Why Coalition?

In answer to some questions which people have asked I set out below an essay regarding my approach to Coalitions in general and this one in particular:

“Perhaps Coalition Governments aren’t so bad after all?”

Coalition Government is better than one party rule.  OK, it may be painful, difficult and hard work for the Parties involved.  It may mean that ‘nice Parties’ become tainted by those they’re forced to cooperate with; and that ‘nasty Parties’ can appear to detoxify themselves by association with their nicer partners.

But, a Coalition normally represents – as the present Coalition does – a larger proportion of the electorate and will generally be more receptive to both the public and to Parliament than single party Government.

Conventional wisdom suggests that single party government is more decisive.  Well, it can certainly give the impression of decisiveness. But it can also be decisively wrong.  Witness the previous Labour Government’s decision to take us to war in Iraq.  Would a dodgy dossier have been sufficient? Or look at the last Tory Government’s Poll Tax.  Would another party have signed up to that too?

If politics was purely about entertainment then the pointless point scoring of Punch & Judy, yah boo tribalism does produce some passable theatre, comedy and even tragedy.  But when it comes to Governing in the country’s best interests I’m afraid the immaturity of political tribalism is merely an obstacle, and nothing else.

Personally I’ve always loathed it.  I appreciate that a jolly good lynching of your political opponents is one of the most effective ways of cheering your own party and inspiring some of your core supporters, but that’s usually only within the narrow confines of the political, chattering and media classes.

Forming a Coalition, especially when it’s with your mortal enemy, doesn’t just require nerves of steel and a strong stomach.  It also requires putting aside the soft toys of the tribalists’ playpen and abstaining from the customary comfort zone of opposition for opposition’s sake antics.

Forcing yourself, through the circumstances you find yourself in, to first of all identify where you agree with your opponents, rather than merely and tediously re-listing your areas of disagreement, can be just too much of a culture shock for some.

Actually, doing Coalition is relatively straight forward once you get used to it: get on and do those things on which you agree; seek compromise where you don’t.  And where you fail to achieve compromise, you don’t try and do a back room stitch-up followed by railroading it through Parliament.  No. That’s the way single party Government works.

Instead you give it to Parliament and to the public to decide. But I’m afraid that that’s not always how this Coalition Government has operated.  That’s where it has come unstuck – especially, in my view, with the unwise Health & Social Care Act, which was not in the Coalition Agreement.

Those who have observed my rebellious streak, may be surprised to see me extolling the virtues of Coalition and, by inference, this Coalition Government.  But I would point out that effective rebelliousness (after all we’ve won the Pasty tax, caravan tax, forestry policy, planning policy and many other campaigns) signifies a healthy body politic.  I don’t take pride, nor do I see it as a source of shame, to be apparently tagged one of the most rebellious MPs.

As chummy and co-operative as the two Coalition Parties tried to appear after the 2010 General  Election, it could never disguise the fact that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are long standing enemies in many parts of the country, especially this!

Being forced to put aside differences and bury hatchets is a positive and healthy thing to do (though deeply disappointing for those who thrive on arguing for the sake of it and who prefer using the hatchet when simple diplomacy would be more effective!).  To then go on to identify areas of agreement and to work constructively to find a compromise can be both surprising and creative.

One of the greatest strengths of a Coalition is what others may call its weakness; i.e. its lack of a pre-ordained and predictable majority for everything it proposes. I realise that there still exists a simplistic notion that good Government is demonstrated by always getting your own way and never backing down, no matter how ridiculous or damaging the policy.

Hopefully that kind of crass machoism can be consigned to the past.  Governments that are obliged to listen rather than ignore are strong.  If they listen well, reflect carefully, accept that they may have got it wrong and change for the better that’s masterful and wise.

So when the Government ‘U’ turns on forestry policy, pasty tax, caravan tax and the like it should not be seen – in my view – as evidence of a humiliating climb-down, nor even as part of that alleged “Omni shambles”, but as evidence that Coalition Governments cannot take either Parliament or the country for granted in the way that single parties with large parliamentary majorities can.

Coalition Governments cannot take things (the public or Parliament) for granted. Coalition Governments have to listen and take note.  Everyone has the chance to have a say with a Coalition Government.  We may not always like what it ends up doing, but we’ve got greater influence over what they do than single party Government.

Perhaps we should learn to cherish Coalitions?

Andrew George
MP for the West Cornwall &
Isles of Scilly constituency of St Ives