Pre-electoral coalitions in 2014


India has had seven consecutive elections (1989 to 2009) in which no single party won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha, resulting in hung parliaments. In 1991, the Congress formed a single-party minority government (which achieved a majority half-way through its term) but in all other cases minority coalitions dependent on outside support were formed, these being large, multi-party coalitions with participation of several regional parties since 1996. In the run-up to such situations, one of the keys to victory for both the leading national parties, the Congress and the BJP, is the number of state-level pre-electoral coalitions formed, for pooling votes based on seat-sharing agreements.

Why pre-electoral coalitions? What are the incentives for national parties to form such coalitions, and under what circumstances? Given the plurality-rule (first-past-the-post) system, aggregation of votes at the constituency level is vital for winning seats. By implication, given the breakdown of the national party system into distinct state party systems, formation of alliances with parties commanding a significant state-level vote share, helps aggregate constituency-level votes shares in states where one’s own party is not strong enough to go it alone. Pre-electoral coalitions have the potential of increasing the number of seats won although at the expense of conceding a certain number of seats to allies, and also including such allies in a post-election government. The BJP, since 1989, has grown partly on the basis of its own ideological appeal and mobilization and partly by leveraging coalitions, while the Congress turned to coalitions with success in 2004.

In 2004, coalitions in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Jammu and Kashmir, and the absence of a coalition for the BJP in Haryana, Assam and Jharkhand played a key role in the very narrow victory of the Congress-led UPA. In 2009, the Congress was critically dependent, despite a swing in its favour and a swing against the BJP, on pre-electoral coalitions in Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, besides its longstanding one in Kerala.






The general finding on pre-electoral coalitions is that the seat-sharing ratio between partners tends to get stuck in a narrow band, and is not adjusted according to the demands of a partner perceiving its popularity to be on the upswing demanding more seats. For example, both the Congress-NCP and BJP-Shiv Sena coalitions in Maharashtra, the BJP-JD(U) coalition in Bihar and the BJP-Akali Dal coalition in Punjab, as well as the Left Front coalitions in West Bengal and Kerala, and the Congress-led UDF coalition in Kerala, have tended to remain stable in their seat-sharing ratios over the past two or more elections. It is only when old coalitions are discarded and new coalitions are formed that new ratios can be established. In this we would expect parties that are perceived to be on the upswing to be able to attract more allies and on more favourable terms.

If one compares the pre-electoral coalition tables for 2009 with 2014 for both alliances, NDA and UPA (on the eve of the elections without all candidates finalised yet), this is precisely what we can see. A BJP that according to forecasts over the past several months, is projected to be in the lead in votes and seats, has struck a range of new alliances, most of them on more favourable terms than in the past while retaining its key old alliances (Shiv Sena, Akali Dal) on the same terms.

NDA Pre-electoral coalition 2014 (till April 6)



UPA Pre-electoral coalition 2014 (till April 6)


Thus, in 2014 to date, the BJP has 10 pre-electoral alliances compared to 6 alliances in 2009 in which both it and its partner(s) are contesting seats, of which 7 are new alliances – Bihar, Seemandhra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Kerala and UP  – and on more favourable terms. By contrast, the Congress in 2014 has 8 alliances, one more than 2009, on essentially the same terms as before (except in UP and Bihar, with an improvement over the terms of 2004). In all other states the terms remain essentially the same. What this reflects is the willingness of a range of parties to ally with the BJP in response to the perceived swing in its favour according to forecasts, as against an unwillingness to ally with the Congress, patently so in Tamil Nadu, former Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, as it is seen to be a party in relative decline and unlikely to be able to form a government and offer a share of power at the Centre. To the extent that pre-electoral coalitions make a difference, the odds seem to be against the Congress.

Coalitions at the state level also depend on various local factors. In bipolar state party systems (almost all major states except UP and currently Bihar), either of the two leading parties are attractive coalition partners for significant third or fourth parties, provided there are no basic ideological contradictions or aversion of their voters. One can, therefore, expect coalitions between the BJP and third parties not dependent on religious minority votes when the former is a leading party in a state, or between a regional party, even if dependent on minority community votes, if the latter is the leading party and can check the BJP as a junior partner at the state level (e.g. JD(U), earlier TDP, Trinamul, BJD). Likewise, one can expect coalitions between the Congress and a regional party if the Congress is a third/fourth party and the regional party’s main opponent is another party or the BJP (e.g., DMK/AIADMK in earlier years, or RJD in Bihar, Trinamul in West Bengal currently).

