Constitutional implications of coalition government - Constitution Committee Contents

Constitutional implications of coalition government


1.  The Government formed in May 2010 was the first coalition Government at Westminster since the Second World War and the first peacetime coalition formed since 1931. Furthermore it "is the first time that we have had a coalition that has been the product of the arithmetic of the general election".[1]

2.  The formation of a coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats followed a general election in which no single party gained enough seats to command a majority in the House of Commons. Trends in voting behaviour, with fewer votes for the two largest parties and an increasing number of MPs representing smaller parties, make it increasingly possible that hung parliaments will recur. The number of seats held by parties other than Labour and the Conservatives increased from under 10 in elections from 1955 to 1964 to over 75 since 1997, reaching 86 at the last general election; likewise the proportion of votes cast for other parties increased from under 10% in the 1950s to over a third in 2010.[2]

3.  The existence of a coalition Government at Westminster has created interest in how coalitions differ from single-party governments. In particular, many constitutional conventions and aspects of constitutional practice relating to Parliament and government developed under single-party rule. It is of course the case that many of the UK's constitutional arrangements depend on conventions and precedents, not on rigid rules.[3] Nonetheless these conventions and precedents usually applied under successive governments. Under the current Government there have been significant departures from constitutional practice. Some say that the British constitution is so flexible that it can absorb these departures with no difficulty. Others think that the constitution may have changed permanently because of current practice. In this report we examine which changes are likely to be permanent; and we set out certain principles which should apply to departures from particular conventions.

4.  With the approach of the last year of this Parliament, we decided to investigate what impact, if any, coalition government has had on the constitution. Chapter 2 covers government formation in the event of a hung parliament. A hung parliament need not necessarily result in a coalition; it could produce a minority administration or a different, less-formal agreement between parties. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the operation of a coalition once it has been formed and produced its shared programme. Chapter 5 looks ahead to some potential effects of having a coalition in office up to a general election.

5.  While this report draws conclusions about coalition government in general, it is primarily based on the experience in Westminster; some comparisons are made with the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, where the legislatures are elected through proportional representation, which is more likely to produce coalitions (examples are not drawn from Northern Ireland, where the executive is constitutionally required to be a coalition). The recent coalitions in all three legislatures have been two-party coalitions, but it should not be assumed that this will be true of future coalitions; nor will the specific arrangements operating in the current UK Government automatically apply to future coalitions.

6.  In this report we distinguish between the practical experience of multi-party government and its constitutional impact. For example, it is of political interest how ministers from different parties interact and share information within a department of state or in the Cabinet; but a constitutional issue arises when that interaction affects conventions on parties' access to civil service advice before an election, or the operation of collective ministerial responsibility.

7.  This report does not explore the constitutional reform programme undertaken by the current coalition Government, with the exception of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. This Act has a more direct bearing on the operation of Parliament and government than other constitutional legislation on which we have reported during this Parliament.[4]

8.  During this inquiry we held a preliminary seminar with constitutional experts, received written evidence and held 11 oral evidence sessions. We heard from individuals involved in the government-formation negotiations in 2010, current and former ministers in the UK Government, former first ministers and deputy first ministers in coalition administrations in Wales and Scotland, academic experts and representatives of political parties. We are grateful to all our witnesses.

1   Q1 (Lord Norton of Louth). Back

2   Barber, written evidence, table 1. Back

3   Q88. Back

4   See, for example, our reports on the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill (7th Report, 2010-12, HL Paper 58), the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill (5th Report, 2012-13, HL Paper 51) and the Succession to the Crown Bill (11th Report, 2012-13, HL Paper 106). Back

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