Opinion: Is a Minority government good for a progressive agenda and good for governance?

Most political commentators believe that the chances are that after the next election no party will have a majority. As we approach the election some people are suggesting that perhaps a new coalition government isn’t the best answer to promote progressive policies. The experiences of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, and to a lesser extent the Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition that ran Wales from 2007-2011 have shown that a left leaning party has to make too many compromises when in a coalition.

Some people are actively discussing that perhaps a new coalition government isn’t the best answer to promote progressive policies. The experience of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition has shown that a left leaning party has to make too many compromises when in a coalition with a right of centre party.

This has resulted in an increasing discussion on the left that perhaps a minority government, as in Scotland from 2007-2011, might be a better chance for a progressive agenda. One positive outcome of this approach could be the re-establishment of a positive relationship between the general public and parliament. A minority government could strengthen parliament. Why do we say this? After having had a budget agreed, a minority government would have to create coalitions for every policy issue. This would enable real debate on issues and the possibility of creating a progressive agenda across political boundaries.

The authors of this article are members of different parties the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. We are proposing in this article that a minority government is in fact good for progressive policies. We would like to suggest where there might be a common set of policies where progressives across parties on the left and even some supporters on the centre right might work together on. We would like to start that debate before the election is called and would like to suggest ten areas which to start a national discussion. These ten are:

  1. Economy: To introduce a New Deal approach to renew infrastructure create jobs an deal with the deficit. Regulation on the financial sector
  2. Defence: Cancel Trident and move towards a nuclear free Britain.
  3. Health: To expand community health services and preventative health actions
  4. Education: Respective parliaments to review the possibility to take away tuition fees completely
  5. Local Government: to instigate policies towards transitional towns – that balance environment-social and economic needs
  6. Business and Industry: Set up a Royal Commission to look at the emerging disruptive industries and their impact on jobs and wellbeing in the UK
  7. Justice: To introduce PR and make it mandatory to vote in all elections and move to a  fully Federal Britain
  8. Environment: Set up a Sustainable Development Goals Commission made up of government and stakeholders to develop a UK strategy for achieving the UN targets to be agreed in September 2015.
  9. Climate Change: To achieve the CO2 reductions needed (Andrew to insert his plan here)
  10. Overseas Development: To make it a legal requirement to deliver 0.7% ODA.  This is now a legal requirement the UK Government should persuade all EU and G8 countries to follow suit.

These policies will do a number of critical things for our democracy it will enable the agreement for a fairer voting system and require it to be the responsibility of every citizen to participate in the democratic process. With citizenship should come responsibilities!

On the economy we embrace the approach by the great Liberal Economist John Maynard Keynes and echoed by economists such as Paul Krugman (Nobel Prize winner).This is to enable people to work with dignity and help build an infrastructure for the 21st century and do it in an environmentally friendly way. Austerity has just brought unemployment, an increase in inequality and lost output. The problems of the 2008 crash have still not been regulated fully and a new Minority government should break up the banks separating retailing and casino sides. Directors should be held accountable for the decisions they take and no bank or company should be too big to fail.

Above all a parliament with no majority government will free debate on how Britain is governed, operates and perceives itself. Moving to a fully federal system, with the Commons becoming an English Parliament and the Lords an upper house with representatives of the constituent nations resolving disputes and shaping policy in non-devolved areas, will ease the tensions emerging over 2 speed devolution and resolve the problems inherent in the failed devolution model.

Central to resolving the deficit issue is a re-thinking of what Britain is and how it functions in the 21st century. Moving to a federal system should help kill off the 19th century “Britannia rules the waves” mentality which still infects Westminster government. Spending billions on a weapon system that cannot be used and vanity projects such as HS2 are no longer affordable. By scrapping them and spending money on infrastructure projects which will produce long term revenue savings are vital. A substantial social housing programme will produce huge savings in the housing benefit bill as families currently paying extortionate rents to private landlords can move to more appropriate housing.

