Coalitions and minority government across Britain

Centre Forum have sent this information about a meeting they are holding tomorrow

Coalitions and minority governments remain unusual in Westminster but the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly now mean they are no longer a purely foreign import in the UK. Yet despite a hung parliament at the next general election more likely than at any point in the last thirty years, little or no preparation is being made at Westminster for the possibility of an election result which might require coalition or minority government.

It is this which spurred the independent liberal think tank CentreForum’s recent publication, ‘In the balance: coalition and minority government in Britain and abroad’ which examined Scottish, Welsh and German experiences of operating within non majority governments.

Following on from seminars held in Cardiff and Edinburgh, CentreForum will be holding the final seminar in the series on Tuesday 22nd January to discuss the experience of non-majority government in Wales and Scotland during the first eight years of devolution and to consider the implications for Westminster.

The two previous seminars provided much food for thought, both on the nature of the Welsh and Scottish experiences of coalition and minority government and the potential lessons which could be learned by Westminster. In the Assembly building in Cardiff, John Osmond, Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, Assembly member Jenny Randerson and Martin Shipton of the Western Mail discussed the Welsh experience. In Edinburgh Peter Lynch of Stirling University, former Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace, and Roseanna Cunningham MSP examined the Scottish experience.

Both sessions highlighted the differences with Westminster which would make coalition formation harder in London than in the Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament. John Osmond, for example, suggested that consensus in the Welsh Assembly may be easier to achieve due to its absence of fiscal responsibilities. Peter Lynch and Jim Wallace argued that the expectation prior to the 1999 elections that no party was likely to receive a majority of seats meant that coalition discussions and formation was more orderly than it would likely be at Westminster, where the first past the post system means majority government is the overwhelming norm.

Similarly, both sessions discussed what might be needed to make coalitions sustainable in Westminster. Jenny Randerson identified the importance of parties entering negotiations with clear, costed and achievable manifesto commitments. With such detailed plans coalition partners can bargain with concrete commitments. In Scotland, Peter Lynch noted the significance of the expert committees which had been able to depoliticise potentially divisive issues (such as over tuition fees) in Scotland and provided political cover for the parties to move away from their manifesto commitments. Similar committees might be needed in Westminster if divisive policy areas are to be successfully incorporated into coalition agreement: a pre-requisite for stable and effective government.

The most resonant piece of advice for Westminster parties came from Jenny Randerson, when she implored the main parties to face up to the possibility of coalition government, an approach for which she lauded CentreForum. Alun Michael MP, former First Secretary of Wales, Jim Wallace, former Deputy First Minister for the Scottish Executive, and Dr Alan Trench, an expert on constitutional politics in the United Kingdom, will be taking up this theme in tomorrow’s seminar discussing how prepared Westminster is for minority or coalition government, the challenges it faces and the lessons it needs to learn from the Scottish and Welsh experiences.

CentreForum published ‘In the balance: coalition and minority government in Britain and abroad’ last autumn. More information can be found on the CentreForum website.

The meeting will take place tomorrow, Tuesday 22nd January, 6.15-7.45pm in Committee Room 15 of the House of Commons, SW1A OAA. The event is free of charge, but please call 020 7340 1160 or email [email protected] if you wish to attend in order to RSVP.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.

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