Coalition Goverment and Manifestos

For the first time since in over sixty years, Britain has a coalition government. A union of two parties that had been the most bitter enemies for many years is now a reality; David Cameron and Nick Clegg have gone from kicking lumps out of each other in the debates to working side-by-side as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Politics has, yet again, made some strange bed fellows, none stranger than George Osbourne at the Treasury and Vince Cable as Business Secretary, two men who ripped into each other in the Chancellor’s debate. Relative to the seats they won in Parliament (57), the Lib Dems have done well in getting five cabinet ministers and are in government for the first time in generations. However, considering that they received 23% of the vote (compared to the Conservatives’ 36%), they are vastly underrepresented in government. Instead, they have been placated to an extent by the inclusion of parts from their manifesto in the government programme, which has diluted both the Conservative and Lib Dem plans for governing.

The manifesto is a time-honored tradition in British politics. It is the bible for a new government and is used to dictate policy. As a clear set of policies for a prospective administration, it is both useful and dangerous for the party that composes the manifesto. While a manifesto can be used to push a specific agenda once in government on the grounds that the public has voted for that particular set of proposals, other parties can use manifestos to show that a government has not achieved the goals it set for itself. Therefore it makes government more legitimate and accountable – voters know exactly what policies they are voting for and can use the manifesto as a measure of the success or failure of a government. However, manifestos can be bad for politics and good government; they can allow certain proposals to go through even though the party in government was elected in spite of those policies. They also reduce policy flexibility, as ministers will be reluctant to vacate a campaign pledge even in the face of changing events that demand new thinking.

With a system that has successfully prevented coalition government for much of its existence, Britain has an aversion to the collaborative governing arrangements that are common on the continent. Many Britons feel that coalitions are unstable and weak, and this is frequently the first argument that has been made by Conservatives against electoral reform. Of course, they can’t quite make that same case now, but their opposition to electoral reform stands – surely they would not submit to signing their own death warrant. Fortunately for the Tories, their coalition partners have been taking a hell of a beating for their part in the coalition agreement. The Conservatives have gotten exactly what they wanted; much of their programme for government will be enacted, but the Lib Dems will take the blame.

When I first began this piece a few weeks ago, it looked like Britain would be headed toward coalitions for the forseeable future. The Lib Dems had finally broken through and taken enough support away from both of the other parties to prevent any party from having a standalone majority. Since then, as their poll numbers have fallen, it seems that Britain has turned back towards a two-and-a-half party system, and as long as it remains a single-member district first-past-the-post system, we won’t see another coalition government for some time. The key will be the referendum on the alternative vote, due to be held next May 5th. The alternative vote (AV) is a simple numbered-preference system wherein voters order the candidates, and votes are shifted from candidates that have the least support to minimize “wasted votes”, and AV generally leads to the least hated party winning a seat Should the referendum pass, coalitions will likely be the result of most future British elections.

Coalition government has clear and visible effects on the workings of government; all members involved must be more conciliatory towards their MPs and parties, as they could be teamed up following an election. Coalitions also lend themselves to consensus policies and slow change, rather than the dogmatism and rapid revolution of one-party rule. However, consensus government is at odds with manifestos, which are designed as the programme of government for one party, and represents only that party’s agenda. The resulting government plans will be a hybrid of manifestos as this government’s coalition agreement has been. This takes the bite out of a manifesto, as it will likely become only part of the government’s agenda instead of the complete road map for government by the party in question.

While coalitions will undoubtedly weaken manifestos as plans for government, a pattern of hung parliaments could produce more radical manfestos. Quite simply, parties will want to improve their bargaining position in coalition negotiations, so the party membership will demand manifestos with stronger language that should provide a coalition agreement more in line with their views. It’s like bartering with the same people over and over – each side will start with greater demands in the expectation that it will yield a more favourable result. Of course, once parties catch on to each other’s tricks, this won’t work – the middle ground will remain. However, manifestos may also offer a “steam valve”, whereby the party radicals can be placated with strong language in a party’s plan, even though the party leadership knows that the manifesto’s outlandish principles can be forsaken with minimal fuss.

Whether or not manifestos become more extremist, a future of coalition government means a bleak outlook for the formerly proud manifesto. As a British politics junkie, I love manifestos – they’re a great way to see how parties frame themselves and the ways that PR folks try to spin plans. It would be a shame to see them fade into the same irrelevance as the party platforms of American presidential candidates. Once a key part of the campaign, the platform is now ignored outside of the very nerdiest of political anoraks. The lack of a clear policy programme, as noted above, makes politicians harder to pin down, but gives them more flexibility in difficult circumstances. A future without powerful manifestos will not necessarily be a better one, but it should certainly be entertaining.

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