Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Coalitions do not lead to pacts

One of the media’s lines for this conference season (I write as the Liberal party conference starts) is “will the coalition lead to an electoral pact”?

I think they are missing the point and miss-understanding what the coalition is all about.  The coalition arose because the general election was inconclusive and, because inaction was not an option, two parties agreed to work together on dare I call it a “project” which was detailed in the coalition agreement.  The project is to tackle two emergencies:

  • the economic situation: a minority fragile government could have led to an even deeper economic crisis
  • the lack of trust in politics: an acknowledged need for reform (even if the exact reforms required are not agreed)

The coalition agreement is not a merger of two parties’ programmes; it is an à la carte selection intended by the two parties to met the needs of the time.  For the media to desire an electoral pact is just their old preference for a tidy two-party system – when they can then go foraging for “splits”!  Has the media learnt nothing from the experience of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly – both of which have had coalitions (or are those two examples too far away from London)?

They have set up the coalition to run for five years.  By then the intention is that both of these emergencies will have been addressed – the project will be complete.  If it is successfully complete, the two parties can go their separate ways – albeit with a mutual respect which whilst unusual in British politics has to be welcomed.  If it has failed, the two parties will go their separate ways – confirmed in mutual distrust.

The project definition is not all-encompassing – there are clear areas of difference.  That is not a foundation for a pact or merger – a complete joint programme at the 2015 General Election is (at present) unimaginable.  However, genuine open agreement on specific policies between any parties would be welcome.

So I would be very surprised if there were SDP-Liberal style electoral pacts (and those were fragile leaving local parties feeling very bruised).  We may find that there is a slightly more open admission that some candidates are “paper candidates”, and there may be more tactical voting.  Conservatives in no-hope seats who have seen the coalition at work may be more comfortable voting Liberal to keep or kick Labour out.  Some Liberals may vote Conservative to achieve the same end (although some will do the exact opposite!).

Of course, if by some chance the AV referendum goes in favour of marginal reform, pacts should be unnecessary because voters for one of the coalition parties can give their second preferences (if they want to) to the other coalition party.  Then, unlike in the time of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, part of the choice of representative will be made by the voters rather than being made in modern-day (smokeless) committee rooms.

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