There should be sufficient resources available, to all the respective parliaments, to discuss the abolition of tuition fees seriously and to decide if this is the best use of scarce financial resources.

Acknowledge the emerging consensus across all three parliaments of the need for a more community focused health service which is able to treat patients rather than illnesses.

On defence there is no need for the UK to retain Trident but should use the funds saved to build a relevant defence for the 21st century and help fund the elimination of Tuition Fees so the country is investing in the next generation and not putting them in debt.

If we thought that the world was changing too quickly we have seen nothing yet. The emerging technologies so many fields will have an impact on jobs and wellbeing in the next 15 years with:

  • Emerging Biotechnologies: synthetic biology, bioinformatics, tissue engineering
  • Emerging Nanotechnologies: Nanomaterials, nanodevices and nanosensors, nanotechnology for energy
  • Emerging Neuroscience Technologies: Naurostimulation, brain-computer interface
  • Emerging Digital Technologies: Artificial intelligence, robotics

The world is changing even faster than it has in the last ten years what we need a Royal Commission to be set up to help the country plan for these changes and to inform politicians and the public what is coming.

The next parliament will either move this country in the right direction or fail a generation to prepare them for the challenges ahead. We believe the best way to achieve the right changes is through a minority government where all policies will require a majority of parliamentarians to assent to them. It could be the rebirth of the UK as a great parliamentary democracy.


* Felix Dodds was Chair of the National League of Young Liberals 1985-87. Currently President of Amber valley Liberal Democrats. International. Ambassador for the City of Bonn, author of 11 books = the first one being Into the 21st Century an Agenda for Political Realignment. Currently a Senior Fellow at the Global Research Institute UNC. Mark David Jones was prominent in the young liberals of the 1980s and a central figure in the development of the lib dems in Leicester. He joined plaid Cymru in 2001 and contested the vale of Clwyd in the 2005 Westminster elections and 2007 Welsh assembly elections.he returned to Leicester in 2011 and works for one of the emergency services.

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  • Eddie Sammon 14th Apr '15 - 4:56pm

    I attempted to deal with these issues one by one, but let’s just say I’m not a “progressive” if the policies above are “progressive”.

    Minority government is a worthy concept, but many Labour MPs would run a mile from those policies, so getting them through is going to be a problem.


  • This seems like wishful thinking the idea that you can do politics and only smell of roses.

  • paul barker 14th Apr '15 - 6:48pm

    One great advantage of minority government Is that the constant debate & the increase in the influence of Backbenchers would both make splits & defections more likely & thus the “realignement of the centre-left”.

  • Philip Thomas 14th Apr '15 - 7:33pm

    What would such a government’s policies be on immigration, social security and legal aid?

  • Interesting that “infrastructure”, “transport”aren’t on the list – which given the number of homes that have been built in the last five years and the numbers that everyone says we need to build in the coming years, and hence the numbers of people and new commuting requirements, I would of thought these would be very high priorities, since this part of the country isn’t particularly well served by current railway network (and is totally ignored by HS2).

    I think, going on a comment Matthew made recently on another LDV article, there are many issues that aren’t left or right, there are simply two broadly differing viewpoints, we see this very clearly over the EU. I suggest the art in a minority government will be to identify such non-aligned topics and reach a cross party agreement. So a progressive agenda need not be a traditional left-right agenda but something much more radical…

  • I accidentally edited out from my previous post that I thought a significant number of new homes will be built in England, in the land outside of London and Birmingham; before the ribbon is cut on HS2…

  • Tony Greaves 14th Apr '15 - 8:40pm

    This is a really important article since it looks at the way policies could develop with a Minority Government within a No Overall Control Parliament, whether of or two parties, in which there is a clear majority for a range of centre-left MPs (and even a few genuinely left ones). The Tories in this situation could really be seen as the minority right-wing rump that they really are.

    I don’t agree with all the policies set out above (eg I think that HS2 is part – but only part – of a vital investment in our railway system and certainly not a vanity project) and there are obvious gaps. But overall it’s a good start.

