Coalition government: not liked, but expected

A few years ago, I wrote a post exploring why the very idea of  coalition government became such a negative thing in Canada. I’ve also written a number of posts explaining that, in the United Kingdom, coalition government has become the expected outcome in the event of a general election which results in a hung parliament (this being the most recent one).

UK polling firm Ipsos Mori today released its Political Monitor January 2014. Along with the usual data regarding voting intentions and satisfaction with the various party leaders and the economy, there are some very interesting numbers regarding the outcome of future elections.

A majority (51%) of those polled believe that the 2015 general election will result in another coalition government. That belief is strongest amongst Conservative (58%) and Liberal Democrat (66%) supporters. Labour Party supporters are less likely to think that will be the outcome (42%) – most likely because their party continues to lead in the polls.

But while a majority think there will be another coalition government in 2015, that doesn’t mean they like the idea. A strong majority, 60%, believe it’s a bad thing that no party achieved an overall majority in the 2010 election. That percentage has increased gradually since May 2010, when 52% thought it was a bad thing that no party had won an overall majority. And when asked about the 2015 election, 65% of those polled believe it will be a bad thing if that election again results in a hung parliament. Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat supporters are the only ones who overwhelmingly think hung parliaments are a good thing (55%). Supporters of the two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour are equally unenthusiastic about hung parliaments, with only 21% thinking that it’s a good thing if no party wins an overall majority.

Ipsos Mori then asked supporters of each party who their preferred coalition partner would be from amongst the other parties, should the 2015 election result in a hung parliament. Conservative supporters strongly favoured a resumption of the current coalition with the Liberal Democrats (70%). Only 40% strongly supported a coalition with UKIP – assuming of course that UKIP even wins any seats in 2015. Labour supporters were almost equally supportive of a coalition with either the Liberal Democrats (62%) or the Greens (63%). Given that the Greens have only one seat in the current Parliament, and that is unlikely to change much in 2015, a coalition with the Green Party is not very likely. Liberal Democrat supporters actually favoured the Conservatives (65%) over Labour (53%) as coalition partners. That might surprise some. There is wide-spread assumption in the UK that the Liberal Democrats are a left-wing party, one that would more naturally align itself with Labour. I’ve never quite understood why people feel that way – the LibDems have always struck me as a very centrist party, even slightly right-of-centre in terms of economic policy. That their supporters more strongly favour the Conservatives as coalition partners possibly confirms my views. Or it could simply be a reaction to having had to endure a lot of abuse from Labour politicians and supporters since entering into a coalition with the Tories in 2010.

My interest in this is again to point out how the idea of coalition government has become, if not liked, at least accepted in the UK. The political parties and their supporters at least grudgingly acknowledge that it’s not only a viable alternative to single-party minority government in the event of a hung parliament, but perhaps a preferable option. Labour and Conservative supporters would certainly prefer that their party form a majority government on its own, there is no doubt about that. But the current coalition has demonstrated a couple of things: 1) despite constant predictions that it would fall apart, it hasn’t, and 75% of those surveyed believe it will last until May 2015 (only 40% thought that in July 2012); and 2) it has provided stable government during a difficult economic period. In other words, while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has worked. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters most?

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Coalition government is not a marriage

On 7 January 2012, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg held a joint press conference, which you can watch here, to promote the Coalition government’s Mid-Term Review. That review lists what the government says it has achieved in meeting its coalition agreement and outlines further reforms to come. Both Cameron and Clegg stressed that the coalition would last the full five-year term.

One of the stranger questions asked during the press conference was if the coalition was like a marriage. Indeed, when Cameron and Clegg held their first press conference together back in 2010 to launch the coalition, some of the press coverage read as if it should have been on the Society pages rather than in the Politics section (see for example, this piece, or this one). Cameron answered that question thusly:

“To me it’s not a marriage, it’s a Ronseal deal, it does what it says on the tin – we said we would come together, we said we would form a government, we said we would tackle these problems, we said we would get on with it in a mature and sensible way, and that is exactly what we’ve done.”

This prompted the BBC’s political editor to write a column entitled: Coalition: Official – it’s not a marriage. The column starts:

It’s not a marriage. It never was. They were never in love so they are not renewing their vows.

That, in summary, is the reaction inside Downing Street to how the media, including me, have spoken about today’s joint news conference to be held at Downing Street by David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

Robinson goes on to explain:

The reason this debate about terminology is revealing is that both sides of this coalition have concluded that all this talk of marriage is toxic as it invites hacks like me to conclude that the Tory and Lib Dem partners are still “in love” – something which infuriates many of their natural supporters – or preparing to “divorce” in the run-up to the next election.

The Cameron/Clegg talk of their strengthened “shared purpose” was, of course, always going to make it hard to resist the temptation to ask whether both men are protesting too much. I doubt that many hacks today will resist.

It’s not surprising that the UK media haven’t known exactly how to cover the coalition – it is a rarity in First-Past-the-Post jurisdictions such as the UK. Indeed, the UK media, almost from day one, has regularly speculated not on if the coalition would collapse – that seemed to be a given, but when this would occur. At times it seemed that every single policy was “the one that will tear the coalition apart”, bring about the aforementioned “divorce”.  What the press have failed to understand is that, in the words of the Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazell, is that the UK has a coalition government, but not a coalition Parliament.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have not merged their two parties, therefore it is not surprising – or at least, should not be surprising – that the backbenches of each party often disagree. Such disagreement in the House does not mean that the coalition itself is coming apart at the seams. Indeed, even the parliamentary splits aren’t always divisions between the Lib Dems and the Tories, but divisions within the Conservative Party itself, as this other analysis from the Constitution Unit explains. A coalition is not merger of two parties; it is an attempt by two parties to find common ground in order to govern jointly.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was questioned by the House of Lords Constitution Committee on 9 January 2012 and addressed many of the issues surrounding the workings of the coalition, in particular how it impacts the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility. It’s an interesting discussion and I recommend watching it.

