I was hoping, in the wake of the formation of the UK Coalition government in 2010, that Canadian political journalists and columnists would perhaps follow events in the UK a bit more closely (or at all) and maybe even occasionally write about how the Coalition was getting along, if only to provide a contrast to how things were here in Canada during the previous minority government situation.
Alas, that didn’t happen, and there is rarely any coverage of UK politics even in the “international” sections of our media. However, the rare times UK Coalition is mentioned, it is inevitably in a negative light – as something that Canadians should well avoid. And usually, the person writing the article simply doesn’t seem to understand how coalition government works.
The latest example of that is a column from Christina Blizzard with the absolutely bizarre title “We don’t want our politicians getting along“. Ms. Blizzard covers politics in the Canadian province of Ontario, where the most recent election (6 October 2011) resulted in a hung parliament and a minority Liberal government. During the campaign, the Liberals had made it very clear that they would not enter into any coalition or other arrangement with other parties, while the Progressive Conservatives tried to scare voters by claiming that this was exactly what the Liberals were planning to do. As I’ve previously discussed on this blog, coalition has become a very bad word here in Canada.
Ms. Blizzard’s column is not going to help matters here in Canada since she seems to fail to understand the point of a coalition, and how one measures its success (or failure). If I read her correctly, Blizzard postulates that coalitions are to be avoided/don’t work because 1) voters really don’t want parties to work together; 2) the only time coalitions do work is during times of war and 3) the junior party in the coalition usually suffers in the polls. Let’s look at some of her claims in more detail.
The truth is that politicians don’t get along.
Nor should they. They’re elected to represent the differing interests and views of the diverse communities across this province.
That’s why I believe the proposed federal coalition of opposition parties before the last election was doomed from the start.
It is true that voters have different priorities, which is why they vote for and elect MPs from different parties. Does this mean, however, that voters don’t want politicians to try to find common ground and work together? The reality is that the ideological differences between the major political parties in both Canada and the UK grow smaller all the time as parties on the left and right try to appeal to the political centre in order to broaden their appeal with larger numbers of voters. To try to argue that our political parties divide on hardcore ideological differences which make cooperation impossible ignores this reality. The fact that no party in the recent Ontario election managed to win an outright majority of seats doesn’t mean that voters want a political stalemate; rather it means that voters weren’t sold completely on any one party’s platform and instead want the parties to address the issues facing the province together to try to find workable solutions.
Ms. Blizzard makes a reference to the failed coalition attempt at the federal level in 2008. I do agree with her that it was doomed from the start, but not because politicians don’t get along, or because they represent differing interests and views. The proposed Liberal-NDP coalition failed because 1) the coalition would have been led by a politician who had already announced that he was stepping down as his party’s leader because of their dismal showing in the October 2008 election; and 2) the Liberals and NDP together still did not command a majority of seats in the House of Commons, which is why they needed a supply-confidence agreement with the pro-Quebec independence party, the Bloc Quebecois. These are exactly the same reasons why a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition wouldn’t have worked in the UK in May 2010. A Lib-Lab coalition would have been led by a political leader who knew he was a liability and had agreed to step down and the two parties together did not have a majority of seats in the House of Commons – they would have had to depend on support from all the minority parties in the House of Commons, including the nationalist Welsh and Scottish parties. In both cases, this was simply an undesirable situation best avoided, but not for the reasons Ms. Blizzard puts forward, that politicians inherently don’t get along and shouldn’t.
Coalitions only work in wartime.
This is quite obviously patent nonsense. Most countries in Europe have coalition governments – they work just fine during peace time. New Zealand has had coalition governments since it changed its voting system in 1996, and those governments have functioned just fine. Perhaps Ms. Blizzard is referring to the fact that the UK and Canada have very limited experience with coalition government, and that experience has been largely (but not solely) limited to national unity coalitions during wartime. However, she doesn’t specify that this only what she is talking about. Some Canadian provinces have had coalition governments while the country was not at war, and they functioned fine. The most recent example was the NDP-Liberal coalition in Saskatchewan that was formed after the 1999 election. There is some truth to the argument that coalition governments can be more factious because they have to find common ground between sometimes rather disparate partners, but you can hardly argue that single party government always functions well. Evidence in the UK is that the coalition government is functioning far more smoothly than did the previous Labour government, with far less friction between key players in both parties than there was between key figures in the Labour party.
At other times, they spell political suicide to whichever party props up the government.
Here Ms. Blizzard seems to miss an important point: there is no party “propping up the government” in a coalition – all the parties in the coalition ARE the government. And in countries were coalitions are the normal, expected outcome of a general election, being in a coalition does not spell political suicide for any of the smaller parties because no party expects to govern on its own.
You need only look to the U.K. to see how a coalition can be death to a political party.
Liberal-Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg was the golden boy of politics during last year’s British election. The mercurial rise in popularity of the impressive young politician gave him the balance of power in a minority government.
Here Ms. Blizzard makes a fundamental error which makes me question her ability to write about politics. The Liberal Democrats (not hyphenated, I would like to point out to Ms. Blizzard) and Nick Clegg did not have “the balance of power in a minority government” – they held the balance of power in a hung (minority) Parliament. The very fact that Ms. Blizzard is confusing a Parliament with a government doesn’t bode well for her credibility as a political commentator.
He agreed to a coalition — and he’s now David Cameron’s deputy prime minister.
So he’s being held just as accountable for the unpopular cuts Cameron’s Tories are being forced to make as is the government.
Ms. Blizzard again demonstrates her complete lack of understanding of how coalition government works when she states: “he’s being held just as accountable for the unpopular cuts Cameron’s Tories are being forced to make as is the government.” Why is she making some sort of distinction between the Lib Dems and “the government”? Of course Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems are being held just as accountable for the economic cuts and other policies the government has brought forward – they are part of the government.
The government is not the Conservative Party, it is a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. The two parties form the government. The Lib Dems are not separate from the government, this isn’t a minority Conservative government with supply-confidence support from the Lib Dems. It is not only Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg who got a cabinet post – there are four other Lib Dem ministers, as well as a number of Lib Dem secretaries of state. They work side by side with the ministers from the Conservative Party. They sit at the cabinet table. Decisions and policies are made by both parties working together. Both parties will be held accountable accordingly.
Clegg’s in a no-win situation, and it could spell the demise of the Lib-Dems.
How will he define his party next election when, in the eyes of voters, he’s one and the same as the Conservatives?
I will acknowledge that this is a special challenge for the Lib Dems, and one that is generating a fair degree of speculation in the UK media concerning possible electoral pacts in the 2015 election (see this post in the Specator, for example). However, this is primarily due to the fact that the UK has very limited experience with coalition government, and because of this, neither the parties nor the general public, really know how to react to and deal with this reality. It isn’t a failure of coalition government, but of the UK’s lack of experience with coalition government. This is much less of an issue in countries where coalition government is the norm, not some weird exception or crazy experiment.
A coalition government’s success or failure is not contingent upon the popularity or unpopularity of its constituent members, but on whether or not it governs effectively. Yes, the Lib Dems’ poll numbers have dropped since the May 2010 election, but the party expected that to happen. And I don’t think it’s a mistake to say that their numbers have dropped not because they’re in a coalition per se, but because they’re in a coalition with the Conservatives. A lot of Lib Dem supporters are more favourable to the Labour Party and were quite dismayed with the party entered into a coalition with the much-hated Tories. Again, this can’t be said to be a failure of coalition government in and of itself.
All in all, another very disappointing commentary on coalition government from a Canadian journalist.