One would also expect pre-electoral coalitions, negotiated under pressure of vote aggregation under conditions of uncertainty about which party has how much popular support, to be ideologically indiscriminate, relatively speaking. How will a victory based on a diverse pre-electoral coalition affect post-electoral government formation? Depending on the exact numbers and the relative strength of the leading party, a government so formed will be ideologically, geographically and socially more diverse than the leading party’s ideological preferences, particularly if the leading party turns out to be the BJP, and still more so if post-electoral allies are needed.

Dr E Sridharan is the Academic Director of the University of Pennsylvania Institute for the Advanced Study of India (UPIASI) in New Delhi. E Sridharan would like to thank Adnan Farooqui for help with the data.

Happy existential crisis to the coalition?


If you are a political scientist or a political historian or – like me – some hybrid of the two, you really should avoid predicting the future. That said, put a microphone and a camera close to our faces and most of us will do just that.

In the early days of the current coalition government I was asked by various journalists to put the new administration into some historical context and predict its future. Now that the government is about to mark – ‘celebrate’ might be pushing it – its third anniversary, it might be useful to revisit some of my predictions as shared with the BBC’s Record Review.

I am not sure if Jean-Paul Satre ever thought that his concept of existentialism would ever be applied to anything so banal as a British government, but as you’ll see I couldn’t resist using it. But, with the Prime Minister assailed by his backbenchers for not being a true Conservative on issues such as Europe and gay marriage as well as the economy how apt it has proven to be!

Steven Fielding

Five more things about the boundaries vote

revoltstitle2The media caravan has already moved on, but for the record here are five more observations about the boundaries vote, in increasing order of importance.

1. Not that it really matters but we think the Commons authorities have miscounted.  The result was announced as 334 noes (to which need to be added the two tellers), but we count 335 in the noe lobby (plus two tellers).

2. At 98%, overall turnout of MPs was very high, as you’d expect on a vote that was expected to be close (even if, in practice, it turned out to be less close than rumoured).  All 57 Liberal Democrat MPs turned out to vote against the Conservatives and there was a very healthy turnout of the minor parties (only the DUP were understrength, with six of their eight MPs), and all bar one of these, the Alliance’s Naomi Long, voted against the Government. There was an almost full Labour turnout.  Conservative turnout was marginally lower, suggesting both a handful of abstentions and that not every minister was called back to vote. The latter, in particular, indicates that the whips would have known they were going to lose.

3. There were four Conservative MPs voting with Labour: John Baron, David Davis, Philip Davies and Sir Richard Shepherd.  Rumours that there would be a Full House of the four Conservative Davis/Davies (Davii?) proved unfounded, as David Davies voted with his whips, although Glyn Davies was one of those not to vote.

4. One of the curiosities of this Parliament has been the high level of rebellions seen on both the Lib Dem and Conservative benches. In one sense, this is easily to explain but one aspect of coalition governments is supposed to be that they increase the cohesion of parliamentarians.  After all, if two parties do a deal, but they cannot control their backbenchers to deliver on the deal, what’s the point of the deal?  The Parliament’s early rebellions might, conceivably, have been dismissed as mostly sound and fury, given that none resulted in a defeat. This is not a view that we took – nor, we suspect, one that would have been taken by many of the party whips – because once MPs have developed a habit of rebelling on minor matters they find it much easier to rebel on major ones too, just as they are now doing.  All of this has occurred because of backbench behaviour, because Conservative MPs were not willing to follow their party line in the votes over Lords reform.

5. Part of the point of the Coalition – from the Liberal Democrats’ perspective, at least – was to try to show that hung parliaments were not a bad thing, to get the British used to minority and coalition government.  Liberal Democrats would routinely point out that much of Europe manages perfectly well with coalitions.  True, but in most (all?) of those coalitions, a coalition partner voting against the government and defeating something that was in the coalition agreement would have signalled the end of the coalition.  That we appear to have just carried on, almost as if nothing has happened, indicates that we may still be some way away from having got used to coalition government.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Electoral boundaries: the vote that will be forever asterisked


Yesterday’s Commons vote on the electoral boundaries was a headache for the Conservative Party. The vote – an attempt to over-turn an amendment made in the House of Lords – failed by 334 to 292, making the Conservative task at the next election harder, by around 20 or so seats, than it would have been had the revised boundaries gone through.

