has to have a broad enough vision that can capture the public's imagination”

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Ryan Bourne, of the Centre for Policy Studies

There's been a huge collapse in the vote share of the two largest parties. This has been indicative, particularly over the last 20 years, of the two major parties adopting fairly similar policies.

So it's not really a surprise that their combined vote share has fallen when you think that they're trying to attract centre-ground voters.

Voters who traditionally would have voted for those parties have become disillusioned and now vote for minor parties, which has helped to contribute to the fact that we [currently] have a coalition government.

Ryan Bourne

  • Head of economic research at the Centre for Policy Studies
  • The CPS was founded by Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph in 1974

And if UKIP does as well as they're currently polling, the two most likely outcomes [in 2015] are probably some sort of coalition government or a Labour majority.

But I don't think this is necessarily a permanent feature [of UK politics]. A party just has to have a broad enough vision that can capture the public's imagination to be able to win an overall majority again.

The potential game changer in all this is the Scottish independence referendum. If [traditionally Labour stronghold] Scotland votes to go independent, we're likely in 2015 to get a Conservative majority government elected in England and Wales.

That could completely end this debate stone dead straight away.

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Patrick Dunleavy

Coalition governments could well become a regular feature of British politics”

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Prof Patrick Dunleavy, co-director of Democratic Audit

There are strong signs that coalition governments could well become a regular feature of British politics. The current government has been unexpectedly resilient, and reasonably effective, and the five-year fixed-term seems to be sticking.

As the election draws nearer in spring 2015 (or perhaps before), we can expect to see a greater degree of tension and divergence between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Despite this, it looks likely that there'll be more coalitions in future.

Current opinion polls suggest that in 2015 we look set to see Tories and Labour close together, with a largish UKIP vote and smaller Liberal Democrat share.

Such a result could well bring about another coalition government. Certainly, that seems to be the view of [electoral expert Prof] John Curtice, who wrote recently that no party is well positioned to emerge with an overall majority.

Prof Patrick Dunleavy

  • Co-director of Democratic Audit
  • Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics.

Coalition governments and multi-party systems are the norm for most European democracies, and the UK has become fairly typical in this regard. We have

  • parties of the strong right and left in UKIP (doing well) and the Greens (lagging behind most European countries)
  • parties of the centre-right and centre-left in the Conservatives and Labour, and
  • a smallish party of the liberal centre in the Liberal Democrats - particularly since they stopped picking up protest votes.

All multi-party systems tend to produce coalition government. Despite our first-past-the-post voting system, the UK is really not much different from the rest of Europe now.

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Ben Yong

Increased likelihood of hung parliaments doesn't necessarily mean more coalition governments”

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Dr Ben Yong, of Queen Mary University of London

Are coalitions here to stay? The current one probably is, at least until the general election in 2015.

The Conservatives, in spite of complaints, have only benefited from their partnership with the Lib Dems; the Lib Dems less so, but there is no good reason to leave the coalition either.

As for the possibility of coalitions in the future, political scientists such as John Curtice have shown that the decline in the number of marginal seats, and the increase of third parties taking a proportion of the total vote, means that hung parliaments are increasingly likely.

Prof Ben Yong

  • Lecturer of public law at Queen Mary University of London
  • Co-author of Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works

That doesn't mean it's impossible for Labour or the Conservatives to gain a majority - current polls suggest Labour would have enough seats to govern alone if there were to be an election today.

But the increased likelihood of hung parliaments doesn't necessarily mean more coalition governments.

It would depend on parliamentary arithmetic and the mood of the parties: the Conservatives or Labour might prefer to try their luck with minority government - but if they think coalition government is tough, wait till they try governing with a minority.

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Harry Phibbs

For the next election a coalition may be rather less likely”

End Quote
Harry Phibbs, Conservative councillor

In a sense we always have coalition governments. Sometimes the coalition - of personal allegiances and ideological factions - is within a political party which forms the government, sometimes it's the more open coalitions between different parties.

This coalition government has really been going remarkably smoothly. The concern that it would prove to be a weak government has proved to be untrue.

There have been plenty of frustrations but David Cameron and Nick Clegg worked together more easily than, for example, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did or Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe.

The success does not mean that coalitions will be a regular pattern. That is much more to do with a fluke of democratic process. Nobody votes for a coalition. They vote for a party and then we all have to muddle along with the consequences.

Harry Phibbs

  • An editor and writer for ConservativeHome website
  • Conservative councillor for Hammersmith and Fulham

For the next election a coalition may be rather less likely. This is due to the Lib Dems finding themselves robbed of their status as an opportunistic protest party, with that territory grabbed by UKIP.

In the longer run, however, coalitions will probably return. There is less deference in politics. People are less likely to vote the same way as their parents or spouses. They are more likely to switch. They are more inclined to lose patience with both main parties and look for alternatives. In these fickle conditions democracy may well offer more fluid outcomes.

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Mark Ferguson

There's an existential challenge for party politics”

End Quote
Mark Ferguson, editor of LabourList

It's absolutely possible that Labour can win the next election with an outright majority.

But coalitions are more likely right now than they ever were 10, 15, 20 years ago.

There's an existential challenge for party politics in general, and that's hitting the two biggest parties in the country hardest because they're the most established [and] they've been in government when unpopular decisions have been made.

And to be honest, none of the parties have a really good history of reaching out to the public and talking to people in perhaps the way they should be spoken to in the 21st century.

They still quite often run campaigns as they were run in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2013, people interact with news in a completely different way, people interact with politics in a completely different way, and fundamentally people don't join things.

