The survival of the Lib-Con project rests as much on the practicalities of power-sharing as on policy deals. Either way, parliamentary reform will be its legacyby Robert Hazell / May 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
On his first day in office, standing alongside Nick Clegg in the garden at No 10, David Cameron proclaimed: “We are announcing a new politics… where the national interest is more important than party interest… It can be a historic and seismic shift in our political landscape.” In the press coverage that followed, many columnists focused on the ideological fit between the two men. Others admired their astute tactics, in particular how Cameron had marginalised his old guard and modernised his party overnight. Both leaders appeared to believe that they could last a full term, and change the way that Britain is run.
The public seems to agree, with a YouGov poll in mid-May showing that six in ten people support the decision to join forces. Yet now we need to take a longer view, and look at some of the pitfalls that lie ahead, especially given Westminster’s majoritarian culture and the ingrained adversarial attitudes in British politics, media and law. What lessons should Clegg and Cameron learn from the conduct of coalition governments abroad? And what are the real chances of achieving a “new politics” of co-operation, by delivering the constitutional reforms that would change the political landscape?
No one on the Conservative side was prepared for this, psychologically or practically. Many are still in denial. Cameron is blamed for not delivering an outright majority, and the old guard will continue to snipe at him, through the columns of the Tory press and websites such as ConservativeHome. Tory MPs—led by David Davis—were quick to attack the proposed 55 per cent threshold for any government resolution to dissolve parliament. If the Conservatives pull ahead in the polls and the Liberal Democrats are trailing, the temptation to cut and run may become overwhelming. The Tories are the only party that can afford a second election, having raised more funds for the last one than Labour and the Lib Dems combined. Their fundraising for the next has already started.
The Lib Dems have long dreamed of holding the balance of power, yet they, too, were unprepared. Indeed, their shock was almost as great as the Tories’, despite recent experience of coalitions in Scotland and Wales. From these the party should have learned basic coalition management: the need for mutual trust; procedures for information sharing and jointly signing-off policy; formal ways to resolve disputes, and the importance of a pool of trusted advisers to keep such disputes under control. Nonetheless, the evidence from other countries says the pressure is greater on junior partners. They risk being tarnished with unpopular decisions, even if they did not support them in private. The government’s achievements will likely be credited to Cameron; the contribution of the junior partner is less visible to voters. Within the government they will struggle to keep up, with fewer resources and ministers. The pressure on Clegg, in particular, will be intense. He will have to clear the same policy papers as Cameron, but with a fraction of the staff. He has rightly avoided the temptation to head a major department; he now must insist on his own policy unit and team of advisers, not just a small private office.
An adversarial and impatient media will be a problem, too. In Europe, where coalition negotiation is the norm, there are on average 40 days between an election and the formation of a government. In Scotland, the first Lib-Lab coalition agreement took a week, and the second took two weeks. The negotiators meeting in the cabinet office had no such luxury, due to the media pressure to reach an agreement. The press will be watching for the first signs of splits, and the first hostile briefing from No 10. Andy Coulson, the Conservative communications director, may be just as savage in defending his master as Alastair Campbell, who did the same job for Tony Blair.
The rushed deal meant that there was no time for the coalition agreement to be properly costed or subjected to feasibility testing. Whitehall officials were on hand to advise, but the agreement of 12th May is, in essence, a political document: a merger of two manifestos. After asserting the overriding importance of reducing the deficit, it contains a long list of policy commitments that involve or imply increased public spending. Many further negotiations will be needed to reconcile this fundamental contradiction. The first Queen’s speech debate in late May will begin to expose the gaps, as will Chancellor George Osborne’s emergency budget on 22nd June. A full public spending review, likely in the autumn, will make matters worse, while tensions will grow between Osborne and business secretary Vince Cable over tax policy and banking regulation. Conservative flagship measures, such as Michael Gove’s Swedish-style free schools, are bitterly opposed by Lib Dem-controlled local authorities. And Europe will prove an underlying source of tension. (See Andrew Adonis.)
If keeping the coalition together will be a challenge for Cameron and Clegg, it will be doubly difficult for everyone else in Britain’s majoritarian political culture. Parliament, in particular, will become a test of whether the “new politics” has arrived. Government ministers will have to talk not just to their own parliamentary party, but to unhappy MPs from their coalition partners as well. If they don’t, parliament will quickly become the forum for intra-coalition tension, especially given that many Conservative MPs already resent the number of ministerial posts given to the Lib Dems (more than Cameron needed to, on a proportional basis).