It was also a headache for those of us who study parliamentary voting. Whilst we do not expect widespread sympathy – ‘Quick! Some academics are having problems with their system of classification – call the Disasters Emergency Committee!’ – the vote was interesting as an example of how the coalition has changed some of our assumptions about what is, or is not, allowed when it comes to the Commons, and about how we measure it.

It is not the first time the two Coalition parties have had different whipping arrangements on measures in the Commons.  The Coalition Agreement specifically allows for the Liberal Democrats to abstain on votes over both tuition fees and nuclear power.  We have also seen plenty of examples, in record-breaking quantities, of backbenchers on both sides of the coalition refusing to go along with things that their frontbench has wanted.  Indeed, it was the rebellion by Conservative backbenchers over Lords reform – a whopping rebellion at Second Reading, with the threat of something similar over the Bill’s programme motion – that persuaded the Government to drop the House of Lords Bill, and which then triggered Lib Dem retaliation over boundaries.

But this issue has highlighted the asymmetry in the power enjoyed by the coalition parties’ backbenchers.  The Commons arithmetic is such that even if every backbench Lib Dem MP rebels on an issue, there are not enough of them to defeat the government; but there are enough backbench Conservative MPs to do so – as we saw over the issue of the European budget.  This means that coalition measures can be blocked if enough Conservative backbenchers are willing to join forces with Labour, but they cannot be blocked if Lib Dem backbenchers are similarly annoyed.  And so, whilst it is perfectly fair to point out – as some Conservatives did – that the Conservative rebellion over Lords reform was, as a proportion of the party, smaller than the Lib Dem revolt over tuition fees, the absolute numbers also matter.

And what happened yesterday was qualitatively different.  Yesterday saw government MPs whipped, in different directions, and with the Lib Dems voting in direct contravention of the Coalition Agreement.  How do we record this?  Does the Lib Dem behaviour count as ‘dissent’? And if so, from what?  And second, was the outcome a government defeat? And if so, of what exactly?

The first is fairly easy answered.  The Lib Dems were whipped, so whatever they were doing, they were not dissenting from their party line.  This was an inter-party not intra-party breakdown.  But it was still an intra-coalition breakdown, what our colleagues at UCL who work on similar behaviour in the Lords have called a ‘coalition split vote’.

The second is tougher. When the government lost the equivalent vote in the Lords, some media outlets did indeed describe it as a government defeat – as did the House of Lords authorities.  But is it?  To have a government defeat, we need a government position, and with two parties in the coalition voting in separate lobbies it is not clear what that position was.  As an aside: if, just because the Conservatives lost, we describe it as a government defeat, we could, presumably, describe it as a government victory because the Lib Dems won?  It all makes us long for the ease of one-party governments again, a bit like a former colleague whose main wish for life was to see the Berlin Wall go back up just so his lecture notes on the USSR would become useable again.

The best we’ve come up with so far was suggested by Tom Freeman: ‘defeat of a governing party’, but we also liked Nigel Fletcher’s suggestion that however one describes it the vote will forever be asterisked, with a footnote explaining the unusual circumstances.  That might depend on it remaining unusual and a one-off.  With over two years of the coalition left to run, it seems quite possible that we will see further votes of this sort, with one or more of the coalition partners refusing to back something that they have both previously signed up to.

There was also yesterday some old-fashioned backbench dissent – a handful of Conservative MPs voting with Labour – but who cares about that anymore?

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

The Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions

We’ve been producing end-of-session reports detailing the rebellions of government backbenchers for several years now – but we’ve never had to produce one quite so large before.  The Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions is available free of charge in pdf format (at the end of this post). It details every rebellion and every rebel. How much more fun could you want on a miserable Tuesday morning? But in case you don’t have the time, or the inclination, to look at more than 100 pages of info, here’s 20 key points about the behaviour of Coalition MPs in the last session.

