Left or Right, Britain Likely to See More Coalition Government

The Liberal Democrats and Scottish nationalists could give the Conservatives or Labour a majority.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom deliver a news conference at 10 Downing Street, London, December 21, 2010
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom deliver a news conference at 10 Downing Street, London, December 21, 2010 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

Next year’s general election in the United Kingdom is unlikely to give either the Conservatives or Labour an outright majority. Coalition government, with the Liberal Democrats or Scottish nationalists, seems the more likely outcome.

A continuation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that took office after the 2010 election is far from improbable.

Although the two ruling parties have recently taken aim at each other’s policies — with Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg saying the Conservatives are “kidding themselves” and British voters “if they are claiming that it is possible to balance the books, deliver unfunded tax cuts, shrink the state and support public services in the way that everybody wants” and the Conservative chancellor George Osborne insisting the junior party’s budget numbers simply don’t add up — these criticisms should be seen as electioneering, argues George Eaton at the New Statesman.

The Liberal Democrats need to demonstrate their independence from the Conservatives if they are to retain a majority of their seats. “By talking up the dangers of a future Conservative government,” Eaton believes the party aspires “to persuade left-leaning voters that the safest option is to vote for them.”

The Conservatives, on the other hand, seek to persuade voters “that only a majority Cameron administration can be trusted to maintain economic stability, cut taxes, reduce welfare spending and control immigration.”

For all the criticism back and forth, the parties have been careful not to rule out compromises. Osborne has not altogether rejected the Liberal Democrats’ housing tax, which differs from his own in that it would be levied annually rather than when homes are sold, while the liberals won’t quite dismiss a sales tax increase.

The only red line drawn by Prime Minister David Cameron is not to lead a government that won’t deliver a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. The Liberal Democrats, far more pro-European than their coalition partners, don’t want such a referendum, fearing the outcome will compel Britain to leave. But they “privately signal that they would be prepared to accept it in return for concessions such as House of Lords reform and the introduction of proportional representation for local elections,” reports Eaton.

The liberals are far less eager to support a Labour government in any event. They see the party as “irredeemably tribal and impervious to compromise.”

Coalition talks in 2010 collapsed when Labour would hardly give in on any issue while the Conservatives were prepared to make far-reaching compromises.

Should the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats fail to win a majority between them, Labour — which is likely to fall several dozen seats short of a majority — might find a better partner in the Scottish National Party.

The nationalists are expected to take over many Labour seats in Scotland and the two parties are ideologically close. Both reject austerity and cuts to health and welfare and both seek wage increases for low-income workers.

Although the nationalists want more autonomy for Scotland than Labour is prepared to give, they would, “for a price, be prepared to vote with Labour on English legislation, reports The Spectator‘s James Forsyth.

An alliance with the Conservatives, however, is something the Scottish National Party will simply not contemplate.

A final option, a coalition between the Conservatives and the United Kingdom Independence Party, may be a bright prospect for many on the right who sympathize with the second party’s anti-immigration views and its call for Britain to leave the European Union. However, it is extremely unlikely to come about. Even if the polls are right and the Euroskeptics get between 15 and 20 percent support nationwide, Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system makes it almost impossible for them to win any seats in Westminster.

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