Is an era of bipartisanship achievable in the UK?

 

Although relatively unheard of in the UK political system, bipartisanship is the idea of two opposing sides finding common ground and compromising in key areas. This form of politics was commonly found in the US political system which featured the Republicans and Democrats working together on political and social reforms to benefit the country, before there was such polarisation in American politics.

The prime example of bipartisanship in the UK was the 2010 coalition government. This coalition was the illustration of two parties being able to work collaboratively on policy agreements. Essentially it could be argued that the most effective accountability and scrutiny was provided inside the government itself with two contrasting parties having to agree on policy before it was passed.

With this in mind I feel that it’s time for an era of unity and bipartisanship in the political system. With division sparked massively in the UK as a result of the EU Referendum there is a need for cross party agreement and progression more than ever on multiple key areas such as the NHS, terrorism and Brexit.

The foremost example here would be the NHS. In light of a clear crisis of our health service all parties need to be around the table to help negotiate and protect something almost everyone in the UK is reliable on. Jeremy Hunt has clearly lost the confidence of junior doctors and therefore I do feel that bipartisan/cross party reform is the key to a strong solution to a growing problem. The NHS itself was founded upon the basis of cooperation between William Beveridge, the Prime Minister at the time Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan. To save the present day NHS I feel this kind of agreement needs to happen, cross party policy seems a logical response to benefit the long standing service.

Moreover another key issue that invites bipartisanship is terrorism; in the face of such dark times a united UK politically can bring effective opposition to the horrible acts of terror that are occurring around the world. All parties should be willing to unite and put forward a progressive case to try and beat terrorism and extremism in any and every way. This would involve all parties putting forward what can be done in terms of counter terrorism with a completely open debate proposing legislation that the government can get behind.

Real unity and togetherness is needed more than ever. However with the Labour Party having deep problems with unity it brings into question how this can be done. The Liberal Democrats stand and platform to stay in Europe, while conversely Theresa May’s government and UKIP aim to lead us out. It’s clear that the issue of Europe will always be divisive. Furthermore it could be argued that the idea of multiple parties agreeing on any issue is challenging because bipartisanship can only thrive in a healthy two party system, which the UK currently does not have.

In one of Britain’s darkest periods Theresa May’s new government needs to be willing to reach across the aisle in an attempt to move forward and work together on specific issues in a troublesome time both globally and at home. Though while in theory the idea of British bipartisanship, cooperation and unity across the board sounds enticing, the UK political parties are far too polarised across the ideological spectrum for cooperation in multiple different political areas, but they may be able to achieve some agreement over two or three significant policy areas.

 

* Jack Haines joined the Liberal Democrats in 2015 at the age of 16 and was elected as a Liberal Democrat Councillor in Hull in 2019. He is a campaigner for Lib Dems for Basic Income @LDforBI.

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22 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Jul '16 - 7:28pm

    I like Bipartisanship, but it’s often scorned at for taking the life out of the debate and being a bit elitist.

    Support bipartisanship, but mandates need to also matter. So if a cross-party committee was created on the NHS then the fair thing would be for it to be majority Conservative. If it isn’t majority Conservative then we’d have to also try to take something out of Labour’s hands if they got in power. We can’t take an approach of trying to take power away from the Tories via technocracy because we can’t do it by democracy.

  • Conor McGovern 19th Jul '16 - 10:09pm

    Not without PR, unless we want two pretty interchangeable main parties, like we had until recently.

  • British governments have often worked collaboratively with the Opposition parties and individuals where there’s broad consensus or where an issue divides other than down party lines. Anti-Terrorism is a prime example, except that the consensus tends towards authoritarian and illiberal measures such as 42 days detention most notably opposed by David Davis. But the Opposition hold the Government to account so they have a constitutional duty to be critical scrutineers. Weak oppositions such as those in Russia and South Africa and Turkey tend to lead to greater corruption and less democracy. In Germany there’s a virtual absence of Opposition due to the Grand Coalition so where do people turn to to protest?

    The NHS wasn’t a bipartisan invention but a Labour one based on the wartime report of a civil servant and academic who later joined the Liberals. The Tories voted against it and doctors were 90%+ opposed. I’m not sure there was ever a time when doctors and Health Secretaries of any party did not lock horns.

    Collaboration is great when ironing out details but not so great at producing liberal and democratic solutions to the major problems, nor at holding governments to account.

