Living with coalitions: You can’t always get what you want

You would be hard pressed to find anybody who would bet at this moment on one party forming a majority government on May 8. Unless there is a sudden damascene conversion on the part of the electorate for either the Conservatives or Labour, it looks as if we will be faced with another coalition government, whose composition is still very much in doubt.

There was a time when it was so much easier. In 1951 around 95% of electors on a turnout of around 82% voted either for the Labour or the Conservative parties. Five years ago, on a turnout of around 65%, 35% did not – the highest since 1918.

In 2010 very few people, if any, expected to see a coalition formed, but, given it really has not been an unmitigated disaster, despite what some would have you believe, it makes me wonder why people can’t learn to live with one, like the citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany have, for all but three years of its existence. Germany, whether divided or unified, has hardly been a failure either economically or politically.

Our system of voting favours parties with natural strongholds, such as Labour, Conservative and, in Scotland, the SNP, but works massively against parties like UKIP and the Greens, whose support is more evenly spread across the country and is supposed to deliver strong one party government. It is all the more remarkable that even this system appears now to be failing to deliver.

Ironically, even though their percentage support is currently a fraction of what it was before they entered the coalition, because of their continued strength in some areas, the Liberal Democrats may still end up with over half the seats they currently hold, thanks largely to a voting system they would seek to abolish!

The Conservatives and Labour have traditionally been broad churches, with members in each party often holding very different views. Whereas fifty years ago it might have been possible to hold both wings of a party together for the sake of electoral success, that has become increasingly difficult in the past few decades.

Since 1981, when the SDP was formed and briefly flourished, we have seen parties that were formerly barely recorded on voting charts growing in strength, such as the Liberal Democrats from 1989, UKIP from 1993, the Referendum Party in the 1997 General Election and the Green Party around the same time.

Add to these today the British National Party, the English Democrats and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), not forgetting Plaid Cymru in Wales, the SNP in Scotland and the DUP, SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, and voters in these islands now have quite an eclectic mix to choose from.

This recent fragmentation in British politics has yet to influence greatly the composition of the House of Commons as the majority of so called ‘safe’ parliamentary seats, where one party has an almost unassailable majority, have so far rarely changed hands.

That’s why the major parties concentrate on the handful of so called ‘marginal’ seats, where majorities are small, like Lincoln. We can expect many more ministerial and shadow ministerial visits there between now and polling day. I doubt whether local seats like Sleaford and North Hykeham or Grantham and Stamford, for example, will receive the same attention.

The problem is that, with the exception of wartime, we are so accustomed to one party winning all the prizes that, with our one vote, we assume that we will get a decisive result one way or the other. Quite frankly, that’s how most parties behave when they campaign.

Many of us just don’t understand how coalitions work. Every ‘promise’ made before the election cannot possibly be guaranteed if a party needs to draft a programme for government with another.

In the 2010 Coalition Agreement, both parties had to compromise on their original manifesto promises; but the one which really hit the headlines was the original Liberal Democrat ‘pledge’ to abolish university tuition fees, which, in reality, they should never have made in the first place and which has been used by disgruntled voters as a stick to beat them with ever since.

Given the offer from the Conservatives, they went into coalition to build a majority in parliament to try to extricate us from the mess the country’s finances were in. After all, if you believe in fair votes, as the Lib Dems do, which experience tells us nearly always bring about coalitions, you had better have the guts to join one, given this unexpected chance.

Being jointly actually responsible for something means that sometimes you really do have to swallow your pride and make tough decisions and unfortunately face the consequences, even if your partner appears to be in comparison getting away with it. The alternative in 2010 would probably have been a rerun of 1974 with two General Elections in one year with no guarantee that any party would have emerged with a workable majority at the end of it.

Mick Jagger once famously sang: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime you might find you get what you need.” Therefore, perhaps all political parties should in future present the electorate with two menus in their manifestos.

One would be available if they could form a majority administration, whilst the other would outline their negotiating position in the event of their forming a coalition with another party or parties.

Some may find this a cop out; but this is not 1951 when the choice was fairly clear. We’ve moved on since then, whether some of us like it or not. We now need to be far more sophisticated when we cast our vote and far more realistic about the outcome.

It’s worth remembering that we actually vote for a Member of Parliament and not a government. Surely life has taught most of us that we can’t always get what we want, unless we are very, very lucky. Is that so very bad?