Can a liberal-Conservative coalition work?
The main option for reaching a parliamentary majority in the House of Commons currently being discussed is for a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives clearly have the biggest mandate to rule however the Conservatives and the Liberal democrats are quite far apart ideologically on some issues. British politians are not used to the idea of not being able to rule outright so are not ready for the compromises necessary in coalition politics that the hung parliament brings. Can a Lib-Con coalition work?
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Conservatives recognised to have won
The conservatives quite clearly won the election. They secured 306 seats in the House of Commons, just short of the 326 they needed to have a majority. This was up 97 on the previous election. Except for Plaid Cymru and the Greens they were the only party to gain seats.[[ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/election2010/results/%5D%5D This puts the Conservative party in a very good position to make any deal with other parties work. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, very quickly agreed that the Conservatives should have first try at making a coalition with them despite rules that state that the sitting PM should have the first opportunity. This means that both sides are going to try hard to make a deal of some sort and then to make it work as well as possible when they get there.
It is difficult to argue that the Conservatives won the election when they only managed to garner 36.1% of the popular vote. This automatically means that two thirds of the UK voted against the Conservatives. With their plan for massive cuts one can not say that they have a mandate. Secondly, 52% of the country voted for left of centre parties. Thus for the Conservatives a right of centre of party to state they have a mandate is a bit of a stretch.
The Liberal Democrats need it to work
The Liberal Democrats need a coalition government to work. Their position on electoral reform is essentially predecated upon coalition governments working and being stable. The Proportional representation that they advocate is likely to result in hung parliaments much of the time so in order to be able to convince the general public to support their favoured reforms they need to show that paralysis will not result. Conversely should they not achieve a working relationship with the Conservatives they they will be well placed to say that for all its flaws the first past the post is the best system.
Jemima Packington predicted that the economy will continue on its downward spiral.- [[http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/6900002/Mystic-makes-2010-predictions-using-asparagus.html]]
Difficult to agree on Electoral reform
There are two big areas where the Conservatives and Liberal democrats disagree and will need to try and find a compromise or fudge. The biggest problem area is electoral reform, more particularly proportional representation. For many Liberal democrats electoral reform is practically all that matters. Almost anything else could be ignored if the Liberal Democrats get electoral reform then turning a blind eye on everything else would be worthwhile. This is shown by by 80% of Lib Dem members thinking that electoral reform is the dealbreaker.[[Stephen Tall, 'What Lib Dem members think about talking to the Tories: LDV poll results', Liberal Democrat Voice, 10/5/10, http://www.libdemvoice.org/what-lib-dem-members-think-about-talking-to-the-tories-ldv-poll-results-19424.html%5D%5D However electoral reform, and especially proportional representation is opposed by right wing conservatives. Norman Tebbit argues
[[Norman Tebbit, Any government dancing to Mr Clegg's unpopular tune will be punished by the voters, telegraph.co.uk, 9/5/10, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/normantebbit/100038820/any-government-dancing-to-mr-cleggs-unpopular-tune-will-be-punished-by-the-voters/%5D%5D Indeed it can be argued that the Liberal Democrats ran on a platform of electoral reform (if you interpret that as the meaning of Clegg’s message of ‘change’) and they were defeated on it, so why should they be able to negotiate for it now?[[Janet Daley, ‘General Election 2010: Did anyone else notice that the Lib Dems lost?’, The Telegraph, 8/5/10, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/election-2010/7697105/General-Election-2010-Did-anyone-else-notice-that-the-Lib-Dems-lost.html%5D%5D
Equally this sticking point in the negotiations can be seen as a boon if the coalition is agreed and it includes electoral reform. This is because the Liberal Democrats will have recieved their most important issue and will be more flexible on other issues as a result. They will want the coalition to work so that the reform agreed can be implemented.
Out of step on Europe
The second sticking point is over Europe. The conservatives and Liberal Democrats have divergent views on almost everything to do with Europe. The Conservatives are Euroskeptic and have had major splits in their party on the issue of Europe, although their main pro-Europe advocate Ken Clarke is back on the front benches. The Liberal Democrats are however pro Europe to the point that at some point in the future they would like to have the possibility of joining the Euro. It seems unlikely that a party that wants to be on the fringes of Europe, if not out all together, and one that wants to be in the centre can stay in step on the issue.
