Voters, not politicians, will choose the future alignments of British politics

That’s the theme of the article I’ve done for the IPPR’s quarterly journal which has a series of articles looking at political realignment, including Nick Boles making a pitch for the centre-right.

It’s Parliamentary arithmetic which predominantly determines what options are actually open to politicians. That matters far more than any personal preferences of senior politicians, so the choices that are made are shaped far more by the results of what voters do than by what politicians might prefer:

The voters have a habit of making fools of those who make political predictions, even those (and perhaps particularly those) who make long-term predictions … So enthusiastically confident predictions about the long-term future of this coalition government – less than one year old and yet to face a national electoral test of any sort – tell you more about the self-confidence of those making the predictions than they do about the likely course of future events.

Mark Pack IPPR articleWhat is safe to say is that politicians have a remarkable (and, in many ways, very welcome) ability to adjust to the political numbers that the voters, unwittingly or deliberately, set for them. Not only in Westminster, but also in devolved bodies and in local government, the previous decades have seen all sorts of unlikely combinations when the hard numbers of seats for each party have required it. Overseas we have even witnessed the two main parties in coalition with each other, as with Germany’s ‘grand coalitions’…

Even a successful Coalition Government will most likely leave future Labour / Lib Dem co-operation looking plausible and so the power to decide will, once again, firmly rest in the hands of voters. Cross-party discussion in the meantime may prepare the ground to make future co-operation more likely to be successful, but its existence or not will be a matter for the ballot box, not think tank publications. That may be unsettling for politicians and exciting for political observers but it is also fundamentally democratic – as it should be. Voters, not politicians, will decide the future shape of politics.

Both the full article and the edition of the journal are available for purchase online. The full content is not available for free online, but I’ve written about how Nick Boles’s argument for a centre-right alignment does, or doesn’t, stand up in my review of his book Which Way’s Up?

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • Mr Pack – These all are reasonable points. It is indeed the voters that decide. There is a better argument (I think) to be had about situations where a particular third party is always a de facto kingmaker – espcially in the context of AV – but one way or another the numbers in parliament are the important bit.

    Now for the problem. ‘Cross-party discussion in the meantime may prepare the ground to make future co-operation more likely to be successful, but its existence or not will be a matter for the ballot box, not think tank publications.’ This is very important and whatever you or I may think, clearly there are some people out there who think that this was nowhere near explicit enough. What do parties (major and minor, this is not directed solely at the LDs) think is tradeable? What would a coaltion look and feel like and what would be priorities? Preparing the ground is not enough in itself.

    Plainly there are some voters who feel that they did not get what was being advertised with the LDs as the minor party in coalition governement. I make no value judgment here on whether they are right, though there is one stand out example. The stark reality is that voters had a reasonable expectation that the fees pledge was not something that would be traded away, and that was a poor advert for coalition politics.

    Yes – Nick Clegg talked about four points. My reaction when I saw them was to say that I quite liked motherhood and apple pie too. It won’t always be easy, and it may upset some voters. Perhaps that is no bad thing and would be a sign of a more honest approach. But the 2010 approach palpably failed.

  • paul barker 22nd Mar '11 - 1:22pm

    Actually it is normally possible to make some predictions, for example that in most Elections the Major Parties will get within 5% of what they got last time, the recent Irish result was a one-off.
    Without AV its very likely the LDs will get between 19 & 29% in 2015. AV is just the sort of game-changer that could upset that of course.

    @Duncan, you are right of course but all the Major Parties have to join in with listing their priorities or it will be no use.

  • Richard Heathcote 22nd Mar '11 - 1:44pm

    i think you are being complacent to say that usually parties get within 5% of last time and that Lib-Dem votes will ammount to between 19% & 29% in the next GE. With or withour AV it appears the party has moved towards the right in the process causing many with left wing tendancies to feel dissillusioned with the party.

    What do you think will be different in 4 years time? i really dont see votes coming from the right as they will basically vote Conservative and id be suprised if its possible to attract many from the left after a 5 year term in this coalition.

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