The 2010 election and coalition politics in an

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1

The 2010 election and coalition politics in an
'age of austerity'



Democracy


Coalition government
as
democracy

strengthening?


The formation of
the

coalition has strengthened democracy in the sense that, unusually for the
UK, government
now
rests on a ‘p
opular’ majority (the combined support for the Conservatives
and the Liberal Democrats on
May 6

was 59 per cent). Members and supporters of the coalition
have also heralded the emergence of the so
-
called ‘new politics’ of partnership,
compromise

and
non
-
pa
rtisanship, geared (supposedly
) towards the national interest

rather than narrow party
interests. This resembles the ‘big tent’ politics of the early Blair period. Liberal Democrats have
sometimes referred to
such developments
as the ‘European
ization
’ of U
K politics,
in that it places

an emphasis on consensus
-
building rather than adversarial conflict.


Coalition government as a threat to democracy?


While the majority of electors voted for one of the parties that is now in government,
it is very
difficult
to
make
out the
case
that most voters
supported
the formation of a coalition and its
policies.
It is in the nature of any

coalition government that its

policy programme is less easily
linked to the election manifestos of the participating parties than appl
ies in the case of single
-
party government. This is because of the inevitable
compromises

that are negotiated after the
election in order to form the coalition. In the case of the Liberal Democrat

Conservative coalition
not only did the Conservatives campa
ign strongly against a ‘hung’ Parliament and the principle of
coalition government, but
,

within week
s,

a range of major policies emerged


33

40 per cent cuts
2

in public spending across departments, an increase in VAT, a major restructuring of the NHS, and
so on


that
had features in neither the Conservative nor the Liberal Democrat manifestos.
Liberal
Democrat participation
in the coalition
certainly
creates the
impression

of broad popular support,
and helps the coalition government to ‘sell’ its policies
to the electorate (assisted by a largely
sympathetic print media)



but this is nevertheless
far from
a
straightforward reflection

of the
electoral outcome on
May 6
.


Still a

participation crisis

?



The turnout on
May 6

was 65 per cent, 4 per cent highe
r than in 2005 and 7 per cent higher than
in 2001. How can this improvement be explained?
Th
e two main reasons would appear to be the
role played by

the
televised

leaders’ debates
in awakening public interest in the election and the
fact that in 2010 there

was a proper contest
. In fact, the
outcome of the election was
uncertain

until
the
election day itself (
in contrast to the 2001 and 2005 elections when t
he
consistently

poor
poll showing of the
Conservatives in
the run up created the impression that the o
utcomes of these
elections was
pre
-
determined). However, a 65 per cent turnout is still low by comparison with the
levels customarily achieved through most of the post
-
1945 period (turnout has generally been
roughly in the 72

77
per cent
range).
This sugge
sts that longer
-
term political, sociological and
cultural explanations for declining political participation in the UK are still relevant.


Elections and the electoral system


Outcomes of
the
2010
general election




Conservative Party


307 MPs; 36 per cent

of the vote.



Labour Party


258 MPs; 29 per cent of the vote.



Liberal Democrats


5
7 MPs; 23 per of the vote.



Others


28 MPs; 12 per cent of the vote.

3



Liberal Democrat
-
Conservative majority


77 MPs (discounting Speaker).


W
hy
did
Labour lo
se?



Labour s
uffered from an unpopular prime minister (had Brown been replaced, say, in 2009, an
improved performance by Labour could have made a Labour

Liberal coalition a viable
possibility), tired policies, and incumbency over three terms (past experience suggests t
hat
electoral support for the
incumbent
government tends to fall
in successive
elections). In 2005,
Labour lost much of its AB support over Iraq and the shift towards the ‘surveillance state’. In
2010
,

it lost C2 (semi
-
skilled working class) votes over imm
igration, crime and the economy. The
‘new’ Labour coalition that had triumphed in 1997 and 2001 thus fell apart. Women, nevertheless,
continued to be keener than men on supporting Labour, by contrast with earlier trends.


W
hy

didn’t

the Conservatives
wi
n

o
utright
?



