England Still Does Not Love Coalitions

There were many compelling reasons for the Conservatives to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in May 2010. The arithmetic of the general election results, which meant that the Conservatives were the leading party but fell slightly short of winning an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons, as well as the grim economic conditions they inherited, made it in the national interest for David Cameron to do the deal with Nick Clegg. That logic endures to this day.

But such an arrangement is quite different from thinking that coalition must now become a permanent part of our political arrangements —especially on terms that are advantageous to advocates of radical constitutional reform. That, of course, is exactly what Robert Hazell — author, with Ben Yong, of The Politics of Coalition: How The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works (Hart Publishing, £19.95) — wants. Hazell founded the Constitution Unit at University College London in 1995. It has worked tirelessly (and with considerable success) to undermine the UK’s traditional Westminster model of democracy in order to replace it by a continental European system of proportional representation and coalition government. 

In short, the existing British electoral system hurts the Liberal Democrats, whereas a continental European system would mean that the Liberal Democrats would almost always be in office. Under that system, elections would produce hung parliaments and the Liberal Democrats would usually be able to play Labour off against the Conservatives and would enjoy the whip hand in deciding whether to enter into office alongside one party or the other. Only if the two main parties became so fed-up with being treated in this manner that they allied with each other in a Con-Lab “grand coalition” would the Liberal Democrats be denied power. 

In view of these party political realities, it is not surprising that the constitutional reforms which Hazell advocates are popular with the Liberal Democrats. What is more alarming is that they appear to have enjoyed such strong backing from senior civil servants such as the recently retired Cabinet Secretary Gus (now Lord) O’Donnell, who afforded Hazell and Yong excellent access to the Whitehall system. Supporters and critics of Hazell’s programme of constitutional change agree that his unit at UCL has a close relationship with and influence on the senior civil service and with the Liberal Democrat leadership. This “long and deep” impact is advertised on the unit’s website in a section entitled “Constitution Unit Influence”.

Indeed, Hazell’s work veers between two conflicting poles. At one end, he is the openly partisan, enthusiastic backer of Clegg; at the other end he presents his work as the politically neutral, technically accomplished expression of his previous career as a civil servant. 

In its partisan role, the Constitution Unit carries on its website the judgment of a Guardian editorial:

Based at University College London, the Constitution Unit has evolved over the past 15 years from an observer of the constitutional process to an engaged player… Without the unit’s advance work Nick Clegg might not have ended up as deputy prime minister.

In the heady days before the May 2010 poll when Liberal Democrat hopes were fired by Clegg’s success in the televised prime-time debates between the party leaders, Hazell set out in the Guardian the way in which Clegg could maximise his influence after a hung election by pitting the two main parties against each other. The tactic would be to “pursue simultaneous negotiations with both parties, to see which makes the best offer”. The following week, he went further in a publication bearing this introduction: 

A memo to Nick Clegg: In a hung parliament, the Lib Dems could at last end the two-party system. So, Nick, here’s what you should do.

This contest between the Conservatives and Labour for the favour of the Liberal Democrats recommended by Hazell required the sitting prime minister to remain in office following a hung election to allow this horse-trading to take place. If Gordon Brown had resigned immediately after the results were declared, the Liberal Democrat negotiating hand would have been weakened. To add to the pressure on Brown, less than a week before the poll Hazell wrote in the Mail on Sunday that he in any case could not resign right away because “the Queen would not wish to accept his resignation until it was clear who could command confidence in his place”. 

The fact that Hazell had been in close touch with the Cabinet Secretary and was apparently presenting an authorised line to the media (later indicated in The Politics of Coalition, page 211) made this statement all the more important. Yet it seems to be incorrect and was, in my view, thoroughly irresponsible. Hazell was not subsequently prepared to explain or justify it and Professor Vernon Bogdanor, widely respected as a constitutional expert, disagreed with it. My own researches support Bogdanor’s view. The issue is important because it seems to show that Hazell was propounding a view of constitutional proprieties that was heavily influenced by the desire to initiate a post-election auction which would benefit the Liberal Democrats and which would, as the Guardian put it, “end the two-party system”. 

