Lessons from the process of government formation after the 2010 general election - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Professor Matthew Flinders, University of Sheffield and Dr Felicity Matthews, University of York

  1.  Westminster-style government is based upon several key principles, including centralised power; a strong executive; and clarity in relation to the direction of public policy, and the responsibility of specific politicians. The resilience of the "Westminster model" has been reinforced by the stability of the two-party system of single party government throughout the post-war period, as power oscillated between Conservative and Labour.

  2.  Whilst the two main parties' share of the popular vote has declined since 1970, forms of government such as minority and coalition have remained deviant from established governing norms. Hung parliaments are rare and, prior to 2010, the last general election to produce a hung parliament was in February 1974, which was the first result without a clear-cut winner since 1929.

  3.  Indeed, the UK now provides an exceptional case, and is the only parliamentary democracy in North America, Europe and Australasia to have produced a coalition at its most recent election despite having a simply majority electoral system.

  4.  The limited experience of alternative forms of government at the national level means that there are few lessons that can be learned by looking into Westminster's past. However, the existence of different forms of government at the sub-national level offers important lessons regarding the practicalities of coalition government.

  5.  Devolution ushered in a tier of governance that was forged upon minority or coalition government within a Westminster model of government, which means that the emergence of a coalition government at the national level in 2010 is not quite as novel for the established political parties as some people may have thought.

  6.  What is critical about the experience of coalition and minority governments at the devolved level is the manner in which the cultures, assumptions and values of majoritarianism appear to have been maintained by key actors. Indeed, there is also evidence that the preference for coalition has been driven by the desire to avoid the pitfalls associated with minority rule and to reinforce the capacity to of the executive to govern vis-à-vis the legislature.

  7.  The experience of devolution therefore reveals a certain path dependency whereby parties and individuals have tended to approach the new constitutional structures with the instincts and views that were honed within national (or local) majoritarian politics.

  8.  At Westminster, the coalition between the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats was agreed in the middle of May 2010, and although the legislative programme was set out in the Queen's Speech, within a fortnight the House of Commons immediately moved into the summer recess. It has only been in recent weeks, therefore, that the realities of coalition government have begun to come to the fore as ministers start to focus on reforming their respective bureaucratic networks.

  9.  As such it is simply too early to assess what difference coalition politics has had on the culture and practices of Whitehall and Westminster with any precision or certainty. And yet the nature of executive politics has clearly changed and many long-standing myths about the nature of coalition politics have been pierced. Five key aspects of coalition formation and governance that the Committee may wish to focus upon are: speed; endurance; cohesion; support; and, transformation.

  10.  Speed—What was particularly marked about the post-election coalition negotiations was the speed at which an agreement was brokered. The average period of coalition formation in Western Europe is 23 days; but after the UK general election a broad agreement was reached within five days, and a Programme for Government as published within 14 days of the general election. Such rapidity is therefore at odds with dominant understandings concerning weeks of uncertainty and confusion.

  11.  Endurance—The coalition government has already out-lasted many predictions. Not only are politicians from the two parties managing to co-operate and abide by the convention of collective responsibility, but they actually seem to be enjoying the challenge. At the base of this relationship lies a coalition agreement in which the Conservative Party is clearly the dominant partner. Research suggests that 43.3% policy statements in the Programme for Government were solely attributable to the Conservative manifesto; whereas 22.7% of the pledges appeared solely in the Liberal Democrat manifesto and only 19.7% appeared in both parties' manifestos. This means that a total of 63.0% policy commitments can be traced directly to the Conservatives original manifesto plans.

  12.  However, the Programme's pledge to hold a total of 29 policy reviews and five commissions over the course of the Parliament—and the opportunities for abstention it affords the Liberal Democrats in key policy areas, such as university tuition fees—is a tacit acknowledgement of the significant differences that still exist amongst the two parties.

  13.  Cohesion—The broad distribution of portfolios and positions across coalition partners is key to internal cohesion and stability. The Liberal Democrats have been substantially over-represented within government, being awarded a total of 24 ministerial positions and five seats in Cabinet; and despite only having a share of 8.8% of parliamentary seats, the Liberal Democrats have secured a disproportionately large share of 19.5% of ministerial positions across government. The implications of such over-representation require further examination.

  14.  Issues of proportionality notwithstanding, each coalition party can be seen as a veto player that can maintain the status quo against the demands of coalition partners; and the coalition may result in more stability in terms of internal governance arrangements, as the introduction of an extra veto-player will reduce the frequency of Cabinet reshuffles. In turn, the dispersal across parties of positions within individual departments may bestow "watchdog" powers upon junior ministers, with the capacity to keep their coalition partners in check; and it will be interesting to determine whether, over time, these ministers exercise their veto capacity over their superiors.

  15.  Support—The civil service have been forced to clarify certain roles and relationships, and generally adapt rapidly to a change in political circumstances; and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, despite opinion poll evidence that consistently pointed towards a hung parliament, the civil service was under-prepared for the experience of coalition.

  16.  What is particularly noteworthy about the institutional architecture supporting the coalition is the lack of conflict resolution mechanisms. The main formal arena for resolving tensions is the Coalition Committee, but this has not (as yet) been tested. The lack of conflict helps explain the apparent lack of focus on formalised conflict resolution mechanisms, or any apparent understanding that to establish mechanisms of this nature is an act of mature governance, rather than weakness and failure.

  17.  The civil service is therefore being forced to adapt and respond to the demands of coalition government. This may be a challenge for civil servants for whom serving the government of the day has for them meant dealing with the politicians of only one party. Ministers, too, will need to accept that "their" officials will be in regular contact with coalition partners.

  18.  Transformation—To date the coalition has been able to minimise tensions through the creation of commissions of inquiry, task forces or simply delaying difficult decisions. This cannot continue indefinitely as the scale of the financial pressures on the government make hard choices inevitable at some point. And yet achieving "more for less" is incredibly difficult and this was underlined by the Public Accounts Committee's November 2010 report, which found that the three per cent efficiency savings that were included in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review had not been realised (PAC 2010).

  19.  Whether the nature of coalition politics will continue in the current high-trust low-blame vein, or veer back towards a more majoritarian low-trust high-blame model of political behaviour under the pressure of the coalition government's attempt to eliminate the massive budget deficit within the course of the current parliament (ie by 2015), remains unclear.

10 November 2010

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