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The Politics of Coalition: the video

In support of their book, The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works, which was published in June 2012, Dr. Robert Hazell and Dr. Ben Yong of UCL’s Constitution Unit delivered a talk in October highlighting some of their main findings. That talk was recorded, and is now available for general viewing online.

I strongly encourage anyone interested in coalition government and minority parliaments to watch the video (and buy the book). Drs. Hazell and Yong were given wide access to everyone who mattered – including Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, as well as ministers, MPs, Lords, civil servants and others. While they focus primarily on the coalition’s first 15 months in office, the authors also look down the road, raising important lessons political parties in the UK would do well to consider since hung parliaments are likely to be increasingly regular occurrences.

From a Canadian perspective, despite the more recent difficulties the coalition parties have encountered, it’s still very refreshing to know that elsewhere in the world, political parties are both capable of and willing to work together and that the very idea of coalition government isn’t considered something evil or unconstitutional. Canadian political parties, both federal and provincial, would do well to take note.

Where to buy The Politics of Coalition: in the UK, from, in Canada, from, in the US, from

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Report on 2010 elections for positions in the House

The UK House of Commons Procedure Committee released a report on 31 October 2011, which reviewed the elections held, for the first time, in most cases, to fill various positions in the House. It is an interesting report as it provides more detailed information into how exactly these elections proceeded.

In the dying months of the previous parliament, the House of Commons adopted many of the recommendations of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (the Wright Committee). These recommendations were implemented for the first time in the new Parliament elected in May 2010.

Among the changes introduced were first time elections for the Deputy Speakers of the House, the chairs of the main select committees and the chair and members of the new Backbench Business Committee, and a new system adopted by the parties to elect their members of the relevant select committees. While the entire report is interesting, I will focus on the elections affecting select committees.

To recap for those who don’t know, one of the recommendations of Wright Committee adopted in March 2010 and implemented for the first time following the May 2010 general election was the election of the chairs of the major select committees. Previously, this process had been a private arrangement between the party Whips. Standing Order No. 122B outlines a three stage process:

  1. The Speaker writes to the party leaders indicating the proportion of chairs of select committees falling to each party based on the composition of the House following the election;
  2. The House agrees to a motion tabled in the names of the leaders of all parties entitled to one of more chairs specifying to which party each chair is allocated;
  3. Two weeks later, ballots are held for each of the posts, except in cases where only one candidate has come forward, in which case they are declared elected without a ballot. The vote is conducted using the Alternative Vote system (preferential ballot), meaning MPs rank the candidates in order of preference.

What happened in May 2010

A total of 24 committee chair positions were open for election. Of these, 8 were elected unopposed and 16 were contested and decided by secret ballot. The allocation of chairs between the parties, as stated above, follows the convention of mirroring the party breakdown in the House. The Speaker sent a letter indicating the proportion each party was entitled to and was arithmetically correct, but the motion tabled by the party leaders was not, nor does it have to be. The motion allocated one fewer chair to Labour and one more to the Conservatives than would have been the case if the figures supplied by the Speaker had been strictly followed.

Members nominated for a committee chair position engaged in rather vigorous campaigning. One of the main problems faced by candidates was making themselves known to new MPs who weren’t familiar with their record in the House or past work on committees. The volume of communication sent out by some candidates even overloaded the email system. This went on for the two week period between the House agreeing to the motion tabled by the party leaders and the actual ballot date. As mentioned, AV is used, since it eliminates the need for subsequent ballots and it ensures that the winning candidate has the support of more than half of those voting.

Once the committee chairs were elected, committee membership was elected. The Wright Committee had proposed that the members of select committees should be elected by secret ballot by each political party, according to their level of representation in the House and using transparent democratic means. The House would then endorse the results.

In 2010, the process of internal party elections was carried out after the election of the chairs. Once complete, the party Whips submitted a list of names for each committee to the Committee of Selection and the House agreed to the formal motions to nominate the select committees. Little information was published as to how the division of seats between the parties was made nor on the method used for election within each party. The Labour Party asked Members to nominate themselves for a select committee. Those who had applied for an undersubscribed committee or where the number of candidates matched the number of vacancies were declared elected unopposed. They then held a two-stage election process with elections for the vacancies on the 12 most subscribed committees followed by an election for the rest of the vacancies.

The Conservatives adopted a similar process to Labour. The process of administering the election will handed over from the Whips, who ran the contest in 2010, to the 1922 Committee for future elections.

The Liberal Democrats were awarded a number of select committee places in accordance with their party strength. Interested members signed up for vacancies and there was no need for ballots.

Committee Recommendations

After reviewing the election process for committee chairs, the Procedure Committee made a few recommendations. The members of minority parties complained that they were excluded from even standing for a post as a select committee chair. While the Committee sympathised, they did not recommend a change to the election process for select committee chairs.

Other members complained about the volume of communications issued by candidates in contested elections, arguing for more control over how MPs campaigned. Others called for opportunities for members to meet with and hear from the candidates for each post, which would have been very helpful for the newly-elected MPs. The Committee reviewed these issues and in the end decided against more central control over the campaign. Given the number of elections involved, they decided that it would be unwise to lay down rules about how each event should be organised, leaving it instead to the candidates to decide how best to reach out to their fellow MPs.