Mark Ferguson

  • Editor of LabourList
  • LabourList is an independent website providing a forum for debate about the future of the Labour movement

You're quite unusual, incredibly unusual in fact, if you're a member of a political party.

Party membership is quite often derided but the number of members a party has is incredibly important. It's a source of donations, a source for organisation, a source of manpower around election times.

There is a really ingrained, long-term lack of trust in politicians and politics. And some of that manifests itself in non-traditional parties doing well.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 684.

    How do other countries form Coaltion Governments? Hasn't done Germany any harm, and they had variations on Con/Lab/Green/LD, including Con/Lab. Is it that our politicians are too venal?

  • rate this

    Comment number 683.

    one word UKIP.

  • rate this

    Comment number 682.

    As far as I can calculate, there is no worthwhile party to vote into office.

    The UK is now split into so many smaller parties that it would be almost impossible for them to get a majority vote to mandate them overall power.

    The adage is "Divide to conquer and rule".

    Perhaps we have allowed the system to defeat ourselves?

  • rate this

    Comment number 681.

    How many more sorries can Cleggy have left in him?

  • rate this

    Comment number 680.

    675. In this modern day World of super fast broadband and online secure conferencing and websites, why do we even need a 610 MP Parliament costing millions in travel and expenses annually. Local representatives voting and meeting on line can quite easily communicate on line. As for meet and greet with foreign dignitaries, that is what we pay the Royal Family for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 679.

    Vote - None of the above

  • rate this

    Comment number 678.


    "I hope there not here to stay, There is no way that I would ever vote for Conservative or Liberal, Now that I have seen there true colours, siding with Terrorists"

    So true. How can this be the same party that opposed the Iraq war?? Lib Dem MPs HAD to resign when Nick Clegg betrayed them by backing the lunatic Cameron on Syria! They've sold themselves for 30 pieces of silver...

  • rate this

    Comment number 677.

    If coalition is the future so be it. The good news is that Clegg won't be in it as you need to be an MP. The good people of Sheffield Hallam will slaughter him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 676.

    At 659, SocialistNetwork wrote:
    I think the Right Wing Media - including the BBC - will be so biased in favour of David Cameron in 2015 . . . . .

    Pardon? The BBC is right-wing??? Presumably, your abbreviation 'BBC' is NOT the British Broadcasting Corporation, so I wonder to whom you're referring?

  • rate this

    Comment number 675.

    Why do we have to retain the political Party System? Why can we not have a collection of MPs, who do not 'belong' to any particular party, but are MPs because each has won election by a majority vote? Then the electorate might feel that their views are being represented. At present, too many MPs toe the Party line because that is the 'safe' thing to do: a guaranteed, cushy, expenses-paid 'job'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 674.

    I hope there not here to stay, There is no way that I would ever vote for Conservative or Liberal, Now that I have seen there true colours, siding with Terrorists, Our troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan against Terrorists and Cameron wants to fight side by side the same terrorists in Syria how sick and deranged is that, if the war on fighting Al-Qaeda is over then come out and say so, OK

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.

    The old school Liberals such as Simon Hughes have been pushed to one side by the Orange Bookers, so we're dealing with a different party.

    For example, Nick Clegg's intention to bomb Syria back to the Stone Age can't be reconciled with Charlie Kennedy's opposition to Iraq.

    Simon Hughes had his chance to bring down Clegg and now his party faces annihilation. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 672.

    I suspect that Clegg was a Eton toryboy plant anyway!

  • rate this

    Comment number 671.

    The liberal Democrats are pushing themselves forward as a party of coalition. This makes no sense as it is impossible to vote for a coalition, anyone who feels that the current Conservative lead coalition government is doing a good job will vote Conservative and anyone who hates the current Conservative coalition government will vote Labour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 670.

    Those who voted for the LibDems were:

    A bunch of selfish students who placed their self interest above all else & were duped.

    Natural Labour voters who wanted to reward Clegg for his anti war stance over Iraq but instead let in the Torries.

    Slightly odd aging crumb covered tweed wearing university lecturers

    Next time LibDems are toast.

  • rate this

    Comment number 669.

    What is the point of launching a Liberal Democrat manifesto when large portions of it will be negotiated away in any future Coalition agreement (should they actually get enough votes to form a coalition with anyone?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 668.

    "Put us back in government in 2015, Nick Clegg says"

    I love the fact the BBC left this one open for comments for a little over 30 mins!

    Sorry BBC, but your liberals are getting a beating in 2015.

  • rate this

    Comment number 667.

    Alas Nick has a safe seat so He will be back post 2015.
    But what about his party? Any student or prospective student should circulate the I'm sorry Video
    The claim to create another 1M jobs, will they be of the likes of over 75% of the claimed 1.4M paying less than £7.95 hour? Graduates with £40k+ debt take note

  • rate this

    Comment number 666.

    What we are saying in this country now is dont study hard and get a decent paying job or set up a business and become successful because the country will tax you to death! Do not become successful as the taxman will take nearly half your salary in tax.

    We need a govt that will make people want to get highly skilled highly paid jobs. Labour ideas seem to be a race to the bottom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 665.

    All parliamentarians should travel to work on bicycles to set the nation an example.

    Traffic must be entirely banned from Westminster and the City, and Whitehall, Cheapside & Parliament Square must be dug up & turned into wild flower lawns, inter spaced with fountains, according to the Boris Johnson plan.

    This will civilise up London turning the capital into a pleasant garden city


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