  • The bi- in bipartisanship is not a very useful or meaningful term in an era in which the old two-party system has broken down, and is in the process of being replaced (for a time at least) by a multipolar, multipartisan system, in which people are more united around individual causes than around enormous (slow-moving, outdated) party machines. In such an era, perhaps the Liberal Democrats would do most good as a focal point for joining diverse constituencies (including those outside the party) on behalf of particular projects.

    Such “multipartisanship” is, I suggest, what we should have done from 2010 to 2015. Taking a Tory-Lib Dem “bipartisanship” (in which many Liberal Democrat principles were subordinated to Conservative power) as an adequate substitute led us into many errors, with disastrous results; tethered to the Tory behemoth, we lost the chance to make common cause with other parties that might have supported our causes as well or better, even when they differed as to principles. But we are now in a totally different situation in any case.

  • The coalition wasn’t bipartisan apart from the rogue leadership of the Lib Dems who were pretty interchangeable with Cameron and Osborne – even today we have David Laws telling as Gove really believed in helping the less well off, because he supported such absurdities as free schools. Finding common ground and not pretending there are splits when there aren’t any is good. Anti-racism being an example. What the coalition did was agree to the trading of one useless policy (police and crime commissioners) for another. The coalition was a hugely wasted opportunity to show how coalition should work – where parties vote for what they believe in (or in Cleggs case what he was elected on). Compromise to get things through, yes, vote for things you now to be idiotic, no.

  • Is an era of bipartisanship achievable in the UK? ………..The short answer is NO!

    Would it, especially today, be good for the UK?…The short answer is YES!

    However, as the rushed vote on ‘Trident’ shows, Party always trumps Country…

    My Liberal (Dem) roots were in a party that was not Tory or Labour but had the good ideas from both (often before they had the ideas)….

  • Richard Underhill 20th Jul '16 - 12:35pm

    At her first PMQ Theresa May has claimed credit for the improvements in income tax, but did not say that her predecessor rejected this Lib Dem policy in the TV debates at the 2010 general election. We spent most of the 2010 – 2015 parliament saying so.
    To be precise this is about standard rate income tax.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Jul '16 - 12:57pm

    TM also implied action on the Istanbul Convention (of which Turkey is a signatory).
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/istanbul-convention-britain-drags-its-feet-over-womens-rights-10432895.html

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Jul '16 - 1:01pm

    Jack Haines

    The prime example of bipartisanship in the UK was the 2010 coalition government. This coalition was the illustration of two parties being able to work collaboratively on policy agreements. Essentially it could be argued that the most effective accountability and scrutiny was provided inside the government itself with two contrasting parties having to agree on policy before it was passed.

    NO!!! Our party has been almost destroyed by pushing that line. So why do you want to carry on pushing it.

    The 2010 coalition was NOT a “prime example” of bipartisanship because it was not an even balance between the two parties. Thanks to our distortional representation electoral system there were five time as many Conservative MPs as Liberal Democrat MPs. It also meant there were not enough Labour MPs to make an alternative coalition viable. Thus the power of the Liberal Democrats to influence the coalition was quite small. The coalition was a Conservative government with a little Liberal Democrat influence stopping the most extreme aspects, not an even balance between the two parties as what you wrote suggests.

    Pushing the line that the coalition was an even balance between the two parties gave the impression that the Liberal Democrats were far closer to the Conservatives in policy terms than people supposed – and that includes most of our voters. So, most of our voters deserted us, because that was not the sort of party they wanted.

    Those who wanted to push the party to the right rejoiced in this at first, going on about it being so wonderful that we were now a “party of government” not a “party of protest” and seeming happy to lose votes they said we had “borrowed from Labour”. But the millions of new votes they seemed to suggest would come our way just haven’t materialised, have they?

  • Peter Watson 20th Jul '16 - 1:54pm

    @Richard Underhill “her predecessor rejected this Lib Dem policy in the TV debates at the 2010 general election.”
    Not exactly. Cameron said, “I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick…We cannot afford it”. So the question is raised, what tax rises or spending cuts were required elsewhere so that this Lib Dem policy could be afforded?

  • @ Matthew Huntbach.. Yes, a million times, yes. Completely agree.

    As Bob Dylan used to sing…… When will they ever learn.

  • matt (Bristol) 20th Jul '16 - 3:07pm

    A pedant writes:

    Ultimately, ‘bipartisanship’ really only has meaning in a strictly bipartite system such as the US has, which ours has failed to be since the end of the First World War (at least)?