Another issue raised was the participation of Ministers. Voting for the chairs was open to all MPs, but since the role of select committees is to hold Ministers to account, some suggested that it was not appropriate for Ministers to have a vote in deciding who should undertake that role. The Committee recognized this as a valid concern, but problematic to address. Excluding Ministers from voting would affect the party’s balance of the electorate. Changing the rule to say that Ministers could vote in all elections except those relating to their department might be difficult to police. Instead, the Committee concluded that Minister would be “well-advised to refrain from voting in the election for a chair to scrutinise their own department” but decided that a more formal prohibition would be undesirable.

The Committee also reviewed the use of AV for the vote and decided that it would be best to move from AV to FPTP. The Committee justified this on the following grounds: 1) FPTP is simple and is the voting system MPs are most familiar with and 2) the results from 2010 showed that even in the contests which required more than one round of counting, the candidate who was in the lead on the first count remained there and won. Of the 16 contested elections, seven were decided on the first count, five on the second, three on the third and one required 6 counts. In each case, even the one which went six rounds of counting, the winning candidate was ahead by a significant margin in the first round of counting and the subsequent rounds only served to increase their lead until they surpassed the 50% mark.

I have to say that I find this recommendation a bit problematic, given the reasons the Committee provides to justify it. First, AV is hardly that much more complicated than FPTP. While I can understand that a newly-elected MP might find it difficult to rank several candidates, none of whom he or she knows at all, they probably would find it as difficult to vote for a single candidate among a list of names that they don’t know at all. As for the second reason provided, simply because the elections held in June 2010 weren’t that close, this doesn’t mean that in future years, there won’t be much closer races. At least with AV, the eventual winner will be the candidate who eventually receives 50% of the vote. With FPTP, if there are very close races for some chair positions, the winning candidate may well be elected by a bare majority of the vote – maybe even one vote.

In my view, this would be problematic when electing the chair of a select committee. I would think that it would be preferable to have a chair who had the backing of an overall majority of his or her fellow MPs, even if that means they are the “compromise” candidate, than to end up with a chair who was narrowly elected over another candidate, and given the vote totals, very likely elected only by their own party, with no support (or barely any support) from members of other parties, which is exactly what could happen using FPTP. The chairs of select committees have to represent and answer to the House, not simply their party caucus. The whole point of moving away from Whip-appointed chairs to House elected chairs was to make the committees more independent and accountable. FPTP could very well undermine this in the event of a very hotly-contested race between several candidates.

Because FPTP was never meant to be used in instances where there are more than two candidates running, I think the Committee is making a mistake in recommending that AV be dropped in favour of FPTP for the election of committee chairs. Alternatively, they could recommend that if there are only two candidates contesting for one position, FPTP could be used since one candidate will inevitably end up with more than 50% of the vote, but in instances where there are three or more candidates, AV be used to ensure that the eventual winner have majority support of the House.

Regarding the election of committee membership, the Procedure Committee got little feedback from members and thus concluded that there was little evidence that any changes were needed. However, they did recommend that it would be more in keeping with the “spirit of the Wright reforms” if each party published details of the process by which it elected its members to select committees.

As stated at the outset, the report covers much more than simply the elections for Select Committee chairs and members. I strongly recommend readers have a look at the report in its entirety.

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Leaders in search of parties

Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg held a Q&A session during his party’s fall conference. At times, Clegg seemed almost impatient with some of the questions party members were asking, even lecturing one of them for not listening to the answer being provided. As noted in the Guardian:

The Nick Clegg 2011 model is not the same as the 2010 one. People have been talking about it at the conference, but his Q&A session really brought it out. He’s more thick-skinned, confident and abrupt. One theory is that it’s just experience. (Last year he did at times look like someone playing at being deputy prime minister.) Another theory is that he’s received so much abuse that he’s become inured to it. Whatever, it meant that he treated delegates during the Q&A session to a rhetorical duffing up. But what I don’t know is whether or not they appreciated the smack of firm leadership. Colleagues who were in the hall say that it was hard to tell.

Other columnists have noted a deepening split between the Liberal and Social Democrat wings of the party, with Clegg and the other “orange bookers” firmly wanting the party to move more towards a liberal/centrist position. This, of course, is not news. Prior to last fall’s conference, he candidly stated that the party had no future as a left-wing alternative to Labour:

“I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.”

Fraser Nelson recently wrote that: “Like David Cameron, Clegg has no great love for his party members.” A comment left by a reader on a different Spectator blog post about Clegg’s Q&A session observed:

His problem is that his party is composed of sanctimonious bores who would much rather be complaining from the sidelines than in power.

Odd that the three major parties should all be led by men who are so obviously not enamored of their own members.

This is an interesting phenomena in the UK. It does seem that all three of the main party leaders are at odds with a significant number of their party membership.

There has been much grumbling in Conservative Party circles of David Cameron not being a “real” Tory, or that he listens far too much to the Liberal Democrats and not to his own membership or caucus. Take, for example, the recent exchange during Prime Minister’s Questions when Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries asked this of the PM:

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): The Liberal Democrats make up 8.7% of this Parliament and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health and many issues including immigration and abortion. Does the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The question from the hon. Lady will be heard.

Nadine Dorries: Does the Prime Minister think it is about time he told the Deputy Prime Minister who is the boss?(source)

The issue isn’t that David Cameron listens more to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, but that the reality of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats allows David Cameron to ignore some of the more extreme elements of his own party because numerically, he simply doesn’t need their support.

Both Andrew Rawnsley (the Guardian) and the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson make this point very clearly. Robinson observed that (emphasis added):

There is a growing sense of betrayal on the Tory backbenches – not just on abortion and Europe but issues like tax cuts too.

They may blame the coalition but most must know that on all these issues David Cameron is acting according to his own instinct.

What they resent is the fact that the Lib Dems have given him a majority big enough to ignore lobbying from Tory backbenchers, unlike John Major who found himself constantly having to appease them.

