As Churchill once remarked, democracy is the worst form of government “except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. While democracy is an imperfect system, its institutions take a pragmatic approach and are designed to optimise electoral representation while enabling workable, stable governments. With these basic tenets in mind, how does the current UK Coalition government measure up against one-party rule with which we are more familiar?
With nine months behind them, the two governing parties of the Coalition have much to be proud of: a clear and credible plan for reducing the budget deficit to put the public finances back on to a sustainable footing; a major overhaul of welfare to make work pay; radical reform of public services to decentralise management and increase end user choice; an increased personal tax allowance to help those on lower incomes; and a redress of the balance in civil liberties.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have achieved a surprising level of agreement on such issues and have, at least so far, provided a more stable government than might have initially been thought possible. Aside from the expected internal bickering and patent discomforts of certain ministers working with former political opponents, the stability of the Coalition is arguably comparable to that of one-party government. This is especially so in light of the challenging economic circumstances and difficult decisions that have to be taken.
As the governing parties frequently like to point out, all of this is being done in the “national interest”, in which party differences have been put aside, as David Cameron boldly proclaimed last May. While such rhetoric has initially attractive connotations, intended to create a more conciliatory government image transcending party politics, unfortunately in practice important issues concerning democratic legitimacy, trust and vested party interests may be discerned when one peers behind the veneer.
On the face of it, it could be argued that this is one of the most representative governments in living memory. It is pluralist mixture of both Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies which, when both parties’ 2010 election vote shares are added together, 59% of voters collectively voted for. However, it is simplistic – if not plain wrong – to suppose that 59% of voters voted for this outcome. Rather, and this is the crux of the issue, they voted for two separate parties with distinctly different policy platforms. The Coalition’s governmental programme, as embodied in the coalition agreement, is a product of negotiation between the coalition parties, not 59% of voters.
This raises the vexing question of the extent to which the Coalition is democratically legitimate, given that no one voted directly for its programme. While the coalition agreement contains significant portions of both parties’ manifesto commitments, some of the Coalition’s central policies were not supported by either party or had the support of only one party prior to the election. These include the crucial issue of the timing and pace of deficit reduction, scrapping child benefit for higher rate taxpayers and rises in VAT and university tuition fees. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats actively campaigned against the “Tory VAT bombshell” and pledged to scrap tuition fees before the election, as well as initially siding with Labour on the timing of deficit reduction.
Irrespective of consequent party fortunes, is this democratically legitimate? While constitutionally unobjectionable, the necessary level of compromise in coalition to a large extent produces less accountable government as compared with one-party rule.
So, when the usual justification for broken manifesto promises is that no party won the General Election and that the resulting pluralist policy programme is being undertaken in the “national interest”, what does this actually mean? With no apparent explanation from either party, it appears it is what the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in partnership, judge politically to be in the best interests of the country. It is not something that is either plausibly objective or above party politics as the rhetoric may suggest.
Indeed, the Coalition is arguably even more party political than one-party government because each governing party, without a Commons majority, has a vested interest in making coalition government work, something of which in its nature is more fragile and uncertain. This is perhaps especially so for the Liberal Democrats, who wish to be taken seriously as a party of government and, given their love for PR, would welcome further coalitions in the future. In addition, vital issues such as national security risk becoming subordinated to party-to-party deal-making to keep the Coalition intact and recalcitrant backbenchers onside. In this respect, the national interest is mere political chimera.
A further disconcerting feature of the “national interest” justification is that it has appeared in recent months to be gradually metamorphosing into a convenient mechanism by which ministers can easily renege on manifesto pledges. Voters are repeatedly reminded that compromise is necessary or that such-and-such a policy did not make it into the coalition agreement (as Cameron pointed out last month in respect of the fair fuel stabiliser). As a result, a governing party’s usual duty to implement the policy programme in its manifesto is effectively abrogated.
Where does this leave the electorate? Since the Coalition’s programme was decided first by politicians and only indirectly by voters, I fear the existing disconnect between the political elite and the electorate will likely be exacerbated as power is increasingly transferred from voters to politicians, or perceived as such. To be fair, this is perhaps a product of the British political psyche, where coalition government is a novelty. We are used to expecting politicians to do what they said they would do, whereas in PR systems on the continent, where coalitions are the norm, a manifesto tends to regarded as a set of aspirations rather than something supposedly brimming with cast iron promises.
An important caveat is that all of this is not to suggest the formation of the current Coalition last May was wrong per se or that it somehow has no mandate whatsoever for its programme. On the contrary, I fully supported the formation of the Coalition because I believed it would provide the most stable and workable government from an inconclusive election result. While one-party government would have been preferable, the Coalition is nevertheless proving to be workable and in some respects is refreshingly pragmatic and more representative. However, it is rapidly becoming evident that it is less accountable than one-party government and pre-election commitments are at risk of becoming meaningless while ministers squabble to reach agreement on policy.
Proponents of PR and the ‘Yes’ campaign in the pending AV referendum should take note: such systems will likely make coalition a more common feature of the UK political landscape in the future. If such a situation were to come to fruition, how could a voter know what would be included or eschewed as part of a coalition deal? While the electorate may still have the chance to speak, as they did last May, it would ultimately rest with politicians, not voters, to decide what they said.