    Without total – and I mean total – dominance of politics by two parties, roughly equally balanced, really what we are talking about is a politics of mutual respect, combined with a slight weakening of party discipline and a commensurate reduction in narrow factionalism.

    There are moments when all parties get there (for eg the co-working between Jeremy Corbyn and Crispin Blunt in the recent Trident debate), but it’s impact is less and there is an element of futility to it because of the structural imbalances in our constitutional set-up with regard to party representation.

    I don’t know what a strict UK equivalent of US bipartisanship would be … tripartisanship? Quadripartisanship?

  • Richard Underhill 20th Jul '16 - 6:37pm

    Peter Watson: “Nick…We cannot afford it”. So the question is raised, what tax rises or spending cuts were required elsewhere so that this Lib Dem policy could be afforded?
    Neither actually. The quad agreed to increased borrowing. Cameron and May are claiming credit for a policy Tories opposed, including at least one Tory former Chancellor.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Jul '16 - 9:55pm

    @David Raw

    Thanks. I was a very active member of the party for 35 years, but I dropped out of activity during the time of the coalition. I accepted the coalition, because I felt it would be hypocritical to have spent all that time pushing for a multi-party system, but then not to accept its inevitable consequence, which is coalitions. I also accepted that the balance of the two parties meant the coalition would inevitably have policies more towards the Conservative than towards the Liberal Democrats. This was hard for me, as if I had a choice between coalition partners my own policy preferences would mean Labour rather than Conservative. However, I could see that the Conservative-LibDem coalition was the only viable option in 2010, and I myself defended it on that basis.

    What caused me to drop out was the way in which the leadership of the party used it as an excuse to push the party permanently rightwards, and caused us so much damage by making exaggerated claims about our influence, and making it seem as if we loved the right-wing policies it was pushing out rather than just had to accept them because our weak position meant it was as far as we could go, and we had at least stop worst stuff that the Tory right-winger wanted.

    I have retained my membership, and really hoped that after the coalition and with Clegg stepping down, by now I would have resumed my activity. Sadly, however, it seems the party has recruited a whole load of people whose view of it comes from Clegg’s pushing it to the right. If people like Jack Haines are what the party is about now, I will have to take the final step and actually tear up my membership card.

  • @MatthewHuntbach

    The last thing I’d want you or any liberal to do is give up and tear your membership card up. When writing I knew the coalition would be a risky topic that sparked string

  • @MatthewHuntbach

    The last thing I’d want you or any liberal to do is give up and tear your membership card up. When writing I knew the coalition would be a topic that sparked strong opinions.

    What i will say is that now with Tim Farron we are now clearly left leaning. Fighting for liberty and freedom we do now need to accept the coalition for what it was and move on.

    I do believe in cooperation in the form of a coalition but our party comes first, one of the key lessons learnt from 2010-2015.

  • Stevan Rose 21st Jul '16 - 9:35pm

    “we are now clearly left leaning.”

    The leader does and some members are, some members lean left on some issues and right on others, some members would say they lean in neither direction. A few might lean right. What seems to matter to everyone isn’t a place on the political spectrum but rather an anti-authoritarian stance to issues, social justice, and independence from vested interests and demanding benefactors. Whilst you wouldn’t believe it from this site most party members endorsed the Coalition and, despite mistakes and some naivety, we were responsible for the £10k personal allowance, same sex marriage, and many other achievements of which most of us are proud.

    We made two very major errors of judgement for which we were, rightly probably, punished. We should have had red lines on tuition fees and the bedroom tax. We fell for a trick that Cameron probably still chuckles about: they told us that a Coalition Cabinet is fully bound by collective responsibility when that should only have applied to policies explicitly laid out in the Coalition Agreement. So we were told to support, announce, implement Tory policies that weren’t agreed. And we looked as if we were reneging on principles. Clegg should have said no, put that stuff to a Commons vote on party lines. Members and voters felt, and actually were, betrayed. Coalition works as long as you collaborate on the things where there is broad agreement but are free to act independently where there isn’t.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jul '16 - 12:10pm

    Stevan Rose

    Whilst you wouldn’t believe it from this site most party members endorsed the Coalition

    I endorsed the coalition. It is not the government I would have wanted, but as I have already said, I accepted it was the only viable government given the balance of MPs in the Commons. I also accepted that what came out of it was about what would expect given the balance of MPs, that is, it was one-sixth LibDem and five-sixths Tory.

