Coalition-Lite – a better way of doing coalition government?

Shortly before midnight on 11th May 2010, just five days after the General Election, Liberal Democrat MPs and Party chiefs voted to enter Coalition Government with the Conservatives and to support the difficult but inescapable compromise Coalition Programme for Government.

This was a sobering moment. No jubilation. Just a recognition that we had to make this work; and determined that, contrary to past history and evidence from elsewhere, it wouldn’t inflict terminal damage on the Party.

This was, of course, a “least worst” option. The public finances were in a mess; the economy in danger of catastrophic decline. The last thing the country needed was the routine tribalism of the Westminster Village. No party had a majority. The country needed stable government. We did what had to be done.

For those of us who had spent years fighting the Conservatives in our constituencies – including my own – the act of ushering the Tories in to power for five years was a bitter but unavoidable pill to swallow. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats, more than any other Party, had bemoaned “Punch and Judy” politics and had, for decades, promoted the merits of seeking mature political consensus. We now had a chance to show this could work…indeed, if we did not try, what had all our endeavours been about?

As for going into Coalition with the Tories, despite not having a majority of the votes cast, they had gained more Parliamentary seats than any other Party. And Labour had lost – and made it clear that they were not interested in forming a Coalition Government; being acutely aware of the state of public finances and the unpopular decisions by any incoming Government could not avoid. We had promised to respect the wishes of the electorate; now we had to do so.

I had warned (at the 11th May 2010 meeting and elsewhere) that I feared we were signing up to too much too soon; we had no machinery to deal with the “events” which the Coalition Government would inevitably have to respond to in the coming years; we were boxing ourselves in too tightly, abstaining on “red line” issues/pledges; and there were some fine words which were open to wide interpretation. As a Party which had always argued that Parliament should be more effective in holding the Government to account, the Coalition Programme was drafted in a way which sought to button up opportunities for Parliament to ultimately determine the outcome.

Now, four and a half years later, what do we know?

Well, sceptics had reasonably warned that in Coalition politics, the major party is credited with its achievements, and the minor party its failures. The Eastleigh by-election victory is but one exception to a pattern of election results which prove this.

However, more importantly, we have shown that Coalition Government works in the UK and that – aside from the poisonous impact it has had upon the standing of the Liberal Democrats – it has proven that the public and Parliament have more influence on a Coalition Government than single Party rule and it has been accepted by the public with what can only be described as nonchalance.

But, we can learn lessons of the past four years, while reinforcing many of my concerns about the Coalition operating under a misguided pretence of attempting to ape one party Government and taking Parliament for granted. We should be able to do Coalition Government better.


1. The benefits of GOOD Coalition Government

Coalition Government ought to be better than one party rule. A Coalition normally represents – as the present Coalition does – a majority of the electorate and will generally be more receptive to both the public and to Parliament than single party Government. This would make the megalomania of Thatcherism, Blairism etc. less likely and the administration more sensitive to public opinion.

Conventional wisdom may suggest that single party Government is more decisive, but it can also be decisively wrong. Witness the previous Labour Government’s decision to take us to war in Iraq. Would a “dodgy dossier” have been given the time of day by sceptical partners in a Coalition? Would the Tory Poll Tax have ever become more than a note on the back of envelope tucked away in Mrs Thatcher’s handbag?

Forming a Coalition, especially when it’s with your previous mortal enemy, doesn’t just require nerves of steel and a strong stomach; it also requires putting aside the soft toys of the tribalists’ playpen and abstaining from the customary comfort zone of opposition for the sake of it; it forces you to first of all identify where you agree with your opponents, rather than merely and tediously reciting and then endlessly repeating your areas of disagreement.

To then go on and to work constructively to seek to reconcile differences in an attempt to find a compromise can sometimes be both surprising and creative.

Actually, doing good Coalition Government is relatively straight forward once you get used to it: in a nutshell it means to get on and do those things on which you agree, and to seek compromise where you don’t.

I have always contended that the main mistake both parties have made within this Coalition is how they’ve handled disagreement. Where they’ve failed to achieve compromise, instead of opening up the debate and letting Parliament and the public decide, they have often made the mistake of trying a back room stitch-up followed by railroading it through Parliament. That’s a return to the method used by single party Government; it’s not the path to rational decision-making that Coalition should offer. A classic case was the unwise Health & Social Care Act; something which largely ignored the Coalition Agreement even before the ink was dry.

