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
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
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)
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. SpeedWhat 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. EnduranceThe 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
12. However, the Programme's pledge to hold
a total of 29 policy reviews and five commissions over the course
of the Parliamentand the opportunities for abstention it
affords the Liberal Democrats in key policy areas, such as university
tuition feesis a tacit acknowledgement of the significant
differences that still exist amongst the two parties.
13. CohesionThe 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. SupportThe 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
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. TransformationTo 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