This was because of increased fear of the austerity package they were planning to introduce, a
failure to appeal to public sector workers concerned about job security and pay (particularly
important in regions heavily dependent on the public se
ctor), the nature of the electoral system,
and a still tarnished brand (Cameron had only partially ‘detoxified’ the Conservative image

from
the Thatcher years
)
.


Why

was there

no
Liberal Democrat surge?



The advent of ‘Cleggmania’
following the first
tel
evised

debate
may have disproportionately
affected sections of the electorate who do not usually vote


and maybe did not, in the end, this
time either.

To some extent, it also amounted to a k
nee
-
jerk and generally unconsidered switch of
allegiance
, which
was always unlikely to have an enduring impact. T
he polls taken in the
aftermath of the first debate were
therefore
highly misleading. Over time, greater attention was
4

given to less popular Liberal Democrat policies and the impact of the first debate faded
,
particularly as the pro
-
Conservative print media sought to bolster the image of Cameron’s
performance. There is only modest evidence that the television debates shifted anyone’s opinion
at the end of the day
, even though it may have had a marginal impact

o
n

turn
out
.


Towards AV?


A key aspect of the coalition deal was the agreement to hold a referendum on introducing the
Alternative Vote electoral system. This
is scheduled to
be held on 5 May 2011, coinciding with the
next devolved elections in Scotland a
nd Wales
. If the ‘yes’ vote win
s, AV will be introduced in
time for the next scheduled general election, on
May 6

2015 (see
discussion about

fixed term
parliaments
,
in the section entitled ‘the
constitution
’ below
). However, AV is the preferred
electoral s
ystem for neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Conservatives (the
former

would
favour
a
‘pro
per’ PR system, preferably STV, while the latter
oppose electoral reform

and so favour
the
retention of
FPTP
).


The Conservative front bench is likely to adopt a
low
-
profile stance during the referendum
campaign, recognising the importance of electoral reform in sustaining Liberal Democrat support
for the coalition while
, at the same time,

not wanting to alienate the Conservative right. AV is
(usually) modestly mor
e proportional than FTPT (the Liberal Democrats would have picked up 12
-
20 more seats under AV) but is accepted by

the Liberal Democrats as a necessary stepping
stone to more radical reform (although the possibility that the referendum may only develop a
p
rovisional
resolution of this issue

may undermine support for
the
‘yes’
camp
). Labour is very
likely to support the introduction of AV, having included it in its election manifesto and proposed it
to the House of Commons in the dying days of the Brown gove
rnment.


Debating e
lectoral reform?



5

The smoothness and stability of the process through which the coalition government was
formed
undermines one of the common arguments against PR, which is that ‘hung’ parliaments leave a
country leaderless and rudderles
s for days, weeks or possibly months. In a sense, if the coalition
endures and is deemed to be a success, this further strengthens the case
for
PR. The coalition is
thus a ‘laboratory’ for the workings of PR
-
style coalitions. However, the coalition also il
lustrates
one of the arguments against PR, which is that it would make a relatively small party,

in this case
the
Liberal Democrats,

excessively
strong, because it would
enjoy pivotal power (the ability, after
potentially all elections,
to decide
wh
ich of
the larger parties it is willing to work with
)
.


Political parties


End of the two party system?



The failure, again, of either Labour or the Conservatives to gain 40 per cent of the vote suggests
that, if constituency biases are removed, ‘hung’ parliamen
ts and coalition governments are likely
to become more common, regardless of the impact of electoral reform. On the other hand, this
assumes that support for the Liberal Democrats will at least be maintained. This could be put at
risk either by splits and
divisions within the Liberal Democrats themselves, particularly if Liberal
Democrat supporters feel ‘betrayed’ by their parliamentary leadership (which may benefit
Labour), or by a tendency to credit the Conservatives for the successes of the coalition, th
ereby
boosting their support in 2015. Past history suggests that when Liberals support a Conservative
government the party tends to split and leading members are, over time, absorbed into the
Conservative
P
arty. Will Clegg and other Liberal Democrat minist
ers still be Liberal Democrats by
2015?


Coalition politics: one party or two?