Those who have observed my frequent rebellious streak, may be surprised to see me extolling the virtues of Coalition politics and, by inference, this Coalition Government. I don’t take pride, nor do I see it as a source of shame, to be apparently tagged the “most rebellious” Liberal Democrat MP. I would simply point out that effective rebelliousness (after all we’ve won campaigns on the spare room subsidy (“bedroom tax”), the forestry policy, planning policy, infeasible constituency boundaries, caravan tax, pasty tax and many others) signifies a healthy body politic.

One of the greatest strengths of a Coalition is what others may consider to be its weakness; i.e. its lack of a perennial pre-ordained and predictable majority for everything it proposes. I realise that there still exists a simplistic notion that good Government is demonstrated by always getting your own way and never backing down, no matter how ridiculous or damaging the policy.

Hopefully that kind of crass macho-politics can be consigned to the past. When the Government reverses policies on proposed military intervention in Syria, constituency boundary reform, Lords reform etc., it should not, in my view, be seen as evidence of a humiliating climb-down, nor another alleged “Omni shambles”, but as evidence that Coalition Governments cannot take either Parliament or the country for granted in the way that single parties with large parliamentary majorities can and do.

2. How to do it better.

The two parties of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition produced a remarkable list of policy proposals within the Coalition Agreement (or “Our Programme for Government”) within four days of the General Election.

Parliamentarians in the Liberal Democrats’ Parliamentary Party were presented with the document and asked by a show of hands, if we approved.

As the “least worst option”, most of us swallowed hard and offered guarded or conditional support. Those who stood to benefit from the enhanced status and income of the project attempted to evangelise with claims that the programme represented three quarters of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto for Government.

Though there were merits, I had identified risks:

  • compromising on “red line” issues like Student Fees;
  • trying to include too much;
  • no machinery to deal with ‘events’ and;
  • the use of language open to wide and variable interpretation

The first lesson of Coalition Government is that the Parties should not become constrained by too detailed a hastily cobbled together Programme.

A Coalition Government should, of course, draw up a programme of themes but more decisions should be determined by Parliament than back room deals enforced by the Party Whips. Coalition Government creates the opportunity to build a stronger role for a more effective Parliament; i.e. the Chamber of directly elected representatives whose role it is to hold the Government to account.

When Parliament witnessed the Leaders of the two Coalition Parties sit respectfully beside each other at the despatch box as they, in turn, made mutually contradictory statements to Parliament following the conclusions of the Leveson Inquiry (into improper press intrusion) on 29th November 2012, the Government didn’t collapse; the world didn’t stop; there wasn’t a run on the pound.

When the Government lost the vote on possible military strikes on Syria in late August 2013, likewise, we didn’t end up on a slippery slope to Armageddon. And when my Private Member’s Bill which effectively reversed the Government’s so-called “Bedroom Tax” was passed at Second Reading with a thumping 75 vote majority it didn’t destabilise the housing market or provoke riots on the streets.

What I am proposing is a version of Coalition which strengthens Parliament, provides stronger Government than one based on the “confidence and supply” model and avoids either of the Parties in Coalition operating in the naïve belief that a shot-gun compromise achieved improbably just a few days after a General Election on matters of comprehensive and implied detail are either necessary or sensible.

It is not unreasonable for each Party in a Coalition to bring forward “red line” issues which – if agreement or compromise cannot be reached – the Party negotiates the suspension of “collective responsibility” for the matter to be determined by Parliament. Clearly, such definable “red line” issues would, by necessity, be few in number and not contradict the broad thrust of the Coalition Parties’ themes for the management of public finances, economy, environmental policy etc.

So a Coalition ‘Agreement’ should establish a better methodology for handling the inevitability of “disagreement” than this Coalition has achieved.

Clearly, both Parties of the Coalition should have access to the full machinery of Government to draw up and present alternative proposals.

Taking the present Coalition as a model, nothing would have undermined the Government had it acknowledged that the Coalition Parties were free to bring forward different options to Parliament for specific proposals which could not be resolved within the Coalition itself.

My prescription for Coalition Government is to build beyond the foundation of agreement on “confidence and supply”. A Coalition Agreement can work within an agreed budget and policy template to bring forward policies or, where compromise cannot be reached, policy options to Parliament and allow Parliament to be final decision maker.

This requires a constructive approach amongst Coalition Parties. The Opposition would also need to be eased out of the comfort zone of political opportunism and casual belligerence. Opposition parties would have the opportunity to become constructive and engaged. After all, even in opposition, parties would stand a reasonable chance of being able to both influence and shape Parliamentary decisions. This constructive approach would replace oppositionism – a cancer at the heart of British politics which undermines efforts at progressive change – with opportunity.