    But don’t expect anything like this from post-election negotiations.The point is that within a NOC Parliament, policies can evolve in ways that are at present unknown. It will take time to develop. But the FTPA makes it possible.

    Tony Greaves

  • jedibeeftrix 14th Apr '15 - 9:11pm

    “9. Climate Change: To achieve the CO2 reductions needed (Andrew to insert his plan here)”

    This is funnier that perhaps you appreciate, speaking much to quality of the climate debate.

    “Moving to a federal system should help kill off the 19th century “Britannia rules the waves” mentality which still infects Westminster government.”

    A few questions if I may:
    a) What [exactly] do you mean “Britannia rules the waves” mentality?
    b) How [exactly] is this a bad thing?
    c) What do you imagine is a better prospect that you can sell to the British people?

  • I understand that “Andrew” was a Green party activist who was meant to complete the article.
    Overall I think this is the kind of discussion we should be having if we wish to avoid the lowest common denominator kind of government in the next Parliament. It is worth reminding ourselves why we came into politics in the first place, although obviously I can’t speak for everyone.

  • I still have my copy of Felix Dodds book – ‘Into the 21st Century an Agenda for Political Realignment’.
    Maybe I should read it again?

  • Steve Comer 15th Apr '15 - 8:24am

    Well I would happily sign up to most of the 10 point above in broad principle. I might quibble over some of the detail, but its good to hear some sound, sane radical policies being promoted, and some policies that could even see the light of day in a Parliament with No Overall Control.

    The pressure on parties to ‘rule out’ things and draw ‘red lines’ during the campaign is likely to make any ful coalition difficult. And unless the poll numbers change dramtically in the next three weeks its unlkely that any two parties could form a coalition with a majority in Parliament anyway. (Tories + DUP could be worryingly close, but the DUP seem to saying no to a coalition).

    So the question is how will this work in practice? Well it depends on the issue
    It could be that a policy of spending billions four Trident subs could lead to the following aritmetic:
    FOR: Tories + UKIP +DUP + Labour (frontbench and loyal backbenchers)
    AGAINST: SNP + PC + Green + SDLP + Alliance + Labour rebels + Lib Dems (I hope)

    And a policy of a referendum on pulling out ofthe European Union could lead to the following line up:
    FOR: Tories + UKIP + DUP + Labour rebels
    AGAINST; Labour (most) + Lib Dem + SNP + PC + Alliance + SDLP

    My big worry about a ‘NOC’ Parliament is that Labour and Tories will both agree to scrap the fixed term parliament legislation, and extablish a long term pact to abstain for each other to allow the largest party to rule. A Prime Minister could then call an election and the Tory Press could run a campaign telling people to “stop being silly voting for 3rd, 4th and 5th parties and decide whether its the Tory Tweedledum or the Labour Tweedledee you want to rule over us.”

    Suddenly my memories of the Lib -Lab pact are looking much rosier……..and as its going to be the hottest day of the year I’m even looking forward to a full day delivering leaflets!

  • Jonathan Pile 15th Apr '15 - 8:36am

    I agree about HS2 being a vanity project and should be scrapped or a cheaper alternative found. Likewise on Trident but I would retain a nuclear deterrent (just look at Putin!). A Progressive centre left government is what we hoped for in 2010. Whether we get one depends on the voters. If we are to participate in another Tory Led coalition – my red lines would be no austerity welfare cuts, a mansion tax, and if we have to sign up to an EU referendum – then only in 2019,(not 2017 – to have real negotiations) , a triple lock for Wales,Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.

