Ain’t coalition Grand? No.
Gisela Stuart, by general agreement, is an excellent MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and her achievement in holding this affluent marginal seat in 2010 was astonishing. She has earned loyalty and respect from her constituents, and having beaten them four times in the archetypal West Midlands Tory seat, the fear of her Conservative opponents. But she has shown somewhat interesting political judgement on the bigger issues, including supporting George W Bush in 2004 as well as her latest thoughts about a Grand Coalition that she shared with the Financial Times.
I have heard a number of silly political ideas in my time, and even seen some of them become legislation. But few can equal the idiocy of the suggestion that there should be ‘Grand Coalition’ between the Conservatives and Labour should the next election produce an inconclusive or paradoxical result. Vince Cable, when he raised the possibility, was at least being mischievous with a purpose, because blurring the lines between Tory and Labour helps his own party to assert its relevance. It may also be the heart’s desire of some of the most fanatical adherents of Blairism on the Labour side and the Tory ultra-modernisers, who do see more in common with each other than with the supposedly less enlightened elements that make up the two main parties. But it is ridiculous.
The obstacles are too numerous and obvious to list in full, but among them one can list:
- Basic differences of view on economic strategy, taxation, the NHS, Europe, housing, schools and employment rights for a start. One or two fundamental disagreements can be bridged in a coalition agreement, but there are too many and too wide.
- The parties are themselves broad coalitions. They would split if this manoeuvre were to be attempted, with the right of the Conservatives joining UKIP and a large chunk of the left and centre of Labour either expelling the coalitionists (as happened in 1931) or setting up a new party. The breakaway could possibly be named, after a radical political position barely represented in today’s political spectrum, the Social Democratic Party.
- The insurgent parties which have been gaining support love the rhetorical assertion that ‘LibLabCon’ are all the same, and form a distant, incestuous Westminster elite. It would be the height of stupidity for the main parties to prove them all right in such spectacular fashion. The mere suggestion, made by a maverick backbencher, has been enough to delight the SNP and UKIP, even though it has been contemptuously dismissed by both Labour and the Conservatives.
- Although there are serious things wrong with the British economic and political system, it has not reached the sort of sclerotic or catastrophic state in which it becomes necessary for the mainstream political spectrum to unite to save the country from disaster or existential crisis.
But what if there is a parliament where forming more than an unstable minority government is impossible? What would the government do, if for instance the price demanded by the SNP was too high to enable a confidence and supply agreement? The options would essentially be an immediate second election or to work with the situation for a bit to try to get something constructive out of it.
Rather than fantasising about Grand Coalitions, let us consider things that can be accomplished by a minority government with the support, tacit or active, of the main opposition party. There would be, and should be, no suspension of party hostilities, or abandonment of party positions, but at the legislative level an agenda could be set that would command a majority in a fragmented parliament.
The February 1974 election produced a parliament in which no single minor party added to the Conservative (297) or Labour (301) total would have been sufficient to produce a majority coalition. After a short consideration of the options for bringing Ulster Unionists and Liberals on-side, Heath resigned and Wilson took over at the helm of a minority Labour government, Despite the severe economic circumstances and the unworkable parliamentary situation, the short parliament that sat from March to July 1974 was surprisingly productive. It passed 35 pieces of legislation including a handful of local and private Acts.
The short parliament’s legislation, although broadly consensual, was far from trivial or lowest common denominator. The Consumer Credit Act and the Health and Safety at Work Act both date from this period. 1974’s Housing Act revolutionised the rented sector by reforming and funding Housing Associations. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act created the concept of spent convictions. The Conservatives could have obstructed these and other measures, but chose not to, either because they agreed with the specific proposal or because they did not want to give Wilson the excuse to call a snap election with Labour miles ahead in the polls and able to portray the Tories as obstructionist.
So, if Cameron or Miliband finds himself Prime Minister in a difficult parliament like that of 1974, what legislation might be made possible by consensus or mutual restraint?
- One obvious answer is the Scotland Bill resulting from the Smith Commission and the coalition’s optimistically-titled White Paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An Enduring Settlement.
- All three main parties are committed to the ‘triple lock’ on state pensions, which is currently a matter of policy rather than legislation; enacting it in law would attract general support.
- The ‘Turing Law’ on expunging convictions for now-legal consensual sex between people of the same sex could easily pass a splintered parliament.
- Another possibility might be a reform of vocational education and apprenticeships, something both parties emphasise and where the broad aims are far from incompatible.
- Stronger border enforcement and provision of English language training to equip immigrants for work are also there in both parties’ proposals.
- More controversially, a government could bring forward legislation to deny social security benefits to migrants for a transitional period while they pay in to the National Insurance system, and require young jobseekers to enter training or work after a period. The details and the time periods differ, but the principles are there.
- It may even be possible to pass legislation to make aggressive tax avoidance more difficult.
There is enough here to keep a parliament busy for a session, and no doubt there are other consensual draft Bills knocking around in Whitehall filing cabinets (or their electronic equivalent) that could be passed. But it is not enough to fill a five year fixed term. Perhaps our minority government might replace the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (one of those silly political ideas I mentioned earlier that made it to the statute book), or at least do a deal with the opposition to enable a two-thirds majority for an early dissolution under its terms.