Sunday, May 25, 2014

Nick Clegg formed a coalition with the Conservatives without realising that in the UK we have no coalition tradition.

Nick Clegg is half Dutch and no doubt understands the electoral system in The Netherlands well. It is the purest form of Proportional Representation you can have. In the House of Representatives there are 150 seats and each Party gets seats directly proportional to the number of votes they receive in a General Election. The graphic above shows the current situation. A Party needs to command the support of MPs in the House - 75 seats - which means unless there is a landslide a coalition will be necessary. The present coalition is between the VVD (liberal Conservatives) and the PvdA (broadly equivalent to Britain's Labour Party) - the two largest Parties with 79 seats between them. The Dutch therefore, like the Germans, currently have a Grand Coalition. 

Where in Europe PR is used then coalition government usually follows. The point about this is that the electorate understands this when they vote. They know that every vote will count so they can follow their consciences and their beliefs. There is no need to vote tactically. The electorate also knows that after an election there will be a period of horse trading as (usually) the Party with the most seats seeks one or more Coslition partners. Compromises are necessary. In The Netherlands the VVD "won" the last election with a broadly Conservative platform just beating the Social Democrats of the PvdA into second place. Then the negotiations began during a period called the "Formatie" - the "Formation" in English. A Blue/Red coalition was the outcome. A VVD voter who doesn't like socialism, or a PvdA voter who hates Conservatives might have felt aggrieved but in the main they will have accepted the situation. The reaching of consensus across all policy issues is what the Eutch system always requires in the Formatie period.

In 2010 in Britain Nick Clegg and David Cameron had a brief period of "Formatie" on the Dutch model (sort of!) but this only lasted a few days before a Coalition agreement was reached. In The Netherlands the Formatie generally takes weeks - sometimes months! Looking back at May 2010 it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the British Coalition agreement was a rush job. This is because we have no tradition of coalition Government and no processes and procedures exist. They were making it up as they went along. Perhaps the key mistake was to declare that the Coalition would last five years - we would introduce fixed term Parliaments, of which this coalition would be the first. Of course technically the Coalition could be dissolved at any time, it was a constitutional change but not one that overrode the Head of State's right to dissolve the Government at any time and precipitate an Election. But in practice a key element of the Coalition agreement was that it would last five years.

In his speech to the Conservatiive Home conference in London on 24th May the Chancellor of the Exchequer  spoke of the Goverment's achievements (as he saw them) of the last four years. These were all, as George Osborne characterised them, Conservative achievements! Indeed the Chancellor did not once mention his Coalition partners, nor the fact that there had been and still was a coalition with the LibDems. Many of the Government's Tory ministers got a name check from Mr Osborne, but not  one of the LibDem ministers! 

Because we have, unlike the Dutch, no real tradition of peacetime coalitions in a Britain in Central government the public is unfamiliar with them. So this Government has been criticised by grass roots supporters of both partners. The Tories in the country blame the LibDems for holding the Government back - especially on European policy and on spending cuts. The LibDem activists believe that key parts of the LibDem manifesto were compromised by coalition - University tuition fees for example. It has been a difficult alliance and, as we can see from the recent local election results, both coalition parties have suffered from it electorally. Some of the more pure and Right Wing Conservative voters have decamped to UKIP. Many of the left-leaning LibDem voters have gone to Labour. And it is the LibDems who have suffered most.

To vote Liberal Democrat was for many voters a protest against the two main Parties. Some liberal Conservatives voted LibDem because they believed that the current Tory Party was too Right wing. Some social democrats voted LibDem because they thought that Labour was too Red. But after four years of a Conservative-led government the situation has dramatically changed. The only credible left of centre option is now Labour - the LibDem participation in a Centre Right government has destroyed their credibility as a serious player on the Left. At the same time the protest vote imperative has passed from the LibDems to UKIP. If "None of the above" is your choice you have now to go to UKIP because the Conervatives and the LibDems are part of the establishment in government. And no doubt some of those who though at heart were natural Conservatives and were tempted by Mr Clegg have now returned to the Tory fold. 

The LibDems are between a rock and a hard place. There is no logical reason to vote for them any more - they do not have a proposition that appeals. Liberally minded Conservatives can hardly be too unhappy with Mr Cameron. Left-leaning LibDem voters will have been turned off by the Coalition and will find in Labour a comfortable home. Meanwhile some hard line previous Conservative voters defect to UKIP - to be joined by the "Stuff the lot of you" brigade! 

Nick Clegg perhaps thought that Britain was slowly moving towards a more European coalition model - something that the adoption of the Alternative Vote (AV) voting system would have helped. But Clegg  and the other AV supporters were soundly defeated in the referendum in May 2011 and this, as it turns out, was the end, for the time being anyway, of the creation of circumstances under which a coalition Government   would be the most likely outcome of any General Election. As we saw in 2010 "First Past the Post" (FPP) can deliver a hung Parliament but it is rare and unlikely to happen again in 2015. By then the LibDems may have recovered a bit from their current low position in the polls. Or they could have disappeared as a force to be reckoned with almost entirely. When the story of the LibDems comes to be told it may well be that Nick Clegg was the leader who drove them out of existence!


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