European lessons in coalition politics

Analysis of the elections held on May 5th demonstrates that those politicians and journalists living in the Westminster village still have a lot to learn from Europe about coalition politics.

Many commentators were surprised by the stark differences between the electoral fortunes of the two coalition partners. However, had they looked beyond their own borders – which most journalists covering British politics are loathe to do – they would have noticed that such disparities are, in fact, very common in European countries governed by coalitions. It is rare for the fortunes of all coalition partners to move upwards or downwards in tandem.

There is not a single reason for these differences, just as little as there is not a single reason for the electoral losses or gains that parties experience when governing by themselves. It may have to do with policies, with personnel, with communication skills (or lack thereof), with political styles, and so on. What makes these differences interesting is that they show that what voters continue to look at is not so much ‘the government’ in an undifferentiated way, but individual parties.

Yet, had the British press reported the recent round of elections in the same fashion as they do when covering elections in other European countries, their headlines would have emphasised an electoral rebuke for ‘the government’ as a whole. After all, compared to both the general election of May 2010 and the local elections of May 2006, the combined vote share of the coalition parties fell significantly. For good reasons, however, reporting about what the elections might tell us about British voters’ opinions was more nuanced. If only that same sophistication could be applied when elections in places like Germany, Italy, the Netherlands or Sweden next generate similarly divided verdicts.

The aftermath of the May elections has led to a lot of soul searching, particularly amongst Liberal Democrats, about their role in the coalition, and the need to promote a profile distinct from that of the Conservatives. This may be chalked up as one of the ‘lessons learnt’ as it points to the naiveté with which the coalition was originally put together. In countries where governments are habitually formed of more than one party, politicians know that coalition building is a tricky business and needs to take longer than the few days given to it by David Cameron and Nick Clegg last May.

There are good reasons why politicians should take their time – although Belgium demonstrates that you can take too long. The ‘contractual’ nature of any coalition agreement makes it virtually impossible to amend or rewrite it at a later stage. Therefore, it pays to be as specific as possible about intended policies to avoid contractory interpretations at the time of implementation. Liberal Democrats in the  Lords could for example refer to a vague ‘checks and balances’ clause in the May 2010 Coalition Agreement as justification for their recent rejection of the government’s proposal for elected police commissioners.

Politicians elsewhere in Europe (and, for that matter, in Northern Ireland) already know that a sketchy accord is a recipe for disagreement later, and that it is better to hammer out the details at the start, rather than to assume that mutual goodwill will resolve matters.

Another reason for taking time to build a coalition is that the rank and file of the parties involved must be brought along to accept the compromising away of some of their most cherished policies. The more hastily a coalition is put together, the greater is the likelihood that some will later feel that their leaders did not arrive at an optimal deal. But if such feelings emerge at a later stage – particularly after new electoral verdicts such as that delivered on May 5th – it will be almost impossible to ameliorate them.

All of this could, in principle, have been known by Cameron and Clegg a year ago. It is after all common knowledge amongst politicians elsewhere in Europe – and in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and those English towns, cities and counties governed by coalitions. Such experiences have also been written about at length, not the least by myself.

Instead the leaders of the Westminster coalition are gradually and painfully learning by doing, and trying to make the best of the mistakes they made in May 2010.

Many of the underlying factors that contributed to the emergence of a hung parliament in 2010 have not disappeared. On the contrary, they look likely to remain. As a consequence, British politicians had better understand fast what it takes to be successful in coalition politics. They need to learn new habits, routines, expectations and modes of behaviour. They have to appreciate how to share power and how to profit from that. British journalists also need to learn how to report on coalition politics in a more informed manner.

Rather than learning through trial and error, British politicians could do worse than turn to the experience of other European democracies where successful coalition government has long been the rule.

After all, and despite what many in Westminster think, politics does not end at Dover.

Cees van der Eijk

One Response to “European lessons in coalition politics”

  1. Richard Wing
    May 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    Surely though the speed with which the coalition agreement was reached was due not just to the politicians and the medias desire to see a government formed but also because of the expectations of the electorate and the markets. The majority of people in this country were completey unused to the idea of coalition and we wanted it resolved quickly. This may have been wrong in hindsight but then most of us haven’t studied the politics of europe, devolved bodies or local government (in detail or otherwise).

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