The Commons became hysterical when David Cameron tried to reply to Nadine Dorries by saying he knew she was “extremely frustrated” – which MPs took as a comment on her personal proclivities rather than political demands.

Tellingly, he then sat down and gave Nick Clegg a reassuring clap on the shoulder.

Rawnsley puts forward a similar argument (emphasis added):

One simplistic school of Tory thought has it that their leader is too lacking in conviction, energy and steel to secure a full-on rightwing agenda. He allows the Lib Dems to have their way more often than he should because he can’t be bothered enough to fight.

A more sophisticated school of unhappy Tories think that David Cameron uses the Lib Dems as an excuse for not doing things he didn’t want to do anyway. Too often, for their tastes, he calls himself a “liberal Conservative” with almost as much emphasis on the first word as the last. This has more plausibility as an analysis. Most of the things about this government that upset rightwing Tories are not actually down to the Lib Dems.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has also taken stances somewhat at odds with those of his party. He wants to sever, or at least limit, the party’s ties to unions. He also wants to explore opening up the leadership process, potentially even letting non-members vote.

The problems all three leaders face is that their parties span a diverse spectrum of opinion, not surprising since they are “big tent” parties. The Conservative Party membership ranges from extremely right-wing and small “c” conservatives to individuals like David Cameron himself – who is indeed far more liberal. Labour remains torn between Old Labour – strongly socialist and pro-union, and Blair’s New Labour. The Lib Dems, born of a merger of the SDP and Liberal parties, have never really merged into one cohesive party – they retain their SDP and Liberal sides, and the current leadership would like to the party to become a classically liberal party – centrist and progressive. Indeed, during his Q&A session, Nick Clegg urged party members to stop obsessing about the people who won’t vote for them now and to start going after the people who might now vote for them. A slight but important distinction, since most who won’t vote for them now are probably more on the left, and Clegg is hoping his party may now appeal more to more centrist/liberal voters.

In an ideal world, these parties would split up into two or three parties each. That would probably happen if some form of proportional representation (not AV) were adopted to replace First Past the Post, but since there is little or no chance of that happening in the near or even distant future, the phenomena of party leaders at odds with their parties is likely to continue.


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Some interesting links

This blog’s author is rather swamped at work these days, and so I will take this opportunity to share with you some recent links that have caught my attention.

1. Is the tide finally turning for Nick Clegg?

Having gone from everyone’s darling after the first ever leaders’ debates last spring to the most despised person in British politics, Nick Clegg seems to be getting some respect in the press these days, and from rather unlikely sources. First up is this piece in the right-leaning, pro-Tory Telegraph by Paul Goodman, wherein he writes: “Whatever happens, Clegg will be in the midst of it – polite, influential, under-scrutinised and enduring as ever, despite the opprobrium heaped on his head. (…) His party has not split. He has faced no leadership challenge. None of the party’s MPs has called for him to go. His last party conference rallied round – as will the coming one, despite the inevitable huffing and puffing. His one-man masochism strategy is also a marathon strategy, as he strains towards the day when voters will thank him, however begrudgingly, for his role in the great mission of deficit reduction.”

Then there’s Rafael Behr’s piece in the left-leaning, pro-Labour New Statesman: “Speculation along these lines is a diverting political parlour game, but it ignores the current reality that Clegg is the Deputy PM, leading a party with enough seats in parliament and enough ministers in cabinet to leave yellow fingerprints all over government. The best testimony to the Lib Dems’ power is the fury it routinely provokes on the Tory right. Hawkish on the deficit, liberal on social policy and populist on bankers; thriftier than Labour but nicer than the Tories, the Lib Dems are squatting stubbornly, sometimes chaotically, in the middle of British politics. The voters might not thank Nick Clegg for it in the opinion polls; the other parties resent him for it. One thing he cannot be, however, is ignored.”

2. Political perceptions run amok

Recently, in The Observer, we learned that Labour’s new strategy would be to attack David Cameron as a “recognisably rightwing” leader. This view of Cameron was roundly rejected by readers of the more right-leaning Spectator (note the reader comments on this piece, rather than the blog post itself) and over at ConservativeHome, where the general consensus among right-wing Tories is that David Cameron may be many things, but right-wing is not one of them.

3. Parliamentum

For anyone who generally enjoys reading this blog, I would like to recommend another blog to you, Parliamentum, written by James W. J. Bowden. He writes about “Westminster parliamentarism in the core Commonwealth (The UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), particularly the unwritten constitution, the reserve powers of the crown, and the evolution of parliament, the cabinet, and the crown as institutions.” His approach is more academic than mine, since my goal is more to explain how parliament and parliamentary procedure works to people who aren’t very familiar with either, but I think both blogs complement each other quite well.

4. The Cabinet Manual and the Working of the British Constitution

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) released  a report analyzing the draft Cabinet Manual, a potentially powerful document that codifies and unites the often unwritten conventions and rules that have governed and guided governmental activity for decades. I have mentioned this draft Cabinet Manual in a few posts. You can download the PDF of this report here.

5. For anyone going through Parliament withdrawal

Some good news: the UK Parliament resumes sitting next week. The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy provides a handy look-ahead as to what to expect. If any of that sounds interesting to you, you can livestream proceedings in the House of Commons, the House of Lords and committee hearings thanks to Parliament Live TV. Canada’s Parliament doesn’t come back from its summer holidays until September 19.

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Parlour games?