1.      The last session saw 239 rebellions by Coalition MPs.  This is higher than the number of rebellions by government MPs in any other session in the post-war era.  Indeed, a figure of 239 is higher than in all but three entire post-war parliaments.  And there were more rebellions in the 2010-12 session than in the period from 1945-1966 combined, taking in 21 years, six parliaments and six Prime Ministers.

2.       In relative terms, measured as a percentage of the divisions in the session, there were rebellions by coalition MPs in 44% of divisions – also without precedent in the post-war era. By party, Conservative MPs broke ranks in 28% of votes, Lib Dems MPs have done so in 24%.

3.       Even these separate figures are very high by comparison with historic behaviour of government backbenchers.  The Conservative figure is higher than the rate of rebellion by government MPs in all but eight post-war sessions.  The Lib Dem rate of 24% is higher than that seen by government MPs in all but eleven post-war sessions.

4.       And compared with behaviour in other first sessions, the differences with this session are even more obvious, especially when compared to the first sessions of parliaments following a change in government.  Between 1945 and 1997, the six sessions immediately after a change in government saw rates of rebellion between zero (1964) and 6% (1979).  The current rate of rebellion is therefore more than seven times what had until now been the post-war peak for a first session after a change of government.

5.       A total of 153 Coalition MPs have voted against their whip thus far.  Most (119) of these are Conservatives, but this is not surprising, given that there have been more Conservative rebellions and there are anyway more Conservative MPs.

6.       Eight out of the top ten Coalition rebels are Conservatives.  The most rebellious Liberal Democrat MP is Mike Hancock, whose 44 rebellious votes place him sixth. Andrew George is the only other Lib Dem MP in the top ten.

7.       As a percentage of the total number of votes, the rates of rebellion of the most rebellious MPs are very high in relative terms: Philip Hollobone has been rebelling at a rate of roughly one rebellion in every five votes.  This is a much higher rate than, say, Jeremy Corbyn or Dennis Skinner, during the Blair or Brown premierships, and represents a serious fracture from the party leadership.

8.       What will especially concern the government whips is the behaviour of their newer MPs.  Of the 119 Conservative rebels, 71 (or six in ten) are from the new intake, and between them the newbie Tory rebels have cast a whopping 401 rebellious votes.

9.       Whilst numerically smaller, rebellion is much more widespread amongst the Lib Dems.  Whereas nearly one in four (39%) of Conservative MPs have rebelled, a total of 34 Lib Dems, or 60% of the parliamentary party, have now done so.

10.   The largest rebellion came in October 2011, over a motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.  A total of 82 Coalition MPs (81 of them Conservatives) defied a three-line whip to vote for the motion, another 14-19 abstaining.   It was not the largest backbench revolt since 1945, but it was one of the largest, topped on the Conservative side only a handful of revolts over gun control at the fag-end of the Major government.  It was also the largest rebellion on the issue of Europe of the post-war era.

11.   The largest Lib Dem rebellion came in December 2010 over the issue of university tuition fees. Twenty-one Liberal Democrat MPs voted against their whips, a further five Lib Dem MPs abstaining. It was the largest Liberal Democrat rebellion since the formation of the merged party in 1988-89 and as a proportion of the parliamentary party constituted a larger rebellion than did the Conservative rebellion over the European referendum.

12.   Yet although the frequency of rebellions is alarmingly high, the average rebellion is small, comprising just seven MPs. (The average Conservative rebellion is eight MPs, the average Liberal Democrat revolt is even lower at just three MPs).  This is one of the reasons why the government’s majority has not yet been seriously threatened as a result of a rebellion.

13.   The other reason is that these two groups of rebels rarely coalesce.  Almost half of rebellions (46%) have seen Conservative MPs rebel alone; just over a third (36%) have seen Lib Dem MPs rebel alone, and less than one in five (18%) have seen a rebellion by both Lib Dem and Conservative MPs.

14.   This is because the two groups generally rebel on very different issues.  Just over seven in ten (71%) of Lib Dem rebellions have been on social policy (broadly defined).  But nearly half (49%) of Conservative rebellions are on constitutional policy (broadly defined). Of this last category, a big chunk (nearly one in five of all Conservative rebellions) has been on Europe (18%), rebellions which are more than double the average size of all Conservative rebellions.