The straight jacket of the Coalition Programme could be loosened by providing latitude for the Coalition Parties, set Departmental budgets and broad Departmental policy priorities. Government policy would ultimately be set less by a cabal and more through transparent Parliamentary debate, scrutiny and wide engagement.

This “Coalition-lite” model would ultimately shift the balance of power from a small coterie surrounding a couple of Party Leaders to Parliament itself; and result in more effective engagement of the general public – an engaged and powerful plebiscite!

It has got to be worth a try.

* Andrew George was Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives until May 2015.

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21 Comments

  • Philip Rolle 5th Oct '14 - 1:34pm

    But who will you do coalition government with?

    Surely getting into bed with Labour after five years of steering rightwards is going to undermine the party’s credibility further?

  • Interesting and informative reflections.

    we have shown that Coalition Government works in the UK and that – aside from the poisonous impact it has had upon the standing of the Liberal Democrats

    This is clearly the problem. It will be important post the 2015 election to move on in a way that builds on the experience of the coalition and does not repudiate the past five years. There will be very many who will want to do this for us. It would be all too easy to retreat to the past and to feed on whatever crumbs protest voters might offer from time to time. Having shed the protest vote we should not seek to win it back; people may vote for us for all sorts of odd reasons, but we should be looking to advocate the Liberal (and democratic) cause.

    Although the only certainty of the next election is that it will in some way defy past patterns, we should not assume or hope for another ‘No Overall Control’. Under FPTP such outcomes are unlikely, even if it did, I suspect that Lib Dems may well be challenged for ‘third party’ status by SNP and in any case another “poisonous impact” would not be something the Party could readily withstand.

    Actually to be clearer, if there is a sharp downturn in representation and votes in the next general election, Lib Dems should take this as a vote against further involvement in government and therefore decline invitations to negotiate another coalition.

  • What we need is a Labour government with a low (35% share of the vote) and a tiny majority, which would be immediately whittled away by by-election losses. One year of Miliband in power would see a huge return of votes and support to the Lib Dems as they realise what Labour are like.

    Going straight into government again immediately would be very, very difficult and destructive for the party, since we are going to lose many MPs and will be significantly weaker than in 2010.

  • More funamental still. What are we going to do coalition with? 20 MPs if we are lucky – dream on.

  • David Allen 5th Oct '14 - 3:43pm

    A thoughtful article with many good insights – but unfortunately the title should really be “a better way we ought to have done the last five years”. As Tony Blair said, life isn’t a dress rehearsal. We won’t get the opportunity to get it right next time.

    Worse, I don’t think the public would trust us even to try. They might trust Andrew George, but they wouldn’t trust Nick Clegg.

    Andrew George says: “Conventional wisdom may suggest that single party Government is more decisive, but it can also be decisively wrong. Witness the previous Labour Government’s decision to take us to war in Iraq. Would a “dodgy dossier” have been given the time of day by sceptical partners in a Coalition? Would the Tory Poll Tax have ever become more than a note on the back of envelope tucked away in Mrs Thatcher’s handbag?”

    Well I’m sorry, but I think the Clegg who happily let the Tories have their way on tuition fees, the NHS, and the bedroom tax would have been equally happy to agree the Iraq War or the Poll Tax, had he been a governmental junior partner at the time. The public see it the same way.

    The public realise that occasional reverses on issues such as sale of forests (Tories backing off spontaneously from a potential mistake) or boundary changes (Labour unusually prepared to co-operate on a one-off basis because the changes would have hurt their party as well as ours) are exceptional and relatively unimportant events. Basically, when Osborne in 2010 talked about “paying the top price for the Turkish carpet”, what he meant was that he wanted to buy the Lib Dems in body and soul. Which is what happened.

    So – If we offer the prospect of a future coalition, we cannot credibly offer it on Andrew George’s terms, unless we elect Andrew (or a like-minded alternative) to the leadership. Clegg has made his coalition terms clear. Give us nice jobs, preferably be a Tory, and we’ll eat out of your hands!

  • Gwyn Williams 5th Oct '14 - 3:53pm

    What makes this article possible is the Fixed Term Parliament Act. In 2010 we were faced with Coalition or a second General Election. If there is a hung parliament and if we hold the balance of power ,both pretty big ifs, we can negotiate a far stronger agreement without the threat of Labour or Tory taking their ball way.

  • A wise article.

    I am proud of what the coalition has achieved. Coalition with Labour might well have seemed more natural, but we have dmonstrated that coalition can work even if there are big differences between the coalition partners.

