Britain Needn’t Fear More Coalition Government

Coalition government isn’t inherently less stable than single-party rule. The opposite may be true.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte welcomes his British counterpart, David Cameron, in The Hague, March 24, 2014
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte welcomes his British counterpart, David Cameron, in The Hague, March 24, 2014 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

With neither the ruling Conservatives nor the opposition Labour Party likely to win an outright majority in May’s election, Britain’s electorate seems unusually undecided about what sort of government it wants.

Under the first-past-the-post voting system, the two major parties will probably still take around 80 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. But they could win only 65 percent of the votes together. The Greens, Scottish nationalists and United Kingdom Independence Party have all seen their support increase. Include the Liberal Democrats and it looks like Britain is turning into a continental, multiparty democracy that requires coalitions to govern.

This needn’t be the disaster some British commentators predict.

The Economist worries that neither of the three insurgent parties has a plausible economic plan. “Nor are they likely to be forced into coming up with one by the sobering experience of a big role in government,” the magazine warns.

That seems unfair. Continental European democracies have repeatedly absorbed newcomers who were forced to learn on the job.

When Germany’s Greens first joined the federal government in 1998, they were barely more mature than their British counterparts yet they governed in coalition with the Social Democrats for seven years and helped enact remarkably liberal labor market reforms.

Conservative and liberal parties were able to govern with Euroskeptic and anti-immigration outfits in Denmark and the Netherlands without pulling out of the European Union or closing their borders.

The New Flemish Alliance was only founded in 2001 but now leads Belgium’s coalition government — which has embarked on just the sort of labor and pension reforms The Economist would advocate.

Why should British parties be uniquely incapable of making compromises?

The Economist is also afraid that Britain, “unaccustomed and ill-adapted to multiparty politics,” will get “weak, unstable governments” if neither the Conservatives nor Labour are able to govern on their own anymore.

Another comparison with neighboring European countries suggest otherwise. Yes, coalitions routinely collapse before their mandates expire. But so do single-party governments.

In the sixty years since the end of World War II, the Netherlands has held twenty general elections. Belgium has held 22. Supposedly more stable Britain has held eighteen, the same number as Germany. Whether a country has only two major parties or several really doesn’t seem to matter that much.

One-party government can be more decisive than a coalition. But as Janan Ganesh writes in the Financial Times, British governments are rarely decisive when the country hasn’t made up its mind.

If [voters] favor continuity, nothing a politician does can buck their will. And if one tries, like Ted Heath with his proto-Thatcherite confrontation with the trade unions in the 1970s, the country rejects the attempt as a body rejects a foreign object.

One-party governments, when supported by a sizable majority of the population, can make radical changes. But most of the time, voters want their country “tweaked but not turned upside down,” as Ganesh puts it.

Coalitions are better suited to that. Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands have had fairly consistent economic and welfare policies for decades. Big change happens when there is a clear consensus for it, not when a single party gets 50 percent plus one of the vote. This means people’s lives aren’t turned upside down after an election. It means the predictability businesses and families need to plan for the future. It means just the sort of stability The Economist is afraid of losing.

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