UK Politics

Viewpoints: Is coalition politics here to stay?

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside No. 10

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

More on this story