6

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats remain separate parties with separate policy
agendas (they will contest elections against one another, unlike the SDP
-
Liberal Alli
ance in 1983
-
87
). However, over time, coalition government is likely to mean that differences between the
parties become blurred by partnership arrangements. At present, it is easy to see the ‘origins’ of
particular policies, and to see whe
ther
the Conserv
atives or the Liberal Democrats have ‘won’ or
‘lost’, but
,

increasingly
,

policy will be developed through a coordinated process that will have a
cross
-
party character. Conservative ideas and policies will therefore increasingly need to be
understood in the

context of the coalition arrangements. Initially, however, the Conservatives
have won the ‘big’ one


the introduction of £6.2 billion of spending cuts announced in the
Emergency Budget (June 2010), reflecting much greater emphasis on spending cuts rather

than
tax increases and aiming to bring about cuts of 25

40

per cent on average in all government
departments (limited and important exceptions to the spending cuts include the NHS, overseas
aid, and free TV licences, bus passes and winter fuel allowances
for the elderly).


An ideological basis for the coalition?



The coalition can be seen to be a product
of
ideological shifts that have taken place in both the
Conservative
Party

and the Liberal Democrats. Conservative ‘modern
ization
’ under Cameron and
Osbo
rne since December 2005 has had
made significant progress

in ‘detoxifying’ the
Conservative brand, particularly by emphasising support for public services, a concern about
poverty and a more inclusive electoral appeal. Economic Thatcherism has thus been mo
dified by
an acceptance of
aspects of

social liberalism, linked to social justice and welfare provision. The
Liberal Democrats have shifted significantly to the right during the 2000s, particularly linked to the
ideas developed in the
Orange Book

(2004), s
ignificant contributors
including
Nick Clegg, David
Laws, Chris Hume and Vince Cable. Th
e growing influence of this
tendency
with
in the Liberal
Democrats reflected a shift towards economic liberalism (free market policies) and away from
social liberalism,
with which the party
had previously been
associated through, for example, the
7

commitment
s

to increase income tax by 1p to better fund education and to abolish tuition fees for
university students.


Although most Liberal Democrat supporters would have thou
ght that a coalition with Labour was
more likely than with the Conservatives, this ideological shift perhaps makes the latter make
greater ideological sense, particularly as it means that there are
, in fact,

very few ideological
disagreements between Camer
on and Clegg. A further aspect of this is that Conservative
modern
ization

requires that the Conservative right is marginal
ize
d. Liberal Democrat support
makes Cameron less dependent on the Conservative right, and some of its members may, over
time, look to

split from the Conservative Party
, possibly making
common cause with UKIP.


The ‘liberal moment’ in UK politics?


If the coalition has a coherent ideological character it is perhaps based on liberal ideas and
beliefs. This reflects not merely support for
the core ideas of economic liberalism
tempered

by a
measured
dose of social liberalism, but it also reflects an emphasis in the Conservatives under
Cameron on civil liberties and even certain aspects of constitutional liberalism (
e.g.
support for a
largely

elected second chamber). On the other hand, Conservative support for liberal stances on
moral values and civil liberties may
turn out, despite initial indications, to be essentially
an
example of ‘oppositionitis’ (
a
tactical position
adopted
in opposition

essentially to embarrass or
discomfort the government of the day
). This
may also
apply
i
n the case of law and order, where
party and public pressure may push the coalition towards
a
‘tough’ or neoconservative position.


The victory of Thatcherism by othe
r means?


It could be argued that

the formation of the coalition marks the emergence of

what might be
called
‘stealth Thatcherism’, even
providing the Conservatives with the
opportunity to complete a
Thatcherite revolution that had only partially remodelle
d the UK in the 1980s
;
After all,
public
8

spending as a proportion of GDP

was the same in 1990 as it had been in 1979.
The economic
crisis
, moreover, allows
a radical attempt to
‘roll back’ the state

to be presented as ’
unavoidable’

in view of the s
heer siz
e of the budget deficit,
which, in turn, is blamed o
n
L
abour’s ‘reckless
ness

and irresponsib
ility

.
Thus
a
v
i
rtue (a smaller state)
may have been turned
into a necessity
(
something
f
orced
on us
by events
)
.


