Coalition: Yes or no?

Liberal Democrats quite like to be in government. We like to think that we can make a difference. So when the larger parties find themselves without an overall majority, we – as individuals – are courted.

This article deals with two aspects of the decision to go into coalition – political legitimacy and our party’s mandate to govern.

Liberal Democrats do not support the current unequal voting system. Put simply, we want every vote to be valued equally. We want the number of elected representatives to correspond to the number of people who voted for each party. So, if a party overall gets 10% of the vote, we believe that they should have 10% of the representatives.

When this doesn’t happen – which is nearly all of the time – the main question to ask is whether we make our decisions based on the numbers of representatives, or based on our vote share. For example, if we have 10% of the vote but only 2% of the representatives, do we say our mandate reflects our 10% or our 2%?

The clearest example was the coalition government of 2010-2015: the Conservatives had (approx.) 35% of the national vote, the Lib Dems 23%, but our positions in government were allocated based on our number of MPs – a far worse deal.

We don’t need to accept the implications of the existing voting systems. The first way to change thinking is to negotiate on the basis of our vote share not our usually paltry number of representatives.

My second point is the legitimacy of an administration when no party has an overall majority. Legitimacy is not automatically given to an administration that has 50% of the representatives. A government is legitimate when it governs in the name of more than 50% of the people who have voted.

In conclusion, Liberal Democrats should ask two questions when considering whether to go into coalition. First, will the proposed coalition involve parties that between them have won more than 50% of the vote? If the answer is yes, the second question is: will we as Liberal Democrats receive the positions and portfolios that reflect our vote share (as opposed to our elected representative share) in relation to our other coalition partners? If the answer to this is also yes, then we should enter coalition.

* William Hobhouse lives in Bath and is co-founder of the Lib Dem Campaign for Manufacturing.

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  • I ask again when will this party learn, the pedantics of percentages of vote etc are irrelevant to the general public who usually punish minor parties who have gone into coalition. Can we please simply forget about the issue for next four years at least.

  • Stephen Howse 20th May '16 - 4:48pm

    “We don’t need to accept the implications of the existing voting systems. The first way to change thinking is to negotiate on the basis of our vote share not our usually paltry number of representatives.”

    While I do sympathise, had we done this we’d have had even more Lib Dems on the payroll vote and thus even fewer Lib Dems in the Commons able to challenge bad government policies and hold government to account.

  • You are essentially asking whether we should enter another coalition – under what circumstances. I think this is important, but ldv is not the place to answer it. It needs to feed into a larger review of the coalition. This should be procedural and policy based, as the two can’t be separated. Whether we would have done better with more ministers is linked to where we think we should have done better. To work out how to approach the future best, we need to look and evaluate the past, collectively, as a party. Such a review complements the recent review of the party’s electoral performance.

    Obviously any review should be phrased with positives highlighted – that the ONS states that inequality did not rise is something that the party should be proud of – but at the moment it feels like the party has its head in the clouds without accepting there were any problems. And there clearly were – either on a policy or a political level. Otherwise how do you explain the prevailing attitude: that you can’t trust us? We need to work out what we could have done better to counter this, to avoid this problem next time. Falling back on our old, pre-2010 approach will not change this – launching more “good policies”, when noticed, will just make us sound like we did before 2010, and without an increase in trust these policy drives will have no impact. Until we listen to the voters, why would they listen to us?

    I’m not talking of washing our hands of the coalition, but we do need to evaluate it so that we can answer your question: under what circumstances will we do it again? Besides, this is clearly not the same as Miliband repudiating New Labour. It was clear in 2010 that Labour might be able to return to government without apologising for 1997-2010 – they lost some of their vote between 1997 and 2010, but things looked recoverable (reasonably quickly if they played their cards right). The same cannot be said for us: we lost 75% of our vote between 2010 and 2015. There is a fight for relevance and survival. If the liberal voters who have deserted the party are to return, the party must make clear to them that we have listened. And when the party decides which compromises were worth it – that decision should be made formally, rather than just supposed. We need to make clear how we think we can improve and be worthy of people’s votes again. To go back to the article – we need to make clear what those extra ministers would, and should do differently.

