A Go at Coalition Government

Voters in the UK have elected Caroline Lucas as their first Green MP from the constituency of Brighton Pavilion. They have also discovered coalition government, thereby joining the great majority of European states. Malta, as usual, is one of the exceptions.

Many had hoped for a Lib-Lab coalition in the UK. The arithmetic, however, was not there. More importantly, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg underlined that the political party that had obtained the largest support should have the first go at forming a coalition. This led to the gradual unfolding of history before TV cameras. Negotiations between Conservative and Lib-Dem negotiating teams produced a coalition document that listed the programme of action of a coalition supported by 59 per cent of the UK electorate. Rarely has a UK government enjoyed such support.

The coalition policy document, as “normally” happens, is an exercise in “give and take”. It did include five senior Cabinet posts to the junior party, representatives in every ministry, agreement on policy overlaps, discarding for the current legislature a number of objectionable policies and, in particular, a softening of the conservative Eurosceptic stance as well as a possible nod to changes in the electoral system.

In Malta, we tend to associate coalition government with the Italian way of doing politics. In so doing we ignore the rest of Europe. Germany, France, Finland, Belgium, Holland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic are some of the European countries now governed by a coalition in addition to Italy. Even San Marino, a micro-state, is run by a coalition government.

The UK coalition has come about as a direct result of the May 6 election in which the electors deserted the Labour Party in government but did not flock in sufficient numbers to the Conservative opposition. As is normal with the first-past-the-post electoral system it did not return a “fair” result in that the third party, the Liberal Democrats, with 23 per cent electoral support obtained only about nine per cent of House of Commons seats.

Now proportionality is not a feature of the UK electoral system. In fact, it is designed specifically to encourage a two-party Parliament and tends to squeeze out the third parties. The Liberal Democrats’ relative strength in the May 6 elections has come about as a result of the failure of the major parties to garner support and not as a result of the votes it has obtained. In fact, while the Liberal Democrats have marginally increased their voting share, yet, they have decreased their MP uptake by five!

The first-past-the-post voting system has a number of peculiar features. If a large number of candidates present themselves for election in a particular constituency, votes are split and the elected candidate is possibly one who has obtained a small fraction of votes. For example, George Galloway, who was expelled from the Labour Party, in the 2005 election to the House of Commons, was elected on behalf of the Respect Party after obtaining just 18.4 per cent of the votes in his constituency.

The system also encourages tactical voting, that is voting not in favour of the candidate that you support but against the candidate most disliked. A number of seats tend to be determined by a handful of votes. For example, Glenda Jackson has been re-elected as a Labour MP with a majority of just 43 votes in her constituency!

Within this context, important proposals for reforming the electoral system have been made: the Conservatives want the size of constituencies to be adjusted such that large disparities in size are eliminated. The Liberals want a proportional system while Labour have put forward an alternative vote proposal, which essentially entails that for an MP to be elected s/he has to obtain the support of at least 50 per cent of his constituents through a multi-preference vote. The coalition has compromised on this alternative vote proposal and has agreed to present such a system to a referendum.

This is the first serious attempt at coalition building in the UK since the formation of the 1939-45 national government during World War II. The politics of confrontation has, at last, been challenged thereby paving the way for one primarily based on consensus. Whether it will last is another story altogether.

In Malta, we are awaiting electoral reform too. That will happen when the Nationalist and the Labour parties decide that the electoral rules need to be fair and not designed specifically to keep third parties out. This unfairness seems to be one of the few things the PN and PL agree upon.

Alternattiva Demokratika awaits the new Speaker to act, accelerating the process begun by his predecessor. He needs to prod MPs from both sides to live up to their self-proclaimed democratic credentials.

published in The Times of Malta, Saturday May 22, 2010

2 comments on “A Go at Coalition Government

  1. The advantage of a coalition is that it is likely to serve as a control over a government which would otherwise be arrogant and reckless. It seems to me that a coalition would be the perfect medicine for Malta. But will it ever happen??

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