Ideological tensions within the coalition?


There

are a variety of ‘wedge’ issues that have the potential to destabil
ize
, and possibly destroy,
the coalition. These include electoral reform, education (where the mass of Liberal Democrat
councillors oppose coalition plans to introduce ‘free schools’
)
, Eur
ope, Trident and defence
generally, traditional morality, nuclear power and civil liberties.


Whither Labour?


Will the ‘new’ Labour project survive, and if so in what form? The fact
is
that
,

with the exception of
Diane Abbott, all the other Labour leaders
hip contenders (David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls
and Andy Burnham
) come from ‘new’ Labour’s younger generation, the major distinction
between
them relating to
whether they come from
the
Blairite or Brownite camp. Although the term ‘new’
Labour has lon
g since lost its resonance and appeal, it is impossible to imagine Labour
abandoning market
-
friendly policies and returning to
t
raditional social democra
t policies.

The
difference, anyway, between the Conservatives and Labour over dealing with the budget d
eficit
was more about timing and emphasis
: it is not a clearly ideological
disagreement. Labour’s tactics
may, nevertheless, increasingly be orientated around exploiting divisions within the coalition,
particularly by trying to strengthen Liberal Democrat
disillusionment with the Clegg

Cameron
alliance.


Pressure groups

9


Think
-
tanks in transition?


Key think
-
tanks that were politically close to the Blair government in particular, notably Demos,
have realigned themselves in recent years to
develop links to
Conservative modern
ize
rs
. This
ensures that the
y will retain their prominence,

alongside more Conservative
-
orientated think
-
tanks, such as the Centre for Social Justice and the supposedly non
-
partisan Institution for
Government.


The constitution


Effectiv
eness of uncodified constitution?


The smooth transition of power following the election, as five days of coalition negotiations took
place before the resignation of Brown and the appointment of Cameron as prime minister,
reflected well on the workings of
the UK’s uncodified constitution. The conventions that govern
this process were well understood by all
the
key participants, allowing
scope for flexibility and
good sense and so preventing
(the widely predicted) instability and panic from occurring
. Formal

rules



for example, about prime ministers resigning once their part
y has lost majority control

of
the Commons


would have been unhelpful in
these circumstances
.


The ‘
55 per cent rule’?


The coalition’s acceptance of the principle of fixed term parliame
nts was accompanied by the
idea that in future governments could only be forced to resign if they were defeated on a vote of
confidence supported by at least 55 per cent of MPs. The possible purpose of this change was to
‘lock in’ both parties to the coali
tion deal, preventing either from precipitating a general election
without the agreement of the other. Politically, it would have served to immun
ize

the government
10

from backbench pressure, as it would have required a
very l
arge backbench revolt to threaten

the
life of the government itself. The proposal was widely critic
ize
d for reducing the power of
P
arliament in general and of backbenchers in particular, and there was
particular
hostility from
the ranks of Conservative backbenchers. Constitutional experts

also questioned the
constitutionality of the proposal, arguing that a key feature of parliamentary government is the
requirement that governments rest upon the confidence of the Commons,
which,

since the 1840s,
has been construed as
meaning
simple
-
majorit
y
defeat for the government of the day.
The
proposal was nevertheless withdrawn in July 2010.


Constitutional reform agenda?


The formation of the coalition has pushed the issue of constitutional reform
back
up the political
agenda. This is because of the

participation
in government
of the Liberal Democrats
(and
especially Clegg’s personal responsibility for constitutional reform as part of his role as
d
eputy
prime minister
)
and their longstanding concern about political and constitutional reform. It also
reflects a growing willingness on the part of the Conservatives to be pragmatic on the issue, as
demonstrated by their support, since 2006, for further Lords reform.


Fixed term parliaments?