  • Tony Greaves 14th Apr ’15 – 8:40pm ………. I don’t agree with all the policies set out above (eg I think that HS2 is part – but only part – of a vital investment in our railway system and certainly not a vanity project) and there are obvious gaps. But overall it’s a good start……..Tony Greaves

    Perhaps, but as my mother used to say, “There’s a time and a place for everything”….The ‘time’ isn’t now….
    There are far, far, more pressing priorities than HS2….
    Affordable Housing for a start…(especially with the Tory proposal to sell-off Housing Association homes…After all the words “non-profit making” are an anathema to Tory ears). What a difference £50billion plus could make; to say nothing of the employment…

  • expats 15th Apr ’15 – 9:33am

    I agree with Tony Greaves that HS2 is needed as one part of an updating and improvement of rail infrastructure. So £50 billion should be just a fraction of the investment. There is a huge and growing demand for rail travel and we need to supply the infrastructure for the next 50 years instead of relying on the investment of 150 years ago.

    Talking of supply and demand, I find it odd that the free-market enthusiasts who say private enterprise is the answer to everything haven’t adequately explained why the state has to fund HS2. Those free-market nutters go terribly quiet when such a question is asked.

  • Denis Loretto 15th Apr '15 - 11:47am

    If this article was published on April 1 rather than April 14 I would draw the obvious conclusion. The idea being put forward here is not minority government in the sense of (probably) the biggest single party forming a government and seeking to get support from others who are nearest to their ideas for a deliverable programme but rather a situation whereby every MP makes up his or her mind what position to take on an issue by issue basis. The authors of the article then set out their personal wish lists.

    Does anyone really think that in the real cruel world the UK would be able to operate on that basis and survive?

  • JohnTilley 15th Apr ’15 – 10:16am…….

    One thing is certain….HS2 and sufficient ‘affordable housing’ will not happen together…..My choice of priorities is homes rather than an HS2….

  • A minority government of the larger least progressive party rather than a coalition with a more progressive smaller party is unlikely to be a more progressive government. It will be more conservative. If there are cuts to be made it will be more unlikely to obtain a majority for them, but then the larger party will not support more radical proposals from a smaller party.

    A minority government would be good for Parliament, but it will not necessary be progressive it is likely to slow down changes. It could lead to the growth of smaller parties at each subsequent general election and a recognition that if we are not going to have one party majority governments we might as well have PR to represent the minorities better. The possible outcome with a Labour minority government could be:

    The compulsory jobs scheme of Labour might be passed;
    200,000 new homes a year being built should be passed;
    There is likely to be closer to £3bn cuts in welfare than £12bn;
    Trident replacement will go ahead;
    HS2 will go ahead;
    There will be an extra £8bn for the NHS but not necessary any more money for mental health;
    No changes to tuition fees;
    More green policies enacted;
    The deficit not cleared by 2017/18.

  • Also the other major omission from the list is: energy. With all these new homes, growing population and growing economy, we will be needing a few power stations being delivered ahead of the current timeline for new nuclear, which will once again massively impact our ability to meet our climate change targets. So it seems we can expect the ribbon to be cut on HS2 and the lights to go out!

  • This article follows the well-worn rut for ‘progressives’ of listing a number of ‘Good Things’ that the authors would like to see and regard as self-evidently true and valuable. There is then some debate because everyone has a slightly different list but it’s a debate highly constrained by a home-grown political correctness.

    It’s an approach that’s never yet worked and never will. The thing that strikes me most about this election is just how much the Tories are on the front foot and other parties on the back foot or, to put it another way, the battle is being fought on grounds and terms of their own choosing giving them an immense strategic advantage.

    For instance just about everyone – the other parties, journalists, pundits etc. – accepts implicitly that the Tories understand economic issues and that they must make the best arguments they can despite the economic headwind. Thus, for example they accept that the deficit must be eliminated then reversed leaving the debate only about just how quickly it’s prudent to do this. This is just one of many Tory assumptions that run through everything like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock.

    Not so. In physics or chemistry observations lead to theory which is then retested and so on. Economics often works the other way round. In practice (though obviously not in theory), it often asks what is the desired outcome and then finds a theory to justify that outcome. And if that theory is patently wrong or doesn’t work in practice? Well, that’s what PR and spin is for. So, for example, fairly elementary double entry bookkeeping shows austerity CAN’T work as the Tories hope and certainly not when we have a huge current account deficit. Practice concurs; austerity has been tried in many dozens of cases around the world since WW2 yet it has NEVER worked. So why do progressives yield this ground to the Tories and stick with their endless, futile lists?

