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