Coalitions in the UK: More or Less Democratic than Single-Party Majorities?

Since the dawn of the 20th century, the UK has only seen six instances of a hung parliament, and even fewer coalition governments. However, research from The Institute for Government has shown that the two main parties’ share of the vote has decline from 97% in 1951 to 88% post-2017 snap election, following a low of 65% in 2015. (Hughes, 2015). In recent years the formation of a coalition government and a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement has been necessary to form majorities. Despite this, public opinion is still in favour of single party Governments, as statistics from a European Social Survey show that 60.4% of the public in 2012 believe that they are more democratic (ESS, 2016). It looks like the country is heading towards a higher frequency of coalition Governments – but will this be more or less democratic?

When in 2010 David Cameron formed a coalition Government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, it was hailed as a revolutionary development, representing the start of a new era for the country. However as David Butler states: “Outside of Britain coalition government is the norm, not the exception” (Butler, 1983, 56). Of the 27 countries in the European Union, 20 countries operate with a coalition government of sorts, and the public agree that they are more democratic. In Belgium, which is notorious for collapsing coalitions, 84% (ESS, 2016) of the public still prefer coalition governments rather than single party majorities. Similarly, countries such as Spain and Norway, which have similar backgrounds in terms of frequency of coalition governments, both prefer the formation of a coalition (56.9%/69.8%: ESS, 2016). Also, our closest neighbours in Europe, France and Germany both prefer to form coalitions than to have a single party in office (70.2%/84.7%: ESS, 2016). Independent research agency, NatCen said from the data: “people tend to favour the system that they are most used to” (NatCen, 2015) and the UK has had limited experience with coalition governments, therefore that might indicate why the results sit the way are.

As put by Albert Weale: “The general concept of democracy is given by the criterion of a systematic and non-trivial relationship between public policy and public opinion formally expressed by the bulk of citizens with equal political rights” (Weale, 2007, 30). It’s categorised into two forms; direct and indirect democracy. Direct democracies enable the public to vote on policy, and perform public deliberation. This form is seen to be the most democratic, however an unrealistic way in which a country can operate since it would be too time consuming, and ask too much of the general public. Therefore the UK, like many other nations across the globe, operates as an indirect democracy. Representatives are elected to determine public policy. Subsections of indirect democracies exist, which is where we find the difference between single-party and coalition governments. Arend Lijphart is responsible for creating a distinction between what he calls “majoritarian” and “consensus” democracies (Lijphart, 1999, 6). Majoritarian democracies, such as a single-party Government which has achieved a majority in an election, operate under the belief that as long as the majority agree on a particular decision, it is politically legitimate. This is the way in which the UK government operates, whereas across in Europe the systems are inherently consensus. This system will attempt to take into account the ranging belief of multiple parties when making decisions. Therefore domestic coalitions vary greatly from those in the rest of the continent. However it is also stated: “people tend to favour the system that they are most used to” (NatCen, 2015) and the UK has had limited experience with coalition governments. There is room for the public to change their opinion, but principally, are coalitions in the westminster model more democratic?

In Britain the majoritarian or ‘Westminster’ democracy model only works due to the “homogenous” (Lijphart, 1999, 32) society. The Conservative and Labour parties sit in the centre-right and centre-left, despite breaching the terms of ‘government by the people’, the system is justified since “voters interests and preferences are reasonably well served by the other party’s policies in government” (Lijphart, 1999, 32). In less-homogenous nations such as those split by cultural, linguistic or racial lines, the model would be undemocratic. However it is frequently true that the system produces disproportional results, dubbed by Douglas Rae as “manufactured majorities” (Rae, 1967, 58). For example the Conservatives won the 2015 General Election with 331 seats, with only 36.9% of votes cast. This is described as pluralism, since government is ruled by the largest minority, rather than a majority. This would be addressed in a coalition government, as the decision to place two or more political parties in office will increase the vote share of the government, and in turn, be more democratic. The results of the 2010 General Election led the Liberal Democrats into a coalition with the Conservatives, holding a vote share of 59%. This beat the highest vote share for a single party, which was for the Conservatives with their 49.7% in 1955. Similarly, the vote share for the National Coalition of 1931, consisting of the Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Liberals, held the all-time highest share of votes at 60.8%. This would therefore indicate that coalitions governments are the most democratic in that they appease the highest amount of the voting public, and generally represent the “bulk of citizens” (Lijphart, 1999, 32).

Another element of majoritarian democracies is that they work on the basis that two main political parties are the only ones that stand a chance of claiming a majority. In the UK the Conservatives and the Labour party capture the bulk of the seats, making smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and UKIP “not large enough to be overall victors” (Lijphart, 1999, 13). This often leads to a decision made by the public to ‘tactically vote’ in which they vote in favour of keeping a certain party out of government. However it is argued that if the possibility of a coalition is credible and realistic, people may choose to vote in favour of their views. Resham Kotecha wrote: “When voters believe smaller parties might form a part of the Government and might have a chance of political power, they may be more likely to vote for a party they really feel represents them rather than just choosing between the two main parties” (Kotecha, 2015). The Electoral Reform Society have estimated that 6.5 million people chose to vote tactically in the 2017 General Election, in which prompted Chief Executive if ERS Darren Hughes to state: “voters have been denied real choice and representation” (ERS, 2017). Although this is not a direct effect of a coalition government, the long term effects of the model may open up the public to the idea, and may improve democracy in the UK.