Here other countries may provide a useful guide. In most continental European countries, where proportional voting systems are the norm, minority or coalition government is also the norm, leading to more consensual politics. But generally more useful for us are the lessons of Canada, Scotland and New Zealand—where minority or coalition government has had to develop within the Westminster tradition. Canada has the same first-past-the-post system as Britain, but its last three federal elections have produced no overall majority. The subsequent minority parliaments have been fractious, and even more adversarial than their majoritarian predecessors. Canadian politicians have found it harder to adjust than their Scottish or New Zealand counterparts, where proportional voting systems have forced the acceptance of coalition and minority governments. Indeed, New Zealand, which adopted a proportional system in 1994, has shown how quickly PR can fashion multi-party government from a classic Westminster two-party system. The coalition agreements contain “agree to disagree” provisions—as does the Lib-Con agreement on nuclear power and Trident. The New Zealanders have also found that collective cabinet responsibility can be relaxed, so long as cabinet confidentiality is maintained. And they have recorded each evolution of the conventions of coalition government in a “cabinet manual.” Overall, two basic rules of coalition management have emerged: good faith and no surprises.
If Cameron and Clegg are to last anything like five years, they should adopt the practices that followed from these two rules. New Zealand introduced formal consultation and dispute resolution processes between coalition partners, and even twinned each senior minister with a junior minister from another coalition party. The junior minister would be briefed on policy proposals, and if unhappy they could complain via the prime minister’s or deputy prime minister’s office. In the three coalition governments headed by Labour’s Helen Clark between 1999 and 2008, the government’s most important relationships were thus between the PM and the deputy prime minister, and their two chiefs of staff. A pool of trusted advisers became crucial to good coalition management, as did additional resources for the deputy prime minister.
Centralisation is an inevitable feature of coalition management, in large part because of this vital relationship between the prime minister and his deputy. Formal consultative processes and dispute resolution can eventually be bypassed in favour of more informal interaction, but only if these two have close mutual trust. This was what happened in Scotland, where Jim Wallace, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and deputy first minister, played a crucial role in ensuring good relations with successive Labour first ministers. The Scottish civil service learned to copy all important papers to Wallace. Whitehall will have to introduce similar procedures for information sharing, and for joint signing off on all policy proposals. Decision making may be slower; but for many this will be a welcome change from the informalities of sofa government, and a return to a more collegiate and thorough process.
So, having set out some of the difficulties, what are the prospects of success? The first grain of comfort is that Whitehall was better prepared for this eventuality than the politicians. In the run-up to the election the cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell flew to New Zealand to see how minority and coalition governments were supported; stranded in Bangkok by the volcanic ash, he nearly didn’t get back for the election.
A second strand of comfort for Clegg and Cameron is their numbers in parliament. All Helen Clark’s coalitions in New Zealand were minority governments. By contrast, the Lib-Con coalition will have a healthy Commons majority of 77: more than Labour’s majority of 67 in the last parliament. A little remarked consequence of the coalition is that the new government is likely to have a majority in both Houses. Even without the rumoured increase in the numbers of peers, the Lib Dems could provide the pivotal votes needed to give the government an effective majority for most divisions in the Lords. Given the previous Labour government was defeated over 500 times in the Lords (compared with only five times in the Commons), such a majority will make it much easier for the coalition to get legislation through the upper house.
In fact, with a comfortable majority in the Commons, and a possible majority in the Lords, the government could find that it reinforces the majoritarian culture at Westminster rather than undermining it. This is what happened during the early years of the Scottish parliament, when the coalition’s majority numbers and tight whipping made the parliament more subservient than its founders had hoped. But the promise of Clegg and Cameron’s coalition is built on a further round of reforms that may yet transform Westminster.
The Lib-Con agreement contains a long list of such reforms: fixed-term parliaments, a referendum on electoral reform, committees on an elected House of Lords and the West Lothian question, further proposals to reform the Commons, along with more devolution in Scotland, reforming party funding, a right of recall for MPs, and a statutory register of lobbyists. The prospects for delivering many of these are good: they cost little, so need not be undermined by cuts in public spending. That said, most of these are not landscape changers on a par with devolution or the Human Rights Act. The ones that are landscape changing are fixed-term parliaments, electoral reform and an elected House of Lords. All three would strengthen parliament; and all are a significant challenge to the executive domination and majoritarian culture of Westminster. They are the test case of the coalition’s capacity to change that culture for ever.
The first—fixed-term parliaments—were supported by Labour and the Lib Dems in their manifestos, but not by the Tories. Fixed-term parliaments deliver greater stability, and are fairer to the opposition—until now it has been the prerogative of the prime minister to choose the election date to suit their own advantage. But such a move would also require a safety net to allow an ineffective government to fall midterm, or a deadlocked parliament to be dissolved. It is here that the coalition has run into controversy, with its proposal for a 55 per cent threshold before dissolution. This was intended to prevent the government calling an early election without the consent of both coalition partners. But it was misinterpreted as changing the simple majority required for a no-confidence motion. If the government is defeated on a such a motion, Cameron would have to resign and his government would fall. An alternative government could then be formed or (more likely) fresh elections held. The row over the threshold obscured the government’s greater audacity in proposing a fixed term of five years. Australia and New Zealand both have three-year maximum terms. Canada’s federal legislature and many of its provinces have four-year terms, as do the devolved legislatures in the UK. So a five-year term is long by comparison with most other Westminster-based systems.