15.   The size of the Government’s majority is often not appreciated.  Even its formal majority of 76 is substantial.

16.   In reality, because of divisions in which Labour vote with the government or abstain, the average majority in practice has been an even larger 123.   In the majority of votes (411), Labour oppose the government, and when they do the government’s average majority has been 86.  But when Labour abstain (50 votes), the majority averages 268; and when Labour support the government (30 votes), the average majority rises to 392.

17.   There are plenty of issues on which 39 Conservative MPs might rebel, but there are fewer on which the Labour party would be willing to join them.  Overall, 21% of coalition rebellions occurred when Labour was not voting against the government – and when there was therefore no chance of a defeat.  But that figures rises to 31% of Conservative rebellions.

18.   The hurdles in overturning a large in-built Coalition majority are even more acute for the Liberal Democrats.  Lib Dem rebellions were more likely to take place when Labour was opposing the government, but because their backbench MPs number only 35, even if all of them vote against the Government with all the Opposition MPs, that would still not be enough to defeat the Government.

19.   Parliamentary ambushes (like the one that caused the Coalition’s only defeat in December 2011) aside, for the Government’s majority to fall much below 50, both Conservative and Liberal Democrats need to rebel in decent numbers, with the support of the Labour frontbench and the minor parties. This has happened rarely since May 2010, and the Government’s majority has only fallen below 50 on only 22 occasions in its first 24 months in power.

20.   But the Coalition’s two wobbly wings will require careful handling – with plenty of issues in the immediate future that will ensure continued high levels of Coalition dissent.

Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

For what does the coalition stand?

In a confidential memo addressed to the Prime Minister, an adviser has argued that supporters of the government are ‘increasingly apathetic and disunited’ due to its failure to appeal to the ‘popular imagination’.

No, the author is not Vince Cable sounding off again but as Steven Fielding suggests in this post from his personal blog, the parallels between Cable’s recent letter to David Cameron and a memo written in 1934 are striking.

What do you think the Government’s Commons majority is?

On paper, it’s 76.  Those with some knowledge of way Westminster works in practice will have remembered to add in the five non-sitting Sinn Fein MPs, plus the Speaker and his Deputies, which takes it past 80.  The really sharp amongst you might mention that the eight DUP MPs usually (though not always) vote with the government, which would take you to close to 100.

But the average majority in practice has been a whopping 142 – and we bet no one thought it was that.  That’s the mean average in the 306 whipped votes to have taken place since the election; we’ve excluded the 25 occasions when Coalition MPs were given a free vote.

The first clue to working out what’s going on is to note that the figure of 142 is the mean average.  The median average is a much less surprising 94.  This suggests that there are some very high outlier figures, dragging up the mean average – and indeed that’s what happening.

The key factor is the behaviour of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Most of the time (some 238 votes so far), Labour oppose the government, and when they do the average majority is 91 (with a median of 87).  But when Labour abstain (44 votes), the majority averages 270 (median: 276); and when Labour support the government, the average majority rises to 421 (median: 450).  (The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that these numbers don’t sum to 306 – because there was one vote when the government was whipped, but Labour allowed a free vote).

The most striking example of this occurred on 21 March this year when the Government won a vote endorsing military action in Libya by 557 votes to 13, thanks to the support of the Labour frontbench, producing the largest Coalition majority so far this Parliament of 544.

Another good example of huge Coalition majorities occurred during the passage of the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill, which was discussed on the Floor of the House of Commons in March 2011.  As reported in The Independent, Conservative MPs complained bitterly to their whips at having to stay late to vote on divisions where the Government was enjoying massive Commons majorities.  The Independent calculated that the Government’s day-to-day majority between January and March 2011 was 150, and it had enjoyed a margin of more than 250 in 24 out of 75 votes.  What the story didn’t point out, however, was that this was because most amendments on the Scotland Bill were being put by SNP MPs, and that the Labour frontbench chose in almost all occasions to join the Coalition in opposing them in the no lobby. This factor on the particular Bill, more than any other, contributed to the high Government majorities in the first quarter of this year.

