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

Posted on: 18th June 2012
Andrew George MP-Houses of Parliament

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  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 tribalism does produce some passable theatre, comedy and even tragedy. But when it comes to governing in the national interest I’m afraid the immaturity of political tribalism is merely an obstacle. 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 to  identify where you agree with your opponents, rather than tediously relisting your disagreements, 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,  don’t try to stitch it up in a  back room and railroad it through Parliament.

But I’m afraid that that’s not always how this Coalition Government has operated. That’s where in my view it has come unstuck – especially 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.

Being forced to put aside differences and bury hatchets is a positive and healthy thing to do. To then seek agreement and reconcile disagreements can produce surprises, as well as engender creativity.

One of the greatest strengths of a coalition is what others may describe as a weakness, namely  its lack of a pre-ordained  majority. I acknowledge 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 machismo 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.

Government ‘U’ turns  should not be seen  as evidence of a humiliating climb-down, but as evidence that coalition Governments cannot take either Parliament or the public for granted in the way that single parties with large parliamentary majorities can.

Coalition Governments have to listen and take note.  We may not always like what a coalition Government ends up doing, but we’ve got greater influence over it. Perhaps we should learn to cherish coalitions?


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