In view of the partisan, pro-Liberal Democrat implications of Hazell’s claim, it is worth setting out why it was so dubious and so irresponsible. First, it implied that the Queen had taken a decision to intervene in British party politics in a manner which, had Hazell’s report been well-founded, would been inconsistent with the role of a modern constitutional monarch. Second, Hazell’s statement runs counter to past practice. I reported the crucial historical evidence from the events following the hung election of 1929 in my written and oral evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons in March 2011. I wrote:

The example of 1929 — when a sitting premier headed the defeated party in a hung election as in 2010 — does not accord with the [Hazell interpretation]. The incumbent prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, was under no “expectation” and under no “duty” to delay his resignation. He “consulted constitutional experts who assured him that it was in the prime minister’s hands to do as he chose”. Baldwin duly went to Windsor Castle without delay to tender his resignation to King George V. [Keith Middlemas and John Barnes, Baldwin: a biography.]

. . . [According to] the formulation in a standard constitutional law text by A.W. Bradley and K.D. Ewing, “Where after an election no one party has an absolute majority in the House  . . . the Prime Minister in office may decide to wait until Parliament resumes to see whether he or she can obtain a majority in the new House with support from another party . . . or he may resign without waiting for Parliament to meet (as Baldwin did in 1929 and Heath in 1974). When he or she has resigned, the Queen will send for the leader of the party with the largest number of seats . . .” 

Only when the leader of the Opposition fails to form a government may the Queen, according to Bradley and Ewing, then initiate coalition discussions between the parties.

The main fruit for the Liberal Democrats of being able to play off the Conservatives against Labour was to secure a Conservative commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform. In retrospect, it seems that Cameron was misled into thinking that Labour was prepared to offer this if he refused to do so. That is what Conservative parliamentarians were told. The only reason why the Liberal Democrat manoeuvre failed to achieve a far-reaching effect was the party’s defeat in the referendum on the Alternative Vote of May 2011.

Hazell’s partisanship is evident in his comment on the referendum: “The Constitution Unit had warned since June 2010 that the referendum would be defeated if so little time was allowed for public information and education.” This statement assumes that electoral reform is desirable and that it was a function of his unit — a university-based research institution — to provide advice helpful to the deputy prime minister.

Hazell’s pro-Liberal Democrat zeal emerges in the admiring final sentence of his main chapter: “It will be hard for the Lib Dems, having started in government as civilised partners, to turn themselves into more brutal ones; it does not come naturally to them.”

Hazell has combined such overt partisanship with a claim, as a former civil servant himself, to be providing a politically neutral assessment. This is the other pole of the work of the Constitution Unit — intentionally technical publications whose sheer unreadability increases their credibility. The Politics of Coalition falls in this second category. However, the mechanisms it describes and recommends are by no means politically neutral. Prejudicial assumptions form the bedrock of the analysis. 

Hazell and the Constitution Unit claim that the book’s authority derives from the access provided by the Cabinet Secretary with the consent of Cameron and Clegg. This enabled the researchers to conduct 25 interviews within No 10 and the Cabinet Office (including 13 with officials). There were an additional 122 interviews with MPs, employees of party organisations, civil servants and the media. This meant that information was based on “a qualitative action research approach . . . based mostly on interviews and done in real time”.

This is a valid method but in this case evidently encountered two difficulties. First, the unattributed quotations from informants used in the publication suggest that they tended to be cautious and to speak in general terms. The case studies included in the book are limited: the study on the issue of a Bill of Rights is unfairly critical of Cameron  and is wide of the mark in its reportage. 

Second, and to be expected given the attachments of the lead author, the interviews with politicians and party personnel were disproportionately with Liberal Democrats. There were 52 meetings with Liberal Democrats and 39 with Conservatives. In the House of Commons elected in 2010, Conservatives outnumbered Liberal Democrats by a margin of more than five to one.

Some of the most important questions are not discussed. Answers to them are assumed. 

