Are Coalitions Inevitable?


Since the second world war Britain has had fairly stable two party politics. The first past the post system has tended to magnify the advantage of Labour and Conservative. Even with a significant proportion of the popular vote the Liberal Democrats have hardly made any headway in gaining seats in the House of Commons and thus access to power. Until now that is. The coalition has provided the Liberal  Democrats access to power without the prerequisite of a majority of seats.

For many this is seen as a bit of an aberation, brought about by the unusual circumstances of a global financial crisis, a tired third term government and a range of other “events”. Come the next election normal service will be resumed with a clear election outcome.

However, things might not be so straightforward. If you look at election results over the past 65 years you see a clear trend towards a more complex party landscape. In the first 25 years of the period Labour and Conservative voters accounted for between 80% and 90% of the popular vote. Since about 1970 though there has been a volatile but clear trend of decline in the percentage of the popular vote  of the two main parties. At the same time the trend in the Liberal vote, whilst similarly erratic, has a clear direction of travel. Votes for “Other” parties have also increased gradually, but consistently. As the parties come closer together eventually a tipping point will occur as the first past the post system no longer magnifies the benefit for Labour and Conservative.

The picture looks as if tribal loyalties are dissolving. When the centre ground is all, politicians are more selected for their competent management of the state, and in particular the economy than their espousal of a particular world view. Predicting election results is a hazardous business. But it might be folly to think that the electorate will have learned their lesson and elect a single party with a substantial majority. It remains to be seen whether the electorate punish a minority party for sustaining an unpopular government or feel that the necessary strong medicine of deficit reduction has been appropriately tempered by the intervention of the Liberal Democrats. The winner of the next election may yet be coalitions.

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