    My objections were to the way it was presented, as if we in the LibDems thought it was wonderful, just what we wanted, what we would have done if we were governing alone. The language Jack Haines is using here continues with that. It was a slightly moderated Tory government, NOT a “bipartisan” government, because “bipartisan” suggests equal input from both parties.

    If you give the impression that a five-sixths Tory government had equal LibDem influence to the Tories, you are in effect placing the LibDems at a position 40% into the Tories. Given that the Tories have moved hugely rightwards since when I joined the Liberal Party, and I joined it because I felt it was the most effective opposition to the Tories where I lived, describing the coalition as “bipartisan” is in effect presenting the Liberal Democrats a standing for what I joined their predecessors to oppose.

    I was pleased to see many new recruits joining the party after the 2015 general election, but since then it seems most of them think of the party merely as Clegg presented it i.e. Tory economics with just a little bit of side issue liberalism. Well, I just don’t want to be in that sort of party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jul '16 - 12:22pm

    Stevan Rose

    We should have had red lines on tuition fees and the bedroom tax.

    A basic issue in politics is that things must be paid for. You can’t just have no tuition fees as a policy on its own, you must also have taxes pay for tuition. So if we had a red line on tuition fees we would also have to force the Tories to raise more tax (which they would not – that would be against THEIR pledges), or say what further cuts we would make elsewhere to pay for it.

    That was why it was wrong to endorse £10k income tax allowance – it undermined that argument.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Jul '16 - 1:20pm

    Mathew Huntbach and re Jack Haines

    So much of what you say is wise and correct , tarnished here by two comments.

    How on earth you can be so dismissive or critical of Jack Haines , a young man still in his teens with an approach and intelligence way beyond his years, and more admirable than many two or three times his age , it is beyond me and a mystery. Whether you or anyone agrees on the level of positive attitude he has about the coalition is only about the extent of it , clearly in style and substance he is a Liberal Democrat and a credit to this party.We all disagree on policies, I have become an admirer of Tim Farron even though I voted for Norman Lamb, I liked and like them both , but I disagreed with Norman on the doctors strike , in which I think the doctors behaved appallingly as much as Hunt in fact , and I currently disagree with Tim on making off the cuff policy pronouncements on the EU ! But they are still two of my favourite people in British politics .Disagreeing , unless it is on something truly terrible en masse , is not a reason to tear up your party card .I understand , my journey in party politics has not been without , shall we say a little travel to and for , after all I have actually been Labour , would you believe !

    Also, how can bringing in tax revenue from the poorest , ie the lowest in the income ladder , be a good progressive policy .Raising the thresh hold might give a few more quid to the rich too, but it makes significant difference to the lowest paid , of which I have often been one ! Of course we should increase taxes on the richest , but that does not mean that lowering them on the poorest was and is not good Liberal policy , which it was and is !

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Jul '16 - 8:54am

    Lorenzo Cherin

    How on earth you can be so dismissive or critical of Jack Haines , a young man still in his teens with an approach and intelligence way beyond his years, and more admirable than many two or three times his age , it is beyond me and a mystery.

    Would it be better that I leave the party to which I have contributed so much silently and without explanation?

    I don’t think this needs to happen. I am not completely opposed to what Jack Haines wrote, and I can see that in part it is because his view of what the Liberal Democrats are about comes just from observing the coalition period, and that as presented by those at the top of the party, who had a bias to the right.

    However, I do think presenting the coalition as if we were equal partners in it and agreed without question to all aspects of its policies, rather than reluctantly accepted them as a necessary compromise in a situation where we were not the major party, has greatly damaged our party, and will continue to do so if it carries on.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Jul '16 - 9:02am

    Lorenzo Cherin

    Also, how can bringing in tax revenue from the poorest , ie the lowest in the income ladder , be a good progressive policy .

    The original policy as in the 2010 manifesto was that the increase in tax allowance would be balanced by increases in taxes elsewhere. This was subtly altered by the right-wingers at the top who promoted it as about us being a party of tax-cutters.

    I am sorry, but I believe in honesty. If we want things provided by government, then we need to accept that tax has to be raised to pay for them. Our defence of the tuition fees situation, that we were unable to get the Conservatives to agree to the taxes necessary to pay for university education falls down if we then promote ourselves as a tax-cutting party, as we did in the 2015 general election.

    There was once a time when one of our key policy lines was “a penny on income tax for education”. This was decent and honest, and gained us support. We now seem to stand for the opposite of that.

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