Coalitions: Future of the British Government?

The polls are rolling in, and the United Kingdom election already seems to be quite predictable. The Labour Party and the Conservative Party are neck-and-neck in the polls and no single party will have enough seats to have a majority in the parliament. There is no clear winner; the UK’s next

government will be a coalition government.  

The British form of government is a unitary, parliamentary, constitutional monarchy. It is a unitary state; power resides in the crown in parliament.  It is a monarchy; the queen reigns but does not rule. The Prime Minister is in charge of running the government, and he is the leader of the party with the majority in the House of Commons, the lower house of the Parliament.  The House of Commons is elected in a first-past-the-post system with one Member of Parliament to one constituency. 

The party to win a majority of the seats, 326, then gets to run the government. That party’s leader is the Prime Minister and other important members of the party are in the cabinet.  This system is, in some ways, one-party rule. In the UK, unlike the U.S., political parties actually accomplish what they talk about on the campaign trail. A party can effectively push their entire agenda through the parliament with strict party discipline, while the opposition is unable to do anything about it.  

Both the head of government and the policy of the country for the next five years will be set by the majority party, and so winning this majority in the U.K. parliament is more crucial than a majority in the U.S. congress. In addition, these campaigns generally last a month or two, so this already tense campaigning is pressurized during a small time frame. Right now, we are in the midst of one of these political pressure cookers as May 7 draws nearer. 

Since World War II, 16 out of the 18 governments have been majority governments. The current government, elected in 2010, a coalition between the Conservatives (also known as the Tories) and the Liberal Democrats, has been viewed as an anomaly, a blip on the history of British politics. However, I believe that this is the new normal.

In the upcoming election, most polls predict that Labour and the Tories will each win a significant amount of seats in Parliament, but neither will have a majority. One of the two main parties will have to form a coalition with another party with enough additional seats to add up to at least 326. The parties that have enough support to be a potential coalition ally are the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Liberal Democrats.  

The most likely coalition partner for either party would be the Liberal Democrats, but the real question is with which main party they will choose to side. 

Will they stick with the Tories with whom they are currently in government? Or will they try to see if they can get more of their platform accomplished in coalition with Labour?  

Although the Liberal Democrats are more of a centrist party than either Labour (center left) or the Conservatives (center right) they often lean left as they are socially liberal.  It would be logical then to predict this will cause them to join into coalition with Labour, David Cameron’s worst fear. However, I think that Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, will threaten this so as to negotiate a better position within the existing coalition but will not depart from it.

Either way, whether the Liberal Democrats defect to Labour’s side or they stick with the Tories and the status quo, the U.K. will have a coalition government.  What this pattern of coalition after coalition means for the future of British governance is still to be determined. One thing that is abundantly clear is that whatever else the near future of British governments may hold, these governments will indeed be coalitions.