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The coalition: A problem with legitimacy

Submitted by on 16 Nov 2010 – 16:59

Britain's new Prime Minister David Cameron with the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg walk into Number 10 Downing St, Wednesday May 12, 2010 . Photo By Andrew Parsons

By Professor Stephen Haseler, Professor of Government and Director of the Global Policy Institute, London Metropolitan University

It remains a truism, but worth repeating over and over again: that modern representative government needs a proportionate electoral system that properly reflects the political opinions and values of the people- and that normally a coalition government will result.

The sad fact, though, for the British, is that for all the talk of ‘British democracy’ and ‘the mother of parliaments’ our parliament has rarely been representative. Consider the facts. Since the war not one, not one, of the single-party British governments that have been formed following an election has possessed the support of over 50% of the electorate. Even the two great reforming governments of the post-war era- both securing parliamentary ‘landslides’ and both using these supposed ‘landslides’ to carry through radical changes to the very way we live- fell short of securing majority support.

So, on the face of it, the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is more representative than any of the earlier governments of the post-war era. After all, when added together, the Conservative and Liberal vote in 2010 amounted to 59% of the electorate; and the percentage of Conservative and Liberal MPs in the parliament roughly reflects that figure. Thus, so it is argued, this coalition, no matter its controversial genesis, does at least reflect the peoples will.

But does it? For the awkward question remains: how many voters actually voted for it? How many voters when casting their ballots in the general election believed they were voting for a Conservative-Liberal administration? Did many amongst the millions who voted Tory envisage a coalition with a party that had savaged them in the campaign and stood for radically overhauling the political system? More importantly, did any but a handfull of Lib-Dem voters envisage a coalition with an ultra-orthodox right-wing Chancellor who would go about cutting public expenditure deeply and quickly? Could many have envisaged their ‘left of centre’ party in the aftermath of the bitter election campaign actually strike up a coalition with the party’s historic ideological adversaries? It is difficult to believe. And herein lies the big democratic deficit at the heart of the country’s new coalition venture- a deficit that brings into question the new coalition government’s very democratic legitimacy.

Contrast the making of this Conservative-Lib Dem coalition with the making of the present German coalition elected in September 2009. In the 2009 German federal election, German voters had one great advantage over British voters in 2010: they knew what they were voting for. For in the run up to the election campaign, and in the campaign itself, each party leader had made it abundantly clear which party they would prefer to deal with following the election.

Contrast this with Britain in 2010. The fact is that, unlike their German counter-parts, British voters cast their votes in the dark- without any reasonable knowledge about the likely character of the government that would be formed by the post-election deals. As they cast their votes what information the Lib-Dem voters possessed was pretty meagre. Their leader Nick Clegg had indeed said that, should there be a hung parliament, the party with the ‘most votes, most seats’ would get the ‘first attempt’ at forming a government, but that was very different from stating a preference; and the Lib-Dem leadership went out of its way to refuse to answer questions about preferences.

Yet, all the evidence suggests that for many millions of Lib Dem voters the likelihood, in the event of a hung parliament, was of their party sustaining a Labour government – a development that, irrespective of the small ‘Orange Book’ leadership at the top of the party, flowed naturally from the party’s ‘left of centre’ political culture. So, the decision to back the Conservatives must have come as something of a shock for millions of Lib Dem voters; and, what is more, a shock compounded by the further decision to go beyond simply sustaining a minority Conservative government and, instead, to actually take government jobs for a full five year parliament.

The great danger therefore is that as the economy worsens the new coalition government can increasingly be portrayed as not possessing a firm mandate for action.

This is the problem of legitimacy that is beginning to confront this coalition government- indeed would confront any coalition government formed in this way. And as the severity of the financial crisis increases, with the prospect of mass unemployment returning, then the need for politicians, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of their policies, to secure legitimacy- that is broad public support for the right to take decisions over our lives – becomes even more important. For without it social tensions could quickly spiral out of control.

This coalition government will face real, daunting, economic problems. And it needs to do so on the firm basis of a mandate. So, in my view it is now crucial that the new government moves quickly to re-establish some form of legitimacy behind its controversial economic programme. In my view the best way forward now is for the proposed new electoral system (AV) to be enacted as quickly as possible, and to be followed quickly by a general election under the new system- in which, this time, the party leaders in the campaign should give clear indications of their likely post-election deals. Only then is a real mandate for action properly secured.

Professor Haseler is the author of numerous books, his latest, published this autumn, is MELTDOWN UK: THERE IS ANOTHER WAY