    It is too early to predict the outcome of the 2015 election, but I now find myself thinking that coalition between one of the big two parties and LibDems would be better for the UK than the one-parry government we’ve always been told was best. My fear at this stage is that the Toies getting in again without an overall majority might find a posse of newly-elected UKIP MPs to be an alternative coalition partner, with disastrous results for the UK and for the EU.

  • @Mark Argent: “we have d[e]monstrated that coalition can work even if there are big differences between the coalition partners”
    That depends on what you mean by “work.” If you mean that a coalition “works” when a minority partner ditches its principles and votes in the policies of the majority partner, then I suppose you are right. But I would not call it that. My notion of coalition was one where the government worked on policies of compromise midway between the parties of which it was composed. This Coalition Government is not that. I suppose the Liberal Democrats have made the coalition work — for the Tories; they have not made it work for themselves at all.

  • A Social Liberal 5th Oct '14 - 5:55pm

    I would only add to David-1s post that despite what Simon Hughes said yesterday, the coalition definately wasn’t good for the country.

  • Tony Dawson 5th Oct '14 - 6:45pm

    To be fair to Andrew George, this is far from being 20:20 hindsight. Andrew has been one of the most consistent and sensible sceptic/critics of the way the Coalition has been handles along with half a dozen or so other MPs and a few Lords who do not need to be named but know who they are.

  • “Well I’m sorry, but I think the Clegg who happily let the Tories have their way on tuition fees, the NHS, and the bedroom tax would have been equally happy to agree the Iraq War or the Poll Tax, had he been a governmental junior partner at the time. The public see it the same way.”

    Sadly, the issues, the whys and wherefores are irrelevant to the public now: Clegg is Mr I Let Them Have Their Way. Like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, no one cares whether the calls were good, or bad, or both, the name sticks – Clegg is defined by what he did not why he did it.

  • “If there is a hung parliament and if we hold the balance of power ,both pretty big ifs, …”

    If by holding the balance of power you mean having a choice of which party to give a majorit to, it’s not a “big if”, it’s something that hasn’t happened since the 1920s.

    With the Lib Dems at 7% in the polls, what’s doubtful is whether in a hung parliament you would have the capacity to give any party a majority.

    Isn’t the latest Ashcroft poll, showing Simon Hughes only one point ahead in Bermondsey, any kind of “wake-up call”? If not, what would be?

  • Thank you Andrew George for an interesting perspective which is a breath of fresh air compared to some of the blind enthusiasm for the Coalition that comes from some of our MPs.

    I would add “lack of an exit strategy” to your list of identified risks.—

    “. …. identified risks:
    compromising on “red line” issues like Student Fees;
    trying to include too much;
    no machinery to deal with ‘events’ and;
    the use of language open to wide and variable interpretation

    It would appear that even now, four and a half years later there is still no exit strategy.

    When does the Coalition actually end? The day the election begins–some time in March? or the day of the election ?The day after the election when we are reduced to 35 MPs (if you are an optimist) or 4 MPs (if you are a pessimist).?

    As for a future Coalition —
    Anything less than 40 Liberal Democrat MPs makes us a less than credible partner in a coalition with one other party because of the presence of DUP and other Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland, as well as the SNP and PC.
    And there may be the jokers in the pack — UKIP.

    But I expect Clegg will cling to his dream of another five years in the ministerial jaguar and all those special advisors tellingly him exactly what they think he wants to hear.

  • David Rogers 6th Oct '14 - 8:43am

    I agree with those above who talk of this piece being interesting, informative, and thoughtful. Thank you Andrew; let’s hope your Parliamentary colleagues – and indeed others throughout the party – are listening. I also agree with Gwyn about the impact of fixed-term parliaments. Finally, I believe more should be made of Andrew’s point that, for the first time I believe in my lifetime, this government represents a majority rather than a minority of electors. In the absence of a fair voting system, that in my view is highly significant.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 6th Oct '14 - 9:46am

    A good article and one which will be studied by any party in a position to enter into coalition. There could be several contenders to assist either of the larger parties. Or even a coalition of more than two parties. Not for us to guess the outcome but get on with our own campaign straight after Conference. To return as many MPs and councillors as we can must be the aim now – as Paddy rightly says. If those on here want members to work – it will be better to turn everyone’s attention to positive comments – as Andrew has done.

  • Sadly, some of the statements here do not stack up. Particularly, “it has proven that the public and Parliament have more influence on a Coalition Government than single Party rule.” Unless you look at facts, like how two votes in the Lib Dem conference on Secret Courts were totrally ignored by its leadership who imposed a three line whip on its MPs.

