A hung parliament or a coalition Government? The very terms are as emotive as describing transport funding as investment or subsidy. And, yes – maybe there is a difference between a third party with say 50-60 seats which supports a minority administration, and one with say 120-150 seats which actually takes seats in a coalition cabinet.
But, despite media claims that this is all new constitutional ground, coalition-building is a well-practiced skill in local government. Councillors from different parties negotiate a published common programme, share Cabinet seats and committee chairs and then work together.
As a councillor on Castle Morpeth BC, I was involved in a ‘traffic light’ (red – yellow - green?) coalition, then an all-party alliance and finally the so-called ‘unholy alliance’ – a Lab-Con led coalition. And they worked, the work programme was reviewed annually and CMBC pulled itself out of a big, dark, financial hole.
(It is unfortunate that the members of Northumberland CC have not been able to work together in a similar way. An all-party coalition was really the only hope for that ill-fated monstrosity.)
But ill-judged negative campaigning and a lack of trust between parties is a huge barrier to coalition-building. It too a full year of negotiation to build the CMBC all-party alliance and just one ill-tempered election campaign to destroy it.
And that is the other side of the proportional representation coin: it is very rare under PR to get an outright majority, political parties campaign on ‘shopping list’ manifestoes with one eye on likely political partners. Across Europe, mature PR systems tend to have one or two ‘natural parties of government’ in alliance with different smaller parties which colour but do not dominate the policies of the coalition government. And we are beginning to see that sort of approach in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Assembly.
Curiously, the LibDems – as fierce proponents of PR – do not seem to have grasped the need to modify their campaigning approach to take into account the need for coalition-building. They’ve blown it in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly – and arguably on the Northumberland shire unitary. We can only hope they’ve learned lessons for the next parliament, though the signs are not promising.
On the other hand, the Greens have always done well as junior coalition partners, in Germany, France and Italy. And in the Scottish Parliament and the Greater London Assembly, their constructive opposition has enabled several Green policies to be implemented. And this is how the two-three Green MPs we can expect in the new parliament will behave – and a strong Green national vote will give them that extra clout.
So (political slogan bit) – don’t settle for ‘least worst’ - vote for what you believe in – vote Green!