Thursday, 6 May 2010

Look, it’s a Unicorn!!! A European ‘Coalition Government’ Unicorn in the UK...

Coalitions have been the talk of the campaign ever since the polls first hinted at a hung parliament. But to do a proper assessment of how this process takes place, in a country that's rarely seen such a thing, let us look at the two main rules of coalition formation:

1. Minimal distance: There needs to be minimal ideological distance in between the parties in a coalition. Or long story short: they need to get along, have similar policies so they can actually pass something in Parliament (this, allegedly, is a precondition for governing). Thus, if we were to place the four main recognised parties on a left to right axis we would have



SNP/Plaid Cymru


Lib Dems


For word count's sake, if not for anything else, we will treat Plaid Cymru/SNP as one, as they have the same policies and whip anyway; moreover, there is a strong argument that the Liberal Democrats are somewhat both right and left of Labour depending on what policies one looks at, while the wavy line is more or less where the political centre is.

From this we can easily see that, provided they amass a total of over half the number of MPs, the most likely coalitions would be either:

a) Nationalists/Labour
b) Nationalist/Labour/Lib Dem or

c) Lib Dem/Conservative.

Yet, though possible, a centre-left (Lib Dem) – centre-right (Tory) raises certain issues. Firstly, these types of coalitions, with essentially different views on development, will achieve very little in terms of radical reforms, even as they may manage to actually pass compromise laws (a clear example of that in a rather successful such coalition is the German grand coalition, CDU/CSU and SPD, of 2005-2009). Moreover, promoting one thing during the campaign and then allying with those supporting seriously differing views for the purpose of forming a government is rather problematic not only policy-wise but also electorate-wise, as it may alienate the very voters that brought the party in power (Empty promises...). Take for example a possible Lib Dem – Conservative coalition, in which the Lib Dems would give up their purpose of reforming the electoral system (as Nick Clegg has suggested may be the case) would probably ruin their re-election chances for quite some time. Consequently, the odds of the Conservatives having a viable coalition after May 6th are quite small. Still, there are the Northern Ireland Parties and, especially the Democratic Unionists (with 9 seats, for now), even as for now the Tories have dismissed this.

That's the rough evaluation of likely coalitions, as we know very well that most parties, in their attempt to have a catch-all strategy, are leaning towards the centre of the political spectrum, proposing certain policies that would appeal to all types of voters or coalition partners (though, I would argue, as before, not similar 'radical' reforms, especially when a coalition is created across the centre). From this point of view this type of assessment, though good for an overall image is slightly problematic.

Furthermore, the fact that the nationalist parties are seen as, more or less, single issue parties, even as they are clearly left of Labour, may skew their coalition chances. But, the general alignment towards the centre together with policies that along the years have become accepted by all parties, e.g. Welsh devolution, may help them in becoming a viable coalition party not only for Labour, but also for the Tories, as they would have some common ground (or at least may encourage them in supporting a minority government represented by either of these parties, especially on these common policies/positions). In this context, both the SNP and Plaid have, wisely, declared that they will not be talking about coalitions and collaborating before the votes are counted, though they argued clearly that a balanced/hung parliament will be the best outcome for Scotland and Wales. (On a side note, trying to avoid a Paddy Ashdown move, Nick Clegg flip-flopped on the topic until we all got sick of him ... definitely not a good strategy, as he fails to realise that he's on the edge of a blade and any subtle sign against a coalition would be an endorsement of the other. Next time, and I trust there will be a next time for the Liberal Democrats, please don't say anything on the topic, learn from the nationalists.) Moreover, a coalition/collaboration with nationalist parties would, most likely, mean more funding for these regions, be it Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland, which is something that would go against the cuts 'promises' of both Labour and the Conservatives. Yet, some of the nationalists are a bit more optimistic. Jonathan Edwards, PC candidate for the rather safe seat of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr,
points out that the Tories might prefer to do a deal with Plaid rather than be held hostage by the Euro sceptic wing of their own party. Then he goes on to admit that he had never thought of that possibility. Probably because it's not really that likely... Yet, this is politics, the land where Unicorns roam free and (almost) anything is possible.

2. Minimal Winning Coalition: Essentially, a coalition needs to have the minimum number of seats, over the 50%+1. To explain this, say we have 3 parties A(40%), B(11%), C(39%); in a logical world, ignoring ideology and the first rule, A would be more likely to form a 51% coalition with B than a 79% coalition with C, because even as the second one may represent the electorate's wishes better, it would also mean that in a government, seats would have to be approximately half-half for the two parties. On the other hand, in an A-C coalition, C would clearly be a junior partner, with less negotiating power and less ministers. There are though cases where this doesn't apply, and I'll go back to the German grand coalition of 2005-2009, where though a coalition on the left (SPD, FDP, Greens and die Linke) would have been possible, a cordon sanitaire policy was implemented in keeping the Left out of federal government.

But, what does that mean for our case? Very hard to predict, as we have no actual numbers to work with, but I'll do my best on the some numbers. Hypothetically speaking (for the sake of the numbers adding up to make a point), say Friday morning we'd have the following seats Conservative: 310, Lib Dems: 60, SNP/PC: 20; In these circumstances, according to this second law, the Conservatives would be most likely to jump into a coalition with the nationalist parties (330 majority, >326) than with the Lib Dems (370 majority). Then, the first rule will come into force, asking us, how close are these parties ideologically and do they actually get along. Getting closer to the actual polls we have, Labour is quite unlikely to be able to form a majoritary government just with the SNP/PC/other Northern Irish parties, as most polls put it at around 270 seat, while our predictions give 4 seats to Plaid, 8 to the SNP, so 12, plus another maximum 18 for NI (total for NI, that is) which adds up to a maximum of 300, 26 short of a majority. Nevertheless, example aside, all the latest polls (Harris, YouGov and Populus for 6th May) all put the Conservatives below 295 seats, which makes our first scenario highly improbable. Thus, it's only Friday that both us and the party leaders and strategists will be able to do the maths and see what the options are...

It's a complicated business, but all the rest of Europe and most of the world do it, so don't worry, a hung parliament doesn't mean we have to hang any MPs. Though, if the electorate really wants to, by all means, go right ahead ..


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