The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt recently wrote that the ongoing phone-hacking scandal and Prime Minister David Cameron’s closeness to central players in the Murdoch empire (e.g. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson) leaves him vulnerable to having Nick Clegg “pull the plug” not on the coalition, but on Cameron himself:

This is where the eyes of Lib Dems really light up. If damaging details emerge Clegg could go to Cameron and say that his party is deeply committed to the coalition but it can no longer serve under him as prime minister. At this point Cameron has to decide: does he sacrifice his career to save the coalition, paving the way for another Tory to take his place as prime minister, or does he soldier on as leader of a deeply unstable minority administration?

Lib Dems are enjoying the prospect of bringing down Cameron. It would allow them to go into the next election saying they had saved two cherished British institutions – the NHS and the office of the prime minister.

In fairness, Watt admits that this is “the remotest of remote prospects”, “all very far-fetched and belongs in the world of a fantasy parlour game”. I would tend to agree with that, and wonder why Watt bothered to posit the possibility of this occurring.

There is no doubt that Cameron has been weakened by this scandal, and things could possibly get worse for him, as Watt notes. However, I wonder if the Liberal Democrats really would have anything to gain by forcing Cameron to resign.

The coalition government came about largely because of Cameron. There were, and are, a fair number of both Tory MPs and Tory supporters who would have preferred that the Conservatives govern on their own as a minority government, and believe that the party has made too many compromises in order to satisfy the Liberal Democrats. There are also a fair number of Conservative party supporters who have never really liked David Cameron, and who don’t think he’s sufficiently right-wing, if the comment sections on traditionally pro-Conservative media sites such as the Telegraph, ConservativeHome and the Spectator are anything to go by.

If the Lib Dems did present Cameron with an ultimatum such as the one Watt puts forward, and Cameron did decide to step down, I don’t know who might emerge as the new party leader. Someone the Lib Dems could still work with, such as George Osborne? Or someone far more “traditionally conservative” such as David Davis? There is no guarantee that the new leader would be as willing to continue with a coalition, and the Liberal Democrats could find themselves in an even more difficult situation.

The Liberal Democrats are still struggling in the polls. If they attempted a coup against Cameron, it seems to me that regardless the outcome, it would result in a general election. If, when presented with such an ultimatum, Cameron refused to resign, the Lib Dems would have to pull out of the coalition. A Conservative minority government could then easily be defeated in a confidence vote, resulting in an election that would most likely be won by Labour and that would also most likely see the Lib Dems decimated. If Cameron did agree to step down, and was replaced by someone far more traditionally Tory, it might become impossible for the Lib Dems to continue in the coalition, which would force them to pull out, which then would most likely lead to an election, or the new leader might decide to call an election to seek a new mandate. Either way, this would spell major trouble for the Liberal Democrats.

Watt may be right when he states that:

But nobody should forget that relations between Cameron and Clegg changed forever when the prime minister – in the eyes of his deputy – broke his words to allow the No campaign in the AV campaign to turn on him.

Clegg is not out for revenge. But any warmth he felt towards Cameron evaporated for good in the spring.

This does not, however, mean that the two cannot continue to work together. And I am not entirely convinced that the relationship between Clegg and Cameron has soured that much. The Constitution Unit’s interim report on the inner workings of the coalition, released in June of this year, indicates that the two continue to work well together. As stated in the press release:

Despite the political strains which have affected the coalition in recent months, the Constitution Unit’s research on how the coalition works shows that it has functioned very well in its first year. Viewed from inside, the ructions which have dominated the headlines have not destroyed the coalition’s effectiveness.

I agree with Watt that the prospect of this possible power play against Cameron by Clegg is extremely remote. I can’t see that there would be much, if anything, for the Lib Dems to gain from such a move. Cameron, as far as I can tell, remains conmitted to the idea of coalition government; many in his party, including many MPs, less so. And I don’t think such a plot is in the making, given that even more left-wing members of the Lib Dems are refraining from directly attacking Cameron. If anything, a weakened Cameron might well strengthen the hand of the Lib Dems within the coalition; ousting him would more likely than not leave the Lib Dems in a more vulnerable position.

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Coalition Works!

Media speculation in the UK over the health of the coalition began quite literally the day the agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was announced and hasn’t ever gone away. Indeed, as the referendum campaign on AV heated up and very public spats occurred between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers, many papers and columnists speculated that the coalition was on shaky ground (again).

Following the release last week of an interim report looking at how the coalition was functioning,  some media chose to highlight whatever was negative in the report. The Guardian trumpeted that the “Deputy PM’s office ineffective, report on coalition government finds“, Public Finance bemoaned “What happened to collective responsibility?”, while the Telegraph reported rather dismissively “How David Cameron and Nick Clegg decide policy – by phone“.

Yet the report from the Constitution Unit was, for the most part, very positive. The official press release, Coalition Works! the Inside Story from the Constitution Unit states:

Despite the political strains which have affected the coalition in recent months, the Constitution Unit’s research on how the coalition works shows that it has functioned very well in its first year. Viewed from inside, the ructions which have dominated the headlines have not destroyed the coalition’s effectiveness.

The Unit’s first year report, Inside Story: How coalition government works, is based upon 90 interviews with senior people in Whitehall and Westminster. The mutual trust and close working relations developed inside the government should help as it faces tougher times ahead.

“People feared that coalition government would be weak, quarrelsome and divided” said the Unit’s director Prof Robert Hazell. “But in the first year the coalition has been remarkably stable and united. Everyone we interviewed in Whitehall says how much more harmonious the coalition is compared with the rivalries and infighting of the Blair/Brown years”.

It is interesting how the report has been interpreted by some. Dan Corry, who penned the PublicFinance article above (“What happened to collective responsibility”), writes:

It was all going to be different this time – or so we were told. Far fewer special advisers so that ministers and officials were clearly in the lead and not sidelined. Far more decisions in Cabinet and less second-guessing from No 10. A return to what some academics think is the gold standard – Cabinet collective responsibility – and no more of that old Blairite ‘sofa government’. And indeed a whole set of machinery was set up so that the coalition would work, and that LibDem and Tory arguments would be sorted out. Officials were very happy with this new situation– or so the briefings said.