  • Tony Greaves 20th May '16 - 7:55pm

    Outside the antediluvian straitjacket of Westminster, there are more ways of being “in government” than a coalition. Here in Pendle Council we have just renewed our agreement with the Labour Party which is a joint administration, not a coalition.

  • Richard Underhill 20th May '16 - 10:47pm

    This should be about particular objectives. As Ming Campbell said we will defend the Human Rights Act. Any further changes should add to rights, not reduce them.

  • We failed to understand that collective responsibility in government does not apply to coalitions beyond what is defined in the agreement. We were set up and stitched up and paid the price. The answer is we shouldn’t join any coalition that requires our ministers to vote against party principles regardless of ministerial positions offered.

  • We should only even consider coalition if we have a leadership with sufficient political savvy.

  • There is no choice, you can negotiate on whatever basis you like but it depends entirely on the other party. As Tony Greaves points out, there is a wealth of examples in local government the leadership chose to ignore. Few things would have amused Cameron more than then the sight of even more Lib Dem MPs being junior ministers implementing Conservative policies. As Wales shows, no matter what your vote share, there are limited to how many paces you can demand.

    Of a the mistakes in the coalition, this wasn’t one of them, it is irrelevant now and for years. Without PR first, we should never go into coalition again.

  • Tony Greaves 21st May '16 - 11:19am

    The word coalition implies a common whip. That’s why we should often look for other mechanisms.

  • Bill le Breton 21st May '16 - 3:11pm

    William you are right to draw attention to these issues.

    And Tony is right to point to alternatives and to remind everyone that the Party has huge experience in this field. We really were the pioneers in thinking deeply about how to maximise our advantage in bodies in which a single party does not have overall control.

    Because the Liberals, then the Alliance and latterly the Liberal Democrats often worked in such bodies that were experiencing this for the first time and because the former monopolizers of power were stubborn losers of that power, we really were able to exploit the situation better than the Ts and Ls. 20 County councils went into ‘balance’ in 1985 – many had been run by the Toroes for the whole of their 100 year existence!!!!.

    All our lessons were first codified by Maggie Clay and then by Andrew Stunell in ‘Life in the Balance’ published first by ALC and the by its successor ALDC. There have been some really great masters of this amongst our council leaders.

    One thing that is immediately apparent is that % of votes or % of seats has nothing to do with it. If a party wants to stay in power more than a potential power-sharing partner, the ‘side’ or team that wants to be in the ‘administration’ more will tend to pay a higher price for that. It is really more about negotiation skills and a calculation of the costs of doing and not doing a deal that matters more that ‘fairness’ or ‘proportions’.

    Our council groups were trained and advised in this ‘art’ and achieved so much. They knew that their opponents often valued status and position more than power and exploited that. Some of our best council groups successfully drove the car from the back seat. What they knew was that when they used their power initially to get the right decision making mechanics the status positions were irrelevant.

  • Bill le Breton 21st May '16 - 3:12pm

    For instance – the key is that no decision should be taken without the active participation of LDs. Knowledge and advice should be freely available to both partners.
    Neither of these two basics were true of the 2010-15 coalition mechanics. Tories and LD Secs of State and Ministers could make decisions without the input of members of the partner party.

    Of course this works to the advantage of the Party that has the most Secs of State/Ministers and so was to the disadvantage of the LDs. Also in many Tory lead Departments information available to the Sec of State was not available to the so-called junior LD Minister. A really big no-no.

    There were many such basic mistakes that were made over those 5 years. Nick Harvey reported on a few, but even he learnt these after the fact. He even points out that Paul Burstow with his experience as an ALDC staff member had a better system in his ministry than Nick had in Defence. Good for Paul – but why he alone?

    It is amazing still to think that so little use was made of this knowledge and experience . And that those who thought they knew best were so naive.