Europe is more likely to be an avoidable problem than electoral reform, at least in the short term. It is not a priority for either party and the chances are that the conservatives would be pragmatic in government and would be willing to work with Europe rather than letting itself be sidelined by siding with small radical and racist parties. The issue could also be fudged at cabinet level by having a Conservative foreign minister and a Liberal Democrat Europe Minister. This would allow a conservative administration to be more pro Europe and to reassure Europe that the UK will work with them while having a way to both keep control of foreign policy (through the PM and Foreign Minister) and have the Europe minister there as someone who can (and happily would) take the blame for any pro Europe moves made by the government.
Difficult to share the senior Cabinet posts
It is possible that there could be problems over who gets what cabinet seats. It would seem fair to most people to give a reasonably senior cabinet post to Nick Clegg if he is to be part of a coalition, but what could be given to the Liberal Democrats. The most senior positions are the PM (obviously taken by David Cameron), the Chancellor (the conservatives would not want to give up control of spending), the Foreign Minister (would be a little close to comfort on Europe), the Home office (problems with clashes on Asylum policy). This therefore only leaves more junior cabinet posts that are not traditionally regarded as particularly important as the big three jobs.
Even if they do not get any important cabinet posts they could be given the office of the Deputy Prime Minister which is not tied to any particular policy area.
There are two clear areas where there may well be serious opposition to a deal. The first is from the backbenchers of both parties. In order for a deal to have any point to it both parties leaders need to be able to bring their backbenchers with them. After all if either one of them does not command the support of their back benchers then they will not be able to secure the necessary votes to pass those key votes: the Queen’s speech and the Budget. This would be no different to not having a coalition at all. In 1974 the leaders of the Conservatives (Ted Heath) and the Liberals (Jeremy Thorpe) wanted a deal to make a coalition. According to William Rees-Mogg “Mr Heath wanted to form an alliance with the Liberals; but his negotiating position was limited because he knew that his party would not accept a commitment to introduce proportional representation. Conservative MPs were afraid that PR could lead to a more or less permanent Lib-Lab administration.” Something that is still a problem for them today. Similarly some liberals in Parliament did not want to deal with the Conservatives, for Thorpe Cyril Smith, the MP for Rochdale, was an obstacle that he could not overcome.[[William Rees-Mogg, ‘Leaders want a deal. Their followers may not’, Times Online, 10/5/10, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/william_rees_mogg/article7121214.ece%5D%5D
Party activists and members will be opposed
The second possible problem area will be the party members of both parties. Both sides are likely to be against a deal. The conservative grass roots can be brushed off as they do not have much power over the party, which rests in the hands of the MPs. However the Liberal democrat party members will not be so easy to ignore. Clegg would need to get the approval of senior activists as well as his MPs in order for the Liberal Democrats to carry an agreement forward. Most of the grassroots leans to the left and so are not keen on the possibility of a coalition with the conservatives.[[James Kirkup, ‘Hung parliament: Nick Clegg warned deal with Tories could lead to revolt’, The Telegraph, 10/5/10, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/election-2010/7702699/Hung-parliament-Nick-Clegg-warned-deal-with-Tories-could-lead-to-revolt.html%5D%5D
Many activists on both sides are likely to accept that it is better for their policies to be implemented in some way through a coalition government than not at all. Politics often has to mean being pragmatic, and this is the case with any coalition. Activists are activists because they want their party's agenda to be implemented does it really matter if it is the Conservatives along witht the Liberal Democrats who are doing the implementing of those policies?[[Mark Pack, We Lib Dems are pragmatic about how our policies get delivered, guardian.co.uk, 11/5/10, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/11/lib-dems-pragmatic%5D%5D The Liberal Democrat activists in particular are likely to recognise that they have a lot to gain out of any coalition simply in terms of credibility so no matter how many of their policies they ultimately get implemented they are likely to gain if the party is seen as putting the national interest before their own interests.
What do you think?