But thanks to some good detective work from the Constitution Unit we now know that the real action happens not in a well minuted, well attended arena where things are thrashed out between colleagues, but in a Sunday evening phone call between just two people, the Prime Minster and the Deputy Prime Minister. And while the sofa may not be Dave’s thing, we now also know that the other key meeting is on a Monday between the two top men and a very small group of their key officials and advisers.

I don’t know if Corry bothered to read the actual report, of if he limited himself to that article in the Telegraph (which I also linked to at the start of this post). Had he read the actual report, he would have learned that:

Cabinet and its committees have been greatly revived under the new government. Cabinet Committees now meet which under the last government never met. They are used as a forum for strategic and general policy discussions, as well as resolving the frequent differences which arise between Whitehall departments when addressing difficult policy problems. Membership on these committees is carefully constructed to ensure Lib Dem representation. But most of the differences resolved in Cabinet Committees are interdepartmental issues, not differences between the coalition parties.

Overall the new Cabinet system is a great deal more collegiate. It may have slowed things down; but to take time over gaining collective agreement is not necessarily a bad thing. Cabinet Office insist on papers being circulated in good time for Cabinet Committees, and on 10 days to clear anything by correspondence. That is part of the general ‘no surprises’ rule: there is much less scope in this government for bounces, because of the need to always consult the coalition partner. All papers for Cabinet Committees must state what has been done to ensure collective approval: that the policy has been checked against the coalition agreement; cleared with the Treasury; and with the parliamentary business managers. The chair and deputy chair (one from each party) must sign everything off.

What is decided by phone or more informal meetings between smaller groups of individuals at the heart of the coalition isn’t policy, but coalition management issues. At the outset, the Coalition had set up two coalition committees that were intended to deal with coalition management issues, the Coalition Committee and the Coalition Operation and Strategic Planning Group (COSPG). The first was to be the final arbiter of coalition issues. It has met only twice:

once at the beginning of the new government to establish ground rules about coalition management; and the second time a couple of months later, when the agenda included the health service reforms. But there have been no formal disputes. Coalition issues are resolved in informal meetings, not Cabinet or its committees. This is more efficient and less adversarial.

The COSPG isn’t a committee, it’s a working group with a membership of four: Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander as co-chairs, and Francis Maude and Lord (Jim) Wallace as the other members. It has hardly met as Letwin and Alexander have regular bilateral meetings instead.

I get the sense that people aren’t quite understanding the difference between coalition issues and government policy. Policy is being decided by cabinet committees. What is being resolved via more informal channels are coalition issues, which get sorted behind the scenes, informally, so that there is agreement by the time a policy gets to cabinet committee.

The Guardian chose to focus on the Deputy Prime Minister’s office being “ineffective”. The report does indeed say that the office “remains under-resourced and overstretched”. This is not surprising since the position of Deputy PM is normally more of an honorary one rather than a central figure with key responsibilities. Many PMs don’t even bother naming a Deputy PM. Consequently, there wasn’t any real Whitehall mechanism in place to accommodate the role Nick Clegg was to play in the Coalition government.

As the Guardian article also points out, the Liberal Democrats are spread too thin, according to the report’s findings:

Lib Dems argue that the Lib Dem minister in a department, regardless of status, has a remit to watch over all departmental business as the representative of the smaller coalition partner. That is necessary because Lib Dem presence in a department signals tacit acceptance of that department’s policies and actions. Yet in practice, many Lib Dem junior ministers have been unable to perform this role: they lack the capacity to monitor policy across a whole department. Lacking special advisers of their own, various ad hoc solutions have been reached, including additional support within their private office, relying more heavily on their parliamentary researcher, or calling upon the already overstretched Lib Dem Policy Unit.

Overall, however, the report paints a very positive picture of a healthy, functioning coalition. In particular, it notes that there is surprisingly little policy disagreement between the coalition partners:

Serious disagreements are as likely to be between ministers of the same party, in classic interdepartmental disputes (eg Ken Clarke vs Theresa May on justice versus security; Vince Cable vs Chris Huhne on business disliking climate change policies). Issues are seldom presented in terms of reconciling Lib Dem and Conservative views: it is generally about reconciling conflicting policy objectives, often based on traditional interdepartmental responsibilities.

There is far more in the report than has been covered in the media, including the functioning of the two parties in Parliament. I would encourage you to have a look at the actual report, particularly if all you have read are media reports.

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STV is not the problem

Liberal Democrat Voice carried an op-ed piece by Anthony Butcher arguing that the Liberal Democrats need to drop their support for the Single Transferable Vote because “the perceived complexity of AV was a significant factor in its rejection by the public. The whole concept of preferential voting has now been tainted for a generation as overly complicated” and STV is more complicated than AV.

It should be noted that Butcher is not a member (or even a supporter) of the Liberal Democrats. He is interested in electoral reform, however, and he argues that “the Lib Dems, UKIP, Greens, ERS and every other organisation involved” in pushing for electoral reform need “to settle on a single electoral system that we will all present to the public”:

Once agreement has been reached, we need a long term campaign of public education and preparation. We mustn’t blunder in to the next referendum (if we are lucky enough to have one) still trying to explain what the system is or why we need it.

As for the choice of system to promote, it has to be simple – the simpler the better. It has to retain the single member constituency link. It has to be a form of proportional representation. This leaves us with the Additional Member System or the simpler top-up systems such as Total Representation or Regional Top-Up. It’s time for everyone in the reform movement to take a long look at these systems and see which one they would be happiest with, and which one will be the easiest to sell to the public.