  • An introductory chapter by Eimear O’Casey stresses thatcoalition governments are the norm “in much of the rest of the world” and particularly in the European Union. A table on page 15 is titled “Size and Contents of Coalition Agreements in 15 European Countries”. The writer ignores some of the long-established democracies such as the US, Australia or Canada, where coalitions are rare. Nor does she explain why we need to pay more attention to New Zealand (whose recent reforms have been none too successful), Germany or Ireland. The underlying assumption of the presentation is that continental European models should provide the frame of reference for the UK. The crucial question of why we should pay so much attention to the political structures of our geographical neighbours is ignored.

In a world in which technology has greatly lessened the significance of geographical proximity, the rationale for adapting our constitution to those of nearby countries with different histories and cultures is far from obvious. At the very least, the case needs to be justified and not just assumed.

  • For purposes of comparison, the book treats Scotland and Wales as if they already are separate sovereign “countries”. The combination of stress on the European dimension and on the devolved administrations reflects the longstanding assault advocated by some constitutional reformers on the UK’s national government and legislature.
  • In much of the book, there is an assumption that the junior coalition partner should not be content to fill particular ministerial posts but should act as a full and equal partner over the entire range of government departments. Given the large superiority of the Conservatives in number of MPs, this has important practical consequences: the authors recommended six extra (publicly financed) Liberal Democrat special advisers or “spads”. The Constitution Unit celebrated on its website that this suggestion was then implemented as the direct result of its research project.

In the concluding chapter, Dr Yong’s recommendations about the relative staff entitlements of the larger and smaller party or parties in a future coalition reflect a special concern for Liberal Democrat needs. He urges the civil service to bear in mind that 

the smaller the junior partner, the more support (relatively) it will need if it is to be effective . . . If there are not enough spads [for the junior coalition partner], one solution is to allow civil servants to play a more political role in being ministers’ [of the junior coalition party] policy advisers.

It could be argued to the contrary that the larger party needs and should be entitled to a proportionately larger pool of political advisers. The rationale for this is that the role of prime minister becomes even more demanding under conditions of coalition government. Not only must he fulfil all the tasks of the head of government but must, in addition, devote attention to ongoing negotiations with his Liberal Democrat deputy. 

There is room for valid differences of opinion about the appropriate role of the leader of the smaller coalition party and about the relative staffing needs of the senior and junior coalition partners. The ground for criticism of The Politics of Coalition is that the authors are so wedded to a Clegg view, that they assume away the discussion.

 • Yong reports the case in favour of the Westminster model in order to reject it. But he omits to mention the most important features of that case: it allows electors to dismiss unpopular governments. General elections under majoritarian voting systems — argue proponents — more often produce clear-cut results; this means that it is the electors who determine the exit of governments and that governments are not formed through secret bargaining between rival political leaders.

 • The study accepts too easily the legitimacy of post-election coalition agreements, which are open to criticism on grounds both of democratic theory and of good government.

The objective of Hazell and Yong’s book is to laud a vision of multiparty rule in which the different parties in the government are bound together by a complex and tight-knit set of procedures and committee structures. These are designed both to give considerable power to civil servants and to limit the party of the prime minister. In short, the authors provide a blueprint for maximising Liberal Democrat leverage now and in the future.  

The core problem of this vision is that it conflicts with notions of responsibility and democratic accountability. The stability of a coalition, according to the authors’ recipe, is to be assured by a set of prolonged negotiations after an election between the party leaders; it is in these exchanges that they decide whether or not to form a governing alliance. A party may simultaneously explore different deals with different potential coalition partners.

There are two equally objectionable components of such negotiations. First, they assume that the search for a cross-party consensus entitles political leaders to abandon their election manifestos and the views they had set out to the electors only days before. A second assumption is that the agreements reached in the post-election back rooms need to be immutable in face of changing circumstances and in face of pressures from the parliamentary caucuses of the ruling parties because any effort to alter the agreement will lead to a total breakdown. But a small group of negotiators is unlikely to anticipate the technicalities, ambiguities and subtleties of all aspects of policy, much less every possible turn of events. So the lack of flexibility in coalition agreements is a real disadvantage: circumstances change. 

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