The coalition has accepted the principle of fixed term parliame
nts, a key Liberal Democrat
manifesto commitment also supported by Labour. The constitutional basis for fixed term
parliaments is that they are fairer because prime ministers are deprived of the ability to call an
election at a time that is favourable for
their party. The political basis for the reform in the context
of the coalition is that it strengthens the partnership between the Conservatives and the Liberal
Democrats, attempting to end speculation about the imminent collapse of the coalition and the
p
ossibility of an early general election. Though widely supported, the decision to institute five
-
year
fixed term parliaments is controversial because this is longer than is customarily the case (UK
11

devolved bodies have fixed term parliaments
,

but these onl
y last for four years; Australia and
New Zealand hav
e three
-
year terms, and the Canadian

Federal Legislature has a four
-
year term).
In any parliamentary system, despite a commitment to fixed term parliaments, there must be a
mechanism through which a gener
al election could be precipitated within the fixed term if the
government has, through splits or
by
-
election defeats
, lost the confidence of the legislature.


A reformed second chamber
?


The reform of the House of Lords has become much more likely as a res
ult of the general
election,
as it is
another long established commitment of the Liberal Democrats.
In particular, the

likelihood of a fully elected second chamber

has increased
, with
even the Conservatives having
supported a largely

(80 per cent)

elected
second chamber. The decision, announced shortly after
the election, to rebalance the Lords through the appointment of about 100 peers, to bring the
representation of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats into line with their voting strength
in the 20
10 general election, is also noteworthy. This, in effect, achieves through appointment
what the introduction of PR for second
-
chamber elections would bring about

electorally
, pointing
the way clearly towards not merely an elected second chamber but one ele
cted by a ‘proper’
system of PR.


Other proposed constitutional reforms
?


These include further reform of the House of Commons, more devolution to Scotland and Wales,
a resolution of the West Lothian question, the introduction of a right of recall for MPs,

the reform
of party funding and the

introduction of a
statutory register of lobbyists.


Parliament


A rejuvenated Parliament?

12


As ever, the key determinants of the relationship between Parliament and the executive are the
size of the government’s majority

and its degree of internal cohesiveness. Although the coalition
government has a ‘comfortable’ majority of 77 seats (discounting the Speaker), many would
argue that coalition governments
tend to be
structurally weak and crisis
-
prone. This is because
they
must
maintain
support across two parties with separate, if coordinated, whipping
arrangements. Not only does this imply the need for coalition management, through an ongoing
and formal process of consultation and dispute resolution (which has to be develop
ed in all
coalitions), but it also means that the Liberal Democrat

Conservative coalition lacks the
ideological and tribal unity normally associated with a single
-
party government.


P
articular concern focuses on the Liberal Democrats, whose support may be

difficult to maintain
because, being the smaller party, they have the least to gain and most to lose from the coalition.
The Liberal Democrats are, anyway, structurally weak within the coalition. The balance of Liberal
Democrats to Conservatives in terms
of MPs is roughly 6:1, and amongst ministers it is about 5:1.
Experience across continental Europe suggests that smaller coalition parties tend to suffer from a
loss of political identity, straining the loyalty of their supporters both in the legislature a
nd beyond.
Strains within the Liberal Democrats may emerge from divisions between the relatively small
body of Liberal Democrat MPs (57) and the much larger number of Liberal Democrats who sit in
devolved bodies and on local authorities (there are some 4,7
00 Liberal Democrat councillors).
Alternatively, the Liberal Democrats may exploit their position as a pivotal party (capable,
potentially, of entering a coalition with Labour after the next general election) to exert
disproportionate influence within the
coalition. This would occur if Cameron and the Conservative
leadership become increasingly anxious about ‘keeping the Liberal Democrats on board’. In these
circumstances, Liberal Democrat assertiveness may stimulate disaffection and disloyalty in the
ranks

of the Conservative right. This would be particularly destabilising given the ideological
divide between many left
-
leaning Liberal Democrats and the Conservative right.


13

Coalition government as a recipe for a weak Parliament?