Meanwhile coalition governments also provide a voice for minor political parties within the parliamentary cabinet. Since the dissolution Winston Churchill’s National Government in 1945, and until the coalition in 2010, only the Conservative and Labour parties made it into government. Prior to the National Governments of 1931 and 1945, along with the War Coalitions of 1915 and 1940, the last time a minor party was in government was during the First Palmerston ministry which lasted until 1858. It’s evident that minority parties are unable to make it in to government, resulting in the dismissal of millions of voters. Although the majority may vote in favour of the two largest parties, the British system has a history of acceptably ignoring the will of the minority, which accounted for 12.5% of the voters in the 2017 General Election, and 32.7% in the 2015 election. However, coalition governments grant a platform for the unheard parties, providing a voice to a section of the voting public who have “equal political right” (Weale, 2003, 30). This point also argues that whilst a coalition may not achieve a majority of the vote share, it will still be democratic in the sense that it will represent those who have not heard as often.

Much of the literature on democracy models analyses the difference between majoritarian and consensus democracies, with particular mention to the referenced Arend Lijphart’s Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries (1999). It’s argued that “consensus democracy may be considered more democratic than majoritarian democracy in most respects” (Lijphart, 1999. 7). These respects are that of political equality, the representation of gender in government, voter turnout and increased proximity between preferences of the voter and government policy. It was found that “the overall performance record of consensus democracies is clearly superior to that of majoritarian democracies” (Lijphart, 1999, 301). Even in the homogenous society that is the UK, the argument is still “relevant” (Lijphart, 1999, 302) since Lijphart recommends the model “for countries designing their first democratic constitutions or contemplating democratic reform” (Lijphart, 1999, 302). Due to the developing climate of hostility towards ‘undemocratic’ institutions such as the EU, manifested by the decision to leave the European Union in 2016, this is an important point to consider.

Many of the arguments against majoritarian democracy, and in favour of consensus democracy also support coalition governments, even under a majoritarian system. However, there are points that are raised which argue against majoritarian coalitions. As stated previously, whilst coalitions in the westminster model may not achieve a majority, they will still be more democratic in certain respects. However, the issue related to that matter is not in regards to the westminster model itself, rather the adoption of the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system in the UK. Alongside this, the system is disadvantageous to the other major political parties. The results of the 2015 General Election reflect this, with particular focus on UKIP who claimed 12.9% of the national vote share, despite only winning one seat in Parliament. 3,881,099 people voted for one seat, which relates to 34,244 votes per Conservative seat, who won the majority with 331 seats. Meanwhile the Scottish National Party won 56 seats, despite only holding 4.7% of the vote share. This meant that they only had 25,972 votes per seat, roughly 0.67% of UKIP’s votes-per-seat. Therefore, alongside producing a ‘manufactured majority’, the election was also disproportionate to the voting public.

In conclusion, under the ‘westminster’ majoritarian democracy model, the UK government is more democratic under coalition rule. Past examples of the National Government and the 2010-2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition had higher shares of the vote percentages, therefore represented a larger percentage of the public. Encouraging coalition governments may also result in the decrease of tactical voting, which is argued to have “denied” (Hughes, 2015) voters true representation of their political values. As estimated by the ERS a large proportion of voters were said to have tactically voted in the 2017 General Election, and had a coalition been regarded as an option, those voters may have voted in favour of their views. Coalition governments also provide minor political parties to enter cabinet, which is a rare occurrence in the UK. This provides the voting population behind said parties to be fairly represented, wherein under single-party majorities, they would be dismissed. However, this essay also highlights the issues regarding majoritarian democracy in comparison to its democratically-superior alternative of consensus democracy, along with the undemocratic system of First Past The Post. As aforementioned, during this time of concern regarding democracy and the EU, would Britain be looking to adapt its domestic political systems?

 

References

Bouçek, F. (2010) Once you recognize that coalition government is a European norm, and is likely to endure in the UK, further changes in British party politics (such as electoral pacts) look quite feasible [blog]. 14 September 2010. London: The London School of Economics and Political Science. Available from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/once-you-recognize-that-coalition-government-is-a-european-norm-and-is-likely-to-endure-in-the-uk-further-changes-in-british-party-politics-such-as-electoral-pacts-look-quite-feasible/ [Accessed 11 January 2018].

Butler, D. (1983) Governing Without a Majority: Dilemmas for Hung Parliaments in Britain. Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.

Electoral Reform Society (2017). ‘Third strike for Westminster’s voting system’: Electoral Reform Society publish definitive report on June election [Press Release]. 21st August. Available at https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/media-centre/press-releases/third-strike-for-westminsters-voting-system-electoral-reform-society-publish-definitive-report-on-june-election/ (Accessed: 11 January 2018)

European Social Survey (2016). ESS6 – 2012: Important for democracy: government formed by coalition, 2.3 edition. London: ESS.

Hughes, N. (2015). The Laws of Effective Coalitions [blog]. 20 January 2015. London: The Institute for Government. Available from http://www.instituteforgoernment.org.uk/blog/laws-effective-coalitions [Accessed 11 January 2018].

Kotecha, R. (2015) Coalition government: is it better to work together? [blog]. 6 January 2015. Available from: http://www.oxbridgeapplications.com/blog/coalition-government-better-work-together/ [Accessed 11 January 2018].

Lijphart, A. (1999) Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press.

NatCen (2015). How will the UK respond to another coalition government? London: NatCen. Available from http://www.natcen.ac.uk/blog/how-will-the-uk-respond-to-another-coalition-government [Accessed 11 January 2018].

Parliament. House of Commons (2017). UK Election Statistics: 1918-2017. (CBP7529). London: House of Commons Library.

Rae, D. (1967). The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Saward, M. (2003) Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Thomassen. J. (2008) Satisfaction with Democracy: Do Institutions Matter? Electoral Studies, 27(1) 5-18. Available from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2007.11.005

Weale, A. (2007) Democracy, 2nd edition. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

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