The consequences for any government backbench rebellion succeeding should be obvious.  On paper, it would take 39 Coalition MPs to rebel to defeat the Government – but only if the Labour frontbench was to vote with the rebels.  There are plenty of issues on which 39 Conservative MPs might rebel, but there aren’t as many on which the Labour party would be willing to join them. That is not to say that it won’t happen at some point in the future, merely that it is not likely to happen very often.

The hurdles in overturning a large in-built Coalition majority are even more acute for the Liberal Democrats. Their backbench MPs number only 35, so even if all of them vote against the Government with all the Opposition MPs, that would still not be enough to defeat the Government.

For the Government’s majority to fall much below 50, both Conservative and Liberal Democrats need to rebel in decent numbers, with the support of the Labour frontbench and the minor parties. This has been happening rarely since May 2010.  The Government’s majority has only fallen below 50 on only six occasions in its first fifteen months in power.

But it can happen.  On 9 December 2010, over university tuition fees, 21 Liberal Democrat rebels combined with six Conservative backbenchers, the Labour frontbench and the minor parties, reducing the Government’s majority to 21, which remains the lowest Coalition majority thus this Parliament.

The Coalition not only has a stable working majority on paper, but also a very high average day-to-day working majority in practice.

This was one of the conclusions of a paper given at the recent Elections, Public Opinion and Parties conference, held at Exeter University.  The full slides from the presentation are downloadable here; all the data are correct as of the start of the summer recess.  This updates, and replaces, the earlier slides we uploaded in July.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

A great time for Britain?

How similar is the current economic crisis to the one that hit the UK and the rest of the world before 1939? There have certainly been many comparisons between our own times and the interwar depression. At the very least, journalists and experts agree, ours is the worst recession since the 1930s.

How we now think about the 1930s is however very different to the way in which the period was experienced by most people at the time. The popular image of the decade is one of hunger marches and cowed miners hanging around street corners. However, as long ago as 1977 John Stevenson and Chris Cook in The Slump – republished in 2009 – pointed out that the majority remained employed and enjoyed rising standards of living.

Some on the right have always thought the 1930s were great fun. Readers of ‘British historian and biographer’ Andrew Roberts’ The Holy Fox (1997) for example might wonder what the fuss about unemployment was all about. Recently journalists and bloggers who support the cuts (or ‘savings’) inaugurated by the Conservative-led coalition have even suggested – using elements of the Stevenson and Cook argument – that the decade was ‘great for Britain’.

If the economic and social record of the 1930s remains a fit subject for historical debate there is less room for disagreement about the nature of its politics.

Politically the decade was dominated by a Conservative-led coalition while Labour tried but failed to be more than the party of the victims of the recession. The National Government blamed Labour for the mess in which the country had fallen – although the origins of the recession lay in Wall Street – while invoking a rhetoric which asked everybody to suffer some pain to see the country through. If the government was more progressive than its critics on the left claimed – and when led by the emollient liberal Tory Stanley Baldwin few believed such assertions – then it still generally pursued a policy of balancing the books and putting faith in the market.

There are then, some grounds for comparing the politics of both periods. Yet, beyond each having coalition governments – highly unusual in the British context – the contrasts are greater than the similarities.

The National Government originated in the Labour Cabinet’s refusal to cut unemployment benefit as the price for receiving vital loans. As a result Ramsay MacDonald led a minority of colleagues into coalition with Conservatives and Liberals to implement the necessary cuts. This led to Labour complaints of a ‘bankers’ ramp’ imposing its will on democracy – but few outside committed left-wingers took that claim seriously. In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) finance is even presented as the saviour of democracy.

Today even the Daily Mail criticizes George Osborne’s increase in the bank levy as inadequate. For it was the Brown government that went to the aid of the bankers – and in the process accumulated massive debts – not the other way round.

Crucially Labour did not fall apart in 2010 as it did in 1931: even the most left-wing elements in the Cabinet agreed on the imperative to cut. If Labour now criticizes the coalition for cutting too much and too fast, its leaders have ensured the party remains part of the cutting consensus. As a result, while Ed Miliband leads protests against tuition fees, library closures and the like, Labour arguably remains a credible party of government. Under George Lansbury – who led the party from 1932 to 1935 – that was certainly not the case.