A significant factor influen
cing the Conservatives in the formation of a coalition was the
recognition that the alternative


forming a single
-
party minority government


would have left
them more vulnerable to parliamentary pressure. Either minority status or a slim majority (as in
the case of John Major, 1992

97) would leave the government deeply vulnerable to pressure
from its own backbenchers, in this case from the Conservative right. In that sense, having the
Liberal Democrats on board immun
ize
s the Cameron government from such p
ressures,
particularly as the ideological gap between Cameron and the Conservative modern
ize
rs and the
mass of Liberal Democrat MPs is relatively slight. Moreover, the coalition means that the major
party balance in the House of Commons is now 2:1 in favou
r of the government, rather than 1:2
against the government. Not only does this give government policies broader support within the
Commons, but it also places a heavy burden on, in effect, a single
-
party opposition. This may
become particularly acute if L
abour enters a period of introspection and struggles to regain
credibility following its 2010 defeat.


Taming the House of Lords?


The proposed appointment of about 100 peers to bring Conservative and Liberal Democrat
representation into line with their po
pular support in 2010 threatens to
strengthen executive
control over the second chamber. Until 1999, the Conservatives effectively had permanent
majority control of the Lords, based on the fact that hereditary peers (when they turned up) voted
predominantl
y for the Conservative
P
arty even though some of them chose not to take the
Conservative whip. Since 1999, no party has come close to having majority control of the Lords,
and the Blair and Brown governments suffered from the new
-
found assertiveness of the

semi
-
reformed House of Lords. The coalition government’s actions, if carried out, will give it a 59 per
cent majority in the Lords, even if this majority may not be as loyal and cohesive as the one in the
Commons.

14


Prime minister and cabinet


A revival o
f cabinet government
?


It is generally assumed that coalition government will constrain the power of the prime minister
and strengthen the cabinet. For example, Cameron’s power of patronage has already been
curtailed by the coalition deal with the Liberal
Democrats, which not only established that five
Liberal Democrats
w
ould sit in the cabinet, but also determined which portfol
ios they should fill.
David Law
s


resignation and his replac
ement by Danny Alexander appear

to bear out the decision
to stick with
a like
-
for
-
like arrangement, which implies that Cameron will give Clegg considerable
influence over a Liberal Democrat minister in the event of
their
resignation or removal. Moreover,
Clegg’s role as deputy prime minister and the fact that he has the abili
ty to ‘deliver’ Liberal
Democrat suppor
t for coalition policies

ensures that he is the
only
real
‘big beast’ in Cameron’s
cabinet. Indeed, a kind of ‘dual presidentialism’ may have emerged, through which Clegg enjoys
a public standing and profile broadly i
n line with Cameron himself (in part, a consequence of his
‘strong’ showing in the
televised

leadership debates).


Strengthened prime ministerial control?


On the other hand, the coalition may, in a number of ways, strengthen Cameron's position. In the
fir
st place, it is by no means clear that Clegg will operate as a counter
-
weight to Cameron.
Although he has considerable potential power as deputy prime minister and leader of the
coalition’s junior party, there are few ideological divisions between Cameron
and Clegg, and
Clegg’s personal future is inextricably linked to the success of the coalition (if it fails, it is difficult
to see how he can survive as Liberal Democrat leader). Clegg may therefore act more as an
agent of Cameron within the coalition, rat
her than as a counter
-
weight. Indeed, if the coalition
15

fails, Clegg and other pro
-
coalition senior Liberal Democrats may find that they have no other
home than the Conservative Party.


Second,
and
perhaps surprisingly,
all coalitions involve central
izatio
n
. Formal arrangements have
to be developed to ensure consultation and conciliation and, in particular, to enable disputes
between the coalition partners to be resolved. These arrangements are very unlikely to involve
the wider
C
onservative and Liberal Dem
ocrat parties
,

as this would be a recipe for protracted
debate and sluggish policy development. Instead, consulta
tion, conciliation and dispute
resolution
are

likely to

take place

at a more senior level, probably between the Prime Minister’s Office and
the

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and often in face
-
to
-
face meetings between Cameron
and Clegg. Such processes may not only bypass the cabinet (which is unlik
ely to be the forum for
dispute
resolution
:
disputes are invariably resolved before
they reach

the cabinet), but, so

long as
the close and trusting relationship between Cameron and Clegg persists, they will strengthen
prime
-
ministerial power generally while upholding a

semblance of
collective
,

or partnership
,

government.