His arguments against STV and his explanations as to why the referendum on AV failed miss certain key points, in my view. Butcher argues that apart from being too complicated, STV is also riddled with weaknesses that anti-reformers would be quick to exploit, in particular the issue of STV requiring larger constituencies which would be represented by several MPs: “Either way, do we really want to replicate the situation we have with the EU elections where hardly anyone can name a local MEP? The media would tear it to shreds.”

Regarding whether or not anyone can name a local MEP, I am not entirely convinced that this is a good argument against STV. For starters, MEPs in the UK are not elected using STV – they are elected using a regional list system with seats allocated to parties in proportion to their share of the vote. For European Parliament elections, the UK is divided into twelve electoral regions with between three and ten MEPs representing each region. I don’t know if it’s true that few people can actually name one of their MEPs, but even if it is, I would wager that the main reason few people can is that they simply don’t care who their MEPs are. Voter turnout in the UK for European Parliament elections is among the lowest, as this chart clearly shows. In the 2009 elections, only six other member countries had lower turnouts.

If over 60% of eligible voters can’t even be bothered to participate in EU elections, it’s not that surprising then that many can’t then name a single elected MEP. The claim that most can’t name a single MEP because the system used requires large constituencies represented by several MEPs implies that most voters in the UK can name their actual MP because MPs are elected using FPTP and single-member constituencies. However, a poll conducted in March 2010 before the May 2010 general election found that 44% of those surveyed couldn’t name their sitting MP and three in four voters admitted to not knowing who was standing at the May election. To me this clearly proves that it’s not the voting system that is to blame; it’s largely a reflection of an overall indifference to the European Parliament in particular, and to politics in general.

The big problem with attempts to change voting systems is the insistence on putting the matter to a referendum, as I’ve blogged about here and here. To quickly summarise, electoral reform is not a pressing issue for the vast majority of citizens – they aren’t interested and really don’t care that much. A referendum asks people who are at best indifferent to choose between a system they know and have used, and one that they’ve never experienced. How can anyone make an informed choice about which they might prefer or that they think would work best if they have direct experience of only one of the two options? They have no way of knowing if the new system really will be “too complicated”, what sort of results it will return, if it will be fairer, or how parties will act and react under the new system. When presented with a choice between a known entity and a completely unknown entity, most people will stick with the tried and true. It’s human nature.

That is why I regularly suggest implementing the new system for a fixed period of time – something like 20 years or 5 elections, to give voters a chance to use the new voting system and parties to adjust to the changes a new, more proportional system, will entail. Then have a referendum on the issue, asking people if they’d like to keep the new system or switch back to FPTP. That would be a much easier choice for people to make since they’d be voting based on experience, not guesswork, assumptions, or fears.

I do agree with Mr. Butcher that it would probably help the cause if all those in favour of electoral reform could agree on one system to promote. This could be accomplished via a citizens’ assembly which could review various voting systems and recommend one that they feel would work best for the UK. But I disagree that whatever option of electoral reform is put forward has to be “the simplest” and that it has to retain the single member constituency link. Complexity and multi-member constituencies are not the real problem here; the real problems to overcome are unfamiliarity and indifference.


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A tale of two parties

I’ve come across a few blog posts and comments on Twitter and elsewhere comparing the fate of Canada’s Liberal party and the UK’s Liberal Democrats – both parties having suffered rather catastrophic election defeats last week – and wondering if there are lessons to be learned for both/either party. Some ponder that the losses both parties suffered is because of their “mushy” politics – people want a clear left or right choice. I understand why people are making this comparison – both parties were reduced to shells of their former selves and both have the word “Liberal” in their name.

However, I don’t think comparing Canada’s Liberals to the UK Lib Dems is particularly useful. Canada’s Liberal party has been one of – nay – the dominant political party in Canada (at the federal level) since this country came into existence. The Lib Dems have never been in that position. There might be some truth to the point about people rejecting both parties’ policies, but not for the reasons I’ve seen put forward (a desire for a more clear-cut left-right choice). Canada’s Liberal party has been plagued for several years now with a slew of issues it has failed to address – a lot of them internal party organizational issues. Its policies might have failed to attract voters, but the loss of seats is due to a whole host of other factors as well. If there is a lesson to be learned for any Canadian party from the Lib Dems’ experience, I think it’s the NDP which should be paying attention.

Both the Lib Dems and the NDP have been the perennial third parties in their respective Houses of Commons for most of their existence. Actually, the NDP has been the perennial fourth party a lot of the time, but the point remains. Because of that, both parties have had the luxury of framing themselves as a real alternative to the big two – unsullied by power and compromise. They’ve been able to put forward policy positions that appeal to many but that might not be the most realistic. They’ve been able to take the moral high ground on certain issues – for the Lib Dems, the war in Iraq, for the NDP, Afghanistan. They both attract protest voters, and during elections, have traditionally been the default party strategic voters turn to in attempts to block “nasty” Conservatives in ridings that Labour (in the UK) or the Liberals (in Canada) can’t win. Recent elections changed that for both parties, the May 2010 general election in the UK, and the May 2011 election here in Canada.

The outcome of last year’s general election in the UK still left the Lib Dems in third place behind the Conservatives and Labour, but because of the hung parliament, they ended up in government when they entered into a Coalition with the Conservatives. The NDP isn’t in power here in Canada, but they vaulted from fourth to second in number of seats, and will now be the official opposition.