    When the Liberal Party was a power in the land a century and more ago it took economics seriously and if we aspire to be a force once again then we must too rather than limply sucking up Tory propaganda and going on endless ‘manoeuvres’ in the vain hope that some fortuitous combination of votes and stars will so the trick.

    The ‘economic liberals’ sort of got this but then derailed though not understanding that Tory economics is all about self-justification with remarkably little contact with reality. By and large social liberals just don’t get it, preferring to stick with their lists.

  • Am I incorrect in thinking that Nick Clegg, regardless of how many MPs the LibDems lose, would rather form a coalition than support a minority govt?

  • The Greens have rejected the idea that the deficit has to be cleared by 2020. As a liberal I would be happy for our party to say we won’t accept 5% (or 12.5% in another of my comments) of the working population unemployed and so will pursue economic policies to reduce unemployment so that unemployment is a temporary thing lasting at most a few weeks. I would also be happy if instead we stated that in the future the number of people needed to work is going to be less and we need to look again how we divide up the work and support those for whom there is no work.

  • Denis Mollison 15th Apr '15 - 10:23pm

    GF – I agree strongly, except that your condemnation of social liberals is a bit sweeping.
    Economics is intrinsically political – I recommend Ha-Joon Chang’s “Economis: the user’s guide” (Pelican 7.99) as a clear and balanced discussion of the range of competing economic theories.
    As a party we need to detach ourselves from neoliberal economics and the idea that austerity is some kind of mathematical necessity, and look at how to achieve socially desirable goals (full employment, sustainable environment) in a finacially possible way. And if that means a higher national debt for a while, no great matter -our debt/GDP figure was twice as high fol long periods in the mid 20th C as we recovered from the mistaken austerity of the early 1930s.

  • Philip Thomas 16th Apr '15 - 8:37am

    I can’t speak for Nick Clegg (or speculate on whether he would be in a position to do anything after May 7th), but there are those within the party who would oppose a coalition with one of the major parties if we lost a significant number of seats (I am one with regards to the Tories- seats are bargaining power and if we have less bargaining power than in 2010 we will get a worse coalition agreement than 2010!- the position isn’t quite so clear for Labour because there is more common ground between us). Under the party constitution any coalition agreement must be ratified by the members, so even if whoever is leader after May 7th tries to push through a coalition the members could stop him or her.

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Apr '15 - 4:33pm

    Robert Wooton
    “If this voting system was in place for the General Election, … It would be a coalition of every party that won a seat!”

    No, it wouldn’t — no more than it is now. A government would only need to secure a majority of seats in the parliament, same as now. It’s just that it’s more likely that only a coalition could achieve that. (And even then, not impossible, depending on the political configuration at the time and the details of the system used, viz. the SNP single-party government in Scotland.)

  • Robert Wootton – “If this voting system was in place for the General Election, all governments would be coalitions …”

    As MT say, not necessarily. In practice parties tend to clump together into relatively like-minded confederations which can be very enduring like the CDU/CSU in Germany; ahead of elections the press and others actively debate likely combinations.


    What isn’t sufficiently recognised in this country s that all the main parties are in fact coalitions – I think of them as “undeclared coalitions” since they try to pretend greater internal unity than in fact exists. They have to operate this way because FPTP puts a huge premium on getting the most votes for a single candidate. Within each party which faction comes out on top is not decided by the electorate but by which faction has the best candidate, by infighting and by backroom deals. That’s not very democratic but the power that be would prefer you don’t think about that.

    For example, even the small Lib Dems are deeply divided between ‘economic liberals’ and ‘social liberals’. It’s part of the perennial weakness of the Party that its constitution and culture don’t allow it to address the issues this raises. The electorate’s verdict on this failure looks set to be damming.

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