There is however a much more significant contrast between the politics of our recession and the one experienced in the 1930s. For if the National Government could appeal to voters whose real incomes were rising, today even for those in work standards of living are falling and set to fall further.

This creates a much trickier electoral problem for Cameron and Clegg than it did for MacDonald and Baldwin. For in asking Britons to sacrifice something for the national good, today politicians really are asking the majority to suffer some pain, many of them the ‘squeezed’ C1 and C2 voters who decide the fates of governments.

Whether the 1930s really were ‘great for Britain’, the decade was certainly great for the Conservative-led coalition; it is unlikely that future historians will say the same of our own times.

A version of this entry has appeared on the History and Policy website.

Steven Fielding

It’s déjà vu all over again

On 17th February 2010, the Coalition Government unveiled a bill that promised to bring about ‘the most radical shake-up of the welfare system for sixty years’. We’ve been here before. At least since Thatcher’s social security reforms of the mid-1980s, ‘the most radical reform of welfare since its inception’ has featured somewhere in the first year programme of most new governments. And since the 1990s, ‘making work pay’ has been the mantra of all parties, none more so than (New) Labour, which is one reason why that party’s response to the latest proposals has been so muted.

The story of ‘radical’ welfare reform is one of repeated disappointments. And one of the key reasons for this is captured in ‘This is the Road’, just possibly the savviest political cartoon of the twentieth century and itself now more than sixty years old. It’s worth taking a look at. I reproduced the cartoon in the preface to my book Beyond the Welfare State?. Anyone who understands this cartoon is at least half way to understanding the politics of the welfare state.

‘This is the Road’ is the work of David Low, best known for his scathing account of the rise of fascism and its appeasers. The cartoon dates from the opening weeks of 1950 but it’s brilliant and economical insight into the politics of the welfare state could have been published, to the same telling effect, at almost any time in the last sixty years. Sat in the driving seat, smiling confidently, with a trademark cigar and sporting the top hat and coat of Mr. Micawber, is Winston Churchill. The signpost at this particular cross-roads points to both ‘tax cuts’ and ‘the welfare state’. Somehow the democratic politician must reach both destinations though they seem to lie in quite opposite directions.

Sat on a gate in the background, dressed characteristically if improbably for the Turkish bath, is Low’s stock character Colonel Blimp and his longsuffering Low-like sidekick. The good colonel is offering advice to his friend with his usual confidence: “A difficult trick? Certainly not, sir! It’s just a matter of clever steering”. Throughout the post-war world, the challenge for governments in Britain (and beyond) has been to deliver tax cuts (or, at the very least, a rise in real disposable personal incomes) while also delivering a (just as popular) growth in the provision of public services. Bashing the unemployed can buy you a little political credit but running an economy with mass unemployment is expensive however mean you are. And sacking nurses and doctors is suicide politics.

Can the circle be squared? It can – if you can deliver enough economic growth. A growing economic pie can give you an increase in personal incomes and a growth in your tax take at the same time. And what does it take to deliver this magic recipe? Clever (economic) steering. Governments (and economic advisers) of all persuasions have tried to make this trick work. In the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps in the later 1980s and in the early 2000s, it looked comparatively easy. In the 1970s and maybe in the early 1990s, it looked pretty tricky. It certainly looks very difficult right now.

A government that manages to deliver both lower personal incomes and a depleted welfare state is headed for deep trouble. The Coalition may have a couple of years to get its own show back on the road. If that doesn’t work, we could be looking at a very spectacular car crash. It was the genius of David Low to have spotted this fully sixty years ago.

Chris Pierson

The revolting coalition

How do MPs behave when faced with a coalition government?  For all that behaviour in the House of Commons has changed over the post-war era – with MPs becoming more rebellious and less willing to be lobby fodder – there has been one constant: rebellion has remained the exception, cohesion the norm. Whilst the exact rate of rebellion has varied from year to year and parliament to parliament, the majority of divisions (votes) in the Commons have seen complete unity amongst government backbenchers.

Yet the early signs so far in this Parliament are that the opposite is now true: rebellion has become the norm, cohesion the exception.

Listen to an interview between me and Steve Richards of the Independent, which was broadcast on Radio 4’s The Week In Westminster (12 February 2011), and explores the scale of backbench discontent so far in the parliament.

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Philip Cowley