If you follow UK politics at all, you know what has befallen the Lib Dems over the course of this first year in power. Their leader, Nick Clegg, is probably the most hated politician in the UK (and that’s saying a lot since very few politicians could be described as “well liked”). Their poll numbers have plummeted, often to single digit levels. They’ve been attacked and vilified in the press, on forums, in blogs, for compromising or reneging on key promises in their platform despite a recent analysis that found that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto has been implemented by the Coalition (compared to 60% of the Conservative manifesto). They are routinely condemned for propping up the Tories and aiding in advancing a supposedly purely Tory agenda.

Of course the NDP won’t exactly have this problem – they aren’t in government. They are only the official opposition in a majority government situation, meaning they will probably find that they had more power and influence as the fourth party in a minority government situation. There is next to nothing they will be able to do to modify, never mind block, any piece of legislation the Conservatives put forward, and so none of their actual policies will come under scrutiny. They’ll still be able to take the moral high ground and remain unsullied by the reality of actually being in power. In other words, they’ll still be enjoying the freedom of perpetual opposition, only from higher up the opposition ladder.

It doesn’t help that the Lib Dems are in a Coalition with a party that is actually hated by many of their supporters, but certainly not all – there is a notable left/right split among supporters of the Lib Dems, and even among their MPs. Many people voted Lib Dem specifically to keep the Tories out and so are appalled to be in government with that very party. If the NDP were to win power on its own, i.e. a majority, it wouldn’t have to deal with the compromises that coalition imposes; indeed, it would be free to implement its own agenda, something the Lib Dems were not free to do (but still, have had 75% of their agenda implemented, which is damn good for a junior party in a coalition). But if the NDP wins only a minority mandate, it will have to compromise. A minority is a very possible outcome – the Conservatives do have a strong base that won’t desert them – the NDP would have to win an extra 53 seats simply to win a very weak (one seat) majority.

Back in February, Lib Dem MP and Coalition minister Jeremy Browne wrote a very good piece for the Guardian in which he argued that the party can’t just be a home for protest voters. Browne assessment of typical Lib Dem voters was:

Within the support for the Liberal Democrats, there is, of course, a strong and principled core liberal vote, but it is not a large enough vote. To make electoral headway, the Lib Dems need to top it up with people who dislike Labour, the Conservatives, or established politics in general.

Voting for negative reasons of course also forms a large part of the support of the other two parties, which is why their campaigns mainly invite people to vote against the other side rather than back positive propositions. But the Lib Dems, more unusually, have also gained some votes from people who are broadly mistrustful of mainstream politics. Many of these voters have a strong civic conscience and an interest in policy. They want to vote, but they feel uneasy about the real-life decisions that governments must inevitably make.

By voting Lib Dem, they have previously achieved the ideal balance: discharging their democratic duty but never being burdened by any responsibility for the tough and often unpopular compromises and outcomes involved with the exercise of power. This section of voters, uniquely and somewhat perversely, voted Lib Dem precisely because they thought we couldn’t win and wouldn’t be sullied by government.

This is one of the biggest problems for the Lib Dems. I’ve been using the term “Lib Dem supporter” in this post, but the issue is more complicated than that. From what I have observed over the course of the past year (from my vantage point here in Canada) is that a lot of the so-called Lib Dem supporters aren’t really supporters of the party, but voters who voted for them only to keep the Tories out, or, as Browne points out, to do their civic duty without having to deal with the consequences. I have a sense, perhaps a flawed one given my geographical distance, that the core supporters of the party are still very much behind the party. The party’s current poll numbers are perhaps a more accurate reflection of the party’s true support – their core base if you will. The higher numbers registered before last year’s election undoubtedly included a lot of the people Browne describes above – protest voters, not true Lib Dem supporters. A recent members’ survey conducted by Liberal Democrat Voice indicates that actual party members seem to be quite satisfied with the Coalition government. I don’t think the party’s core has deserted them at all – I think the fair-weather voters have because they don’t like the realities of being in government – especially a government which includes the Conservatives.

Being in government means having to make real decisions rather than just people-pleasing noises. This is why I think the experience of the Lib Dems has more to offer the NDP than it does Canada’s Liberal Party. It is impossible to know how many people voted NDP in the 2 May election actually hoping they’d win, and how many voted NDP simply in protest or tactically, but not really expecting them to win, and how many did the same thing, and definitely did not want the NDP to win – they simply wanted the Conservatives held to a minority. These next four years for the NDP won’t be the dangerous ones – the danger – the same one that hit the Lib Dems – is likely to happen in the next election.

Since they are now the 2nd party in the House of Commons, there is a 50-50 chance that the NDP could form the government next time around. The Liberals have far too much ground to recover (assuming they can recover), and if the Conservatives alienate a significant portion of the population now that they have their much sought after majority, Canadian voters might decide to elect the NDP. When faced with the realities of governing, will a lot lot of their supporters end up as disenchanted and frustrated as Lib Dem supporters are now?

Former NDP provincial premier, and now Liberal MP Bob Rae wrote in his book From Protest to Power: Personal Reflections on a Life in Politics:

In opposition it was easy for the party [the NDP] to become allied with groups preoccupied by one issue or another. The television culture of our times has also fostered time and attention for articulate speakers on behalf of a single cause. Yet governing is necessarily about reconciling competing interests. It often means choosing between something you don’t want to do and something you really don’t want to do. A political party has to be more than a rag bag of complaints and grievances if it wants to govern. (p. 329)

That is why what has happened with the Lib Dems in the UK holds more lessons for Canada’s NDP. The Lib Dems lost hundreds of local council seats last week because a lot of the people who voted for them felt betrayed by the decision to ally with the Conservatives, or simply weren’t prepared to deal with the realities of governing. The lesson for the NDP is this: how to prepare its supporters – real and fair-weather – for the realities of government. If it doesn’t do this and ends up in government next time around, it may well find itself in the same situation that has befallen the Lib Dems.

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