    Being positive is usually good, but being positive about failure just reinforces it. Any comments Andrew?

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Oct '14 - 1:59pm

    Andrew George

    I would simply point out that effective rebelliousness (after all we’ve won campaigns on the spare room subsidy (“bedroom tax”), the forestry policy, planning policy, infeasible constituency boundaries, caravan tax, pasty tax and many others)

    The so-called “pasty tax” was simply closing a legal loophole that was being blatantly misused. What was meant to be a clause to avoid small bakers from being taxed as if bread taken straight from the oven was hot take-away food was being used by big chains to avoid tax that ought to have been imposed on what was obviously intended to be hot takeaway food. In the same budget there was what got called the “granny tax” which was actually taking away extra tax allowance on elderly people on the very sensible line that this only benefited those elderly people who had enough income to go above the tax allowance, and it would be much fairer to assist the elderly by using that money to increase state pension so that ALL elderly people would benefit.

    These are examples of how sensible debate is hijacked by the political extreme right, who want to push the message that all tax is bad. The real reason they want to do this is to make life more pleasant for the rich at the expense of it being more miserable for the poor and average. Tax must inevitably fall heavier in the rich, so they want it to be low in general. But also they’re the ones who will profit from the idea that the state is bad and tax is bad, so everything must be privatised and not provided as a state service paid through taxation.

    Inventing catchy names for tax or benefit changes and calling them the “X tax” is part of this. They want to push the idea “politicians are bad people, alway trying to impose taxes on us” to push their idea of rule by unelected businessmen with the low tax small state just their to protect their property rights. We shouldn’t, even inadvertently, let them get away with it.

    That is why I didn’t like and still don’t like the phrase “spare bedroom tax”. It isn’t a tax, it is a withdrawal of a subsidy of bedrooms beyond need. The fact that it was badly and indeed cruelly implemented does not stop that. It has been held up as a typical example of bad politicians doing bad things, as if it had no purpose except to be nasty. But it had a decent purpose – it was to deal with the fact that for every person in social housing with bedrooms beyond their need, there are others who have need for those bedrooms but can’t get them because there is not enough social housing left to allocate (thanks to “right-to-buy”).

    There is so much need for serious debate which tackles the real dilemmas we face in society, and which involves everyone. We need to move to that by stopping “politicians talk” where we spend all our time talking ourselves up and the others down in a way that hides rather than explains the real issues. We need to challenge the assumptions of the anti-politics mania that infects most of the media, which pushes the anti-democratic assumption that all politicians are bad people, spends all its time trying to catch them out under this assumption, and so leads to this defensive attitude in which politicians put up a sort of manufactured ad-man’s consumer sales image to which they stick rigidly, scared out of actually talking sensibly and coming across as human beings.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Oct '14 - 2:05pm

    Andrew George

    This was a sobering moment. No jubilation. Just a recognition that we had to make this work; and determined that, contrary to past history and evidence from elsewhere, it wouldn’t inflict terminal damage on the Party.

    Yes, but it didn’t come across like that, did it? We should have been sober about it, making clear it was a necessary compromise due to the fact that we hadn’t won the general election, and the Tories had almost won it and we were in a very weak position thanks to the distortion of the electoral system.

    But instead of doing this, we pushed out this over-optimistic exaggerated “it’s all wonderful” line as if we really had won the election, or nearly so. Hence what has followed afterwards in terms of our support. It wasn’t wonderful, it was a compromise we were forced into, and we would have been better off to have been honest and clear about that from the start.

  • Andrew’s comments make much sense, but I fear that party politics will stop it from ever happening. The very reason that the Coalition functioned the way it did is to ensure that Parliament and the public have less of a say. The fact this ended up harming the Coalition’s popularity, rather than strengthening is one of the ironies of oppression – it is often something that runs contrary to its intentions.

    @Matthew – well said. It drives me crazy when people use the presses’ tag lines for ‘taxes’. Trying to make people understood tax is a good thing is hard enough against the white noise of the media, without us adding to the sound.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Oct '14 - 8:21pm

    Caracatus

    Other lessons from the coalition – which were actually blinding obvious but ignored are.

    You missed what should be the most important one:

    Have an escape route.

    Our only real bargaining strength was thrown away when Clegg insisted it would definitely without question last for five years. It should have been made quite clear – if either side insists on something that goes against the Coalition agreement, the other side has the right to pull out. We should have pulled out when the Tories insisted on a top-down large scale reorganisation of the NHS.

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