Electoral reform (see box below) is possibly the biggest change, potentially ushering in a multi-party system and permanently hung parliaments, as in New Zealand. But the coalition’s compromise proposal of the alternative vote (AV) is neither a proportional system nor would it threaten the two-party system. The Australian lower house is elected by AV, and generally delivers strong, single-party governments. As great a change, and much more difficult to implement, would be the plans to reduce the size of the House of Commons.
Electoral reformers will want to go further, but they should pause and ask which chamber they wish to be more proportional. We have a bicameral parliament, and bicameralism works best when the two chambers are complementary. As my colleague Meg Russell has pointed out, campaigners tend to want PR for the Commons, and to elect the Lords. But if the upper chamber was elected by PR this would make the composition of both chambers too alike. The Tories’ preference that both chambers be elected by first past the post is equally perverse, for the same reason. Here AV begins to look like less of an unhappy compromise, and more of a happy accident: AV for the Commons and PR for the Lords could be the best of both worlds. The Commons would retain a strong link between MPs and their constituents, and the ability to form majority single-party governments. A PR-elected upper house would also build on the strengths of the Lords, whose party balance is already more proportional than the Commons, and allow a wider range of voices to be heard.
So the Cameron-Clegg coalition may not, after all, usher in a new era of more consensual, coalition government. Even if it successfully rises to the main challenges it has set itself—deficit reduction and political reform—we could soon revert to single-party government under an AV voting system. And if the Liberal Democrats suffer electorally as the junior coalition partner, then far from opportunistically grabbing for power, as some leading Labour figures allege, the party will instead have sacrificed itself—at least in the short term—to the cause of restraining executive power and introducing more checks and balances to the Westminster model. The Tories, who have never been particularly interested in sharing power, may then be able to discard the Lib Dems and rule alone—the minor party having served the useful purpose for the Cameron reformers of having sidelined the Tory right. Alternatively, Labour could return to power to find many parts of its own constitutional reform agenda completed by the previous government. Either way, there is now a chance that Westminster will get the reforms that most liberal political reformers have wanted for a generation. But given the strength of our political traditions, they will prove less transforming than the reformers suppose.
Electoral reform: what’s the plan?
Introducing a new voting system before the next election looks challenging, especially given both coalition partners want different things. The Lib Dems prefer the single transferable vote—a form of proportional representation—and the House of Commons radically reduced from 650 MPs to 500. The Tories want to keep the current system, while cutting MPs by 10 per cent to 585. For now the parties have compromised: a referendum on an alternative vote (AV) system, and a likely agreement on 585 as the size of the new Commons.
AV allows voters to rank their preferences for all candidates in any one constituency. This both keeps the link between politicians and their constituency, and ensures that all MPs would be elected with support from over half their constituents. That said, it is not proportional: indeed it would at times produce results nationwide that are less proportional than the present system. In 2010 the results would not have been hugely different: the Electoral Reform Society estimates the Conservatives would have been down on 280, Labour almost unchanged on 260, and the Lib Dems up to 80.
To achieve even this middle path, legislation must first authorise a referendum, specify the question, and name the date. Money will be needed too: the vote will cost around £80m, although expense could be saved (and turnout increased) were it held at the same time as another election. This makes the earliest likely date May 2011, when there will be also elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Electoral Commission would select and fund umbrella bodies to lead Yes and No campaigns, and the coalition agreement allows the Conservatives and Lib Dems to campaign on opposite sides. Reformers tend to take it for granted that a referendum would pass. But it is quite possible some electoral reformers would campaign against AV—on the basis that it is not proportional—while others will claim (incorrectly) that AV is a recipe for perpetually hung parliaments. The vote could become an opportunity to kick against what may, by then, be an unpopular government. Others may just stay away: the public knows little about voting systems, and cares less. In Canada, both British Columbia and Ontario recently held referendums on new voting systems proposed by citizens’ assemblies. Neither passed, effectively killing off any prospect for electoral reform in Canada for a generation.
Reducing the size of the House of Commons may be an even bigger challenge—requiring a wholesale review of all constituency boundaries. The last such review took over six years. To speed up the process, any legislation will need to abolish “local inquiries” which allow the parties to object to proposed changes. Accusations of gerrymandering will follow; but electoral experts agree that such inquiries are largely a waste of time. The Conservatives also want every constituency to be much more closely the same size, mistakenly believing that greater parity would eliminate the current bias against them.
Nonetheless, if all goes well, the parliamentary boundary commissions will conduct reviews, publish recommendations, and, after a consultation period, submit a final report for a reduced Commons at least six months before the next election.
Read Lord Adonis’ accompanying article on faultlines in the Lib-Con pact