  • David Evans 21st May '16 - 5:13pm

    The thing every one of us has to do (for the sake of Liberal Democracy and its future) is to learn how not to be foolish optimists.
    Optimist – someone who hopes things will work out fine.
    Liberal Democrat – someone who plans and works hard to make sure things work out fine.

  • Simon Banks 21st May '16 - 5:18pm

    Well, there are some questions like will we get Liberal Democrat policy priorities implemented and what will we have to swallow in return. There are also issues about how we organise ourselves within the coalition so, for example, the Leader does not OK policies the party can’t stomach.

    The idea of demanding representation in proportion to our vote strength sounds nice, but there are two huge barriers. One, what do we do if we get 20% of the vote, one fifth, and twenty MPs some of whom don’t want office? Two – no major party will accept it. That’s the real world. The best we could do would be to get the proportions tweaked a bit from those representing numbers of MPs.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st May '16 - 5:39pm

    The problem with negotiating via vote share, despite the lack of constitutional power it has, is that people tactically vote so vote shares under FPTP elections are not directly representative of the population either.

    We need PR, but until then we can’t pretend we have it.

  • Bill le Breton 21st May '16 - 9:10pm

    Thanks William – you write, “I am much less sure about regional assemblies or national parliaments, because there the % seats and votes means that if we work only to % seats we are heading, and have headed, for electoral disaster. ”

    My point was the opposite. Anyone starting negotiations from “Hey we got x% of the seats or we got y% of the votes therefore we should aim to get either x or y posts in government” is unnecessarily restricting themselves.

    One of the most effective groups I ever met was a group of 4, I think, on Humberside County Council which was a council of 70 members – but they got a huge degree of influence … why? because Lab had 33 councillors and the Tories had 33. Both wanted to ‘run’ the administration.

    So it is not about true proportion or some degree of presumed equity … it is about ‘what are your votes in the chamber worth to the potential partners?’

    Say you own a small strip of land. It is 1/100th of the whole area of a development scheme – but without your small piece of land the development can’t take place. Is your land worth 1/100th of the total? Of course not. It is worth what the owner of the 99/100th of the area is willing to pay to get the development built.

    You might even get half the value – if the owner of the 99/100th reckons 50% of the finished development is better than nothing (or his sunk costs).

    You have to a) play hard ball and b) be a good negotiator in the politics of a balanced or hung organisation.

    If Cameron had not got a deal in 2010 he would have been out – he actually needed a deal more than the Lib Dems. But he negotiated 4/5ths of the government team and all the key Departments. And a deal that allowed him to control all but BIS and The Environment Departments.

  • Bill le Breton 22nd May '16 - 7:40am

    William sorry to labour the point but you say that you think that if in the Humberside case we had had 12 councillors it would have been different.

    This is not necessarily the case. The point |I am trying to make is that it is all just straightforward negotiations. The question as it is in the commercial world, ‘who wants the deal most, pays the most’, ‘who feels they can’t walk away, pays the most’.

    The object in negotiations is for Lib Dems not to get a ‘fair deal’, but the best deal with ultimately the best deal defined by the leader and his/her negotiating team.

    I find it hard to understand why anyone would wish to predetermine outcomes by saying that ‘if we have 10% of the seats (or the vote) we should hope to get 10% of the ministerial posts and 10% of the influence.

    It is akin to playing poker, however distasteful that is to some.

    Why is this so important? Because as we think about it here, this is relevant in both Scotland and Wales and in dozens of local councils today..

  • Tony Dawson 22nd May '16 - 4:08pm

    Coalitions or any other agreements in a representative democracy are about power politics, no more, no less. They owe everything to realpolitic. Of course, if the participants want to invent some ‘ground rules’ to declare to each other to make themselves feel better about the process, that is up to them.

    As crucial to the process of ‘going in’ is having at least a vague idea of how to eventually ‘come out’. The lack of a vague inkling of this (or showing any obvious effort towards discovering an exit strategy) was one of the most serious faults of the last lot of Lib Dem coalitionistas.

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