Monday, 24 January 2011

What’s in a name, ‘coalition’ or ‘Conservative-led government’?

So some controversy has been brewing over the name of our government. The government prefers the simple ‘coalition’, but the Labour Party prefers ‘Conservative-led government’.

Let’s get one thing straight: ‘conservative-led government’ is standard usage in politics. For example the current German coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats is known as the ‘Christian Democrat-led government’ from time to time, the Danish government is ‘liberal-led’, and in Britain the coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats which ruled Scotland from 1999 until 2007 was often known as the ‘Scottish Labour Party-led executive’. None of these coalitions differ in any substantial way from ours.

Clearly, however, the opposition would not be lobbying for its use, if it did not see a partisan gain to it. I am reminded of the Democratic Party. At some point the Republicans discovered that people naturally responded better to the word ‘Democratic’ than ‘Republican’, but that they did not respond as well to ‘Democrats’. Therefore they resolved to refer to the party as the ‘Democrats’ on every available opportunity, to the point where this is now so seared into the national consciousness of Americans that the party is the ‘Democrats’ even to its own supporters. This is not its name, but it is a comparatively small change to it. Nonetheless research suggests that this subtle change has some effect on people’s perceptions. The Republicans have subsequently lost some of this subtlety. They are currently trying to repeal Obama’s healthcare bill. In doing so they renamed it the ‘Jobs-killing Healthcare Bill’. With the recent shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, and the new spirit of cooperation I was informed by my American step-mother last night that the Republicans had changed the name to ‘Jobs-destroying Healthcare Bill’.

Words have power, we need only think of the difference between ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ for an obvious example. I have seen several complaints from Lib Dems in particular regarding the name- that it suggests that the Lib Dems are irrelevant, that they take orders from the Conservatives and that no coalition is truly ‘led’. These are valid arguments. I would also suggest that the use of the term by Labour represents an attempt to concentrate fire on the Conservatives. Labour’s early opposition concentrated far too much on the Liberal Democrats. There is an irony in one of Labour’s criticisms – that the Lib Dems are ‘human body shields’ for Conservative policies. If the Liberal Democrats are human body shields I would suggest that Labour has fallen for it. The use of the term thus appears to me an attempt to change the debate back into the old two-party certainties of Labour vs. Conservatives, largely ignoring the Lib Dems. There is, frankly, not a huge amount of point in attacking a party which is polling in the single figures and appears to be down to its core vote anyway.

Yet it should be remembered that while ‘conservative-led government’ is value-laden so is the term coalition. As Krisnan Guru Murphy says on his blog I’ve always been uncomfortable with the way the media have dubbed the new government “The Coalition”. Removing the party identities removes the focus of praise and blame, making them a new political entity before they have become one merged party and for many people the word “coalition” is laden with positive values.” Murphy eventually concludes against the use of ‘Conservative-led’ for himself, but states he finds it an acceptable term. The term ‘coalition’ is indeed a positive term; it brings to mind cooperation between equals. When the US government decided to invade Iraq they chose to call their alliance of states the ‘Coalition of the willing’. They did not call it the ‘American-led invasion force’.

Perhaps, I feel, the best path is to adopt names for our coalition types, like the Dutch and the Germans. Certainly a strict ‘Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition’ is rather unwieldy whereas the term does not shorten easily. The Conservatives are wary of being abbreviated as ‘Con’ whereas the common abbreviation of ‘ConDem’ marks out anyone who uses it as a left-wing troll. The current Dutch government is a rather dull ‘right-wing coalition’, but the last government of centrist Christian Democrats, Dutch Labour and the highly religious Christian Union was known as the ‘Christian centre-left’ coalition. An attempt after the most recent election to bring together ‘red’ Labour and the ‘blue’ Liberals with a couple of other parties was known as ‘Purple Plus’. A historic coalition of Catholics and Labour is known as the ‘Roman Red’ coalition. A theoretical combination of the three largest parties is the ‘forbidden coalition’, and so on. The Germans have a love of colours. The current coalition of ‘black’ Christian Democrats and ‘yellow’ Free Democrats is the ‘Black-Yellow’ coalition. The government of 1997-2005 of ‘red’ Social Democrats and the Greens was the ‘Red-Green’ coalition. A combination of the Red-Green parties and the Free Democrats is the ‘traffic light coalition’ whereas a combination of the ‘Black-Yellow’ parties and the Greens is the ‘Jamaica coalition’ because these are the colours of the Jamaican flag. German politics is not a friendly place to the colour-blind.

Posing this question on twitter, one Binny_UK suggested that ‘blue-yellow’ would be the ‘Kazakhstan coalition’. I rather like that personally, but if anyone has any better suggestions I’d love to hear them.


  1. Personally, I don't care whether they call it the Conservative-led government, the Conservative-led coalition, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, or whatever - as long as they mention the party names.

    PS. Gabrielle Giffords is still alive, isn't she?

  2. Surely the Ukraine coalition for half-blue half-yellow. Not sure what 90% blue 10% yellow is - Sweden?

  3. Oh, and blue-yellow could also be the Ukrainian coalition. Technically, though, I think the Lib Dems' party colour is orange, rather than yellow. Which would make them the lazy Hollywood blockbuster coalition: and

  4. Yes, Gabrielle Giffords is still alive. I keep doing that, like a moron. Apologies. Its already been sorted.

  5. I think if you want to be absolutely technical the official Lib Dem colour is gold btw.

  6. I’m half tempted call it the ‘EU coalition’: it does fit colour and proportion wise. Or the ‘Yellowtail Surgeonfish’ Coalition ...