Does England Love Coalitions? Party cooperation in the UK [Party Co-Op Series]

Britain is probably the last country that comes to mind when one thinks of alliances of parties. But, in fact, there have been many examples of co-operation among parties both in the governmental, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary arenas. No academic work has analyzed yet these various examples of cooperation in a comprehensive fashion. The first one will be Alan Wager’s book to be published by Oxford University Press. He discusses his work with Zsolt Enyedi, Party Co-Op Series host and a professor of political science at the Central European University.

Alan Wager works at the UK in a Changing Europe, a research centre based at King’s College London. 

Zsolt Enyedi: You start the book with a quote from Disraeli, the British PM, according to which ‘England does not love coalitions’, and then you point out that Disraeli himself was involved in cross-party deals, and that pre-electoral coalitions are in fact common in majoritarian systems. To what extent can we speak about a tradition of party cooperation in the UK?

Alan Wager: We can speak about a tradition according to which these forms of cooperation are antithetical to the culture of British politics. They happen more often than many people would suppose, but each time when they happen political actors are operating under the expectation that they will be electorally damaging for parties, that they go against the culture of British politics and that they will be perceived by the organization of the parties as being highly problematic. Yet, as you say, actually UK politics produces political contexts and electoral contests where these forms of cooperation appear more often than many people would presuppose. My book, for example, has seven instances since 1945 when different types of pre-electoral or post electoral cooperation have been tried, and in some cases have actually happened. But cooperation runs counter to the norms built into the Westminster model of British politics.

Given that the culture of politics is against cooperation, what does that mean, in practical terms when it is tried?

Sometimes major parties, especially the Labour Party, but also the Conservative Party under Winston Churchill, Edward Heath, and, most recently, under David Cameron, consider necessary to form a coalition or an inter-party agreement. This has been primarily with the Liberal Party and its descendants, but sometimes with some other actor, for example in 2019 with the Nigel Farage-led Brexit Party. But they try to minimize the institutional damage that these pact cause to the two-party system, downplaying the degree of disruption and sell these attempts to cooperate as sui generis deals in the national interest.

On the other hand, the smaller parties often see such forms of cooperation as their opportunity to break the system of party politics. When cooperation is tried between parties the issue of the electoral system recurs almost always because smaller parties see in the cooperation a brief foothold to change the electoral system and the majoritarian rules that lock them out of office at Westminster. So, you have a set of recurrent policy themes and a recurrent difference between larger and smaller parties. And there is the recurrent fear that voters don’t like decisions made in smoked-filled rooms, don’t like to be stitched up, with their preferences assumed.

There’s this idea in British politics that there must be a direct link between the fate of the Prime Minister and the expressed opinion of the electorate, and that the instances of cooperation cloud this direct link and run counter to the ways in which Westminster politics is perceived to work

 – even if, in practice, that’s not really how it works. So, there are cross cutting elements of the culture of British politics and these tensions come to the surface when the idea of cooperation rears its head.

The war cabinets probably don’t need much explanation but Ramsey McDonald’s national government, the Liberal Conservative cooperation attempted by Winston Churchill, the Social Democratic—Liberal Alliance or the 2010 Conservative—Liberal Democrat government deserve scrutiny. What were the incentives for cooperation, what were the hurdles they had to overcome and to what extent can these examples be considered to be successful?

The first major example of cooperation, the Lib—Lab pact of 1906, appeared to be extremely successful because it brought for the Liberal Party a majority over the Conservatives in the House of Commons, for the first time in 25 years. But it also allowed Labour to gain representation in the House of Commons, and Labour ultimately subsumed the Liberal Party, causing the realignment of British politics, the collapse of the Liberal Party and the rise of the Labour Party. So, from a long term perspective, for the Liberals this was a classic example of agency failure, short-term gains for very real long-term pain. Interestingly, it was also an example of a secret pacts, it wasn’t really acknowledged explicitly, which speaks to the image that pacts necessarily exist in a black box of decision-making, outside of what the public can see.

Then we had a period where actually coalition governments were predominant. In the inter-war period coalitions happened regularly. But then you reach the postwar period, after an entire decade without elections. The Liberal Party, which won nearly 400 seats in 1906, wins just 12 in 1945. So it completely collapses. And Winston Churchill sees the possibility to reorientate the party system around a Socialist versus anti-Socialist divide. He sees the modernizing centrist influence of the Liberal Party as something that can benefit the Conservative Party after the dramatic loss of the 1945 election, which produced a Labour landslide.

Much of the period when Winston Churchill is Leader of the Opposition after the war he spends trying to annex, if you like, the Liberal Party. He forms local liberal-conservative associations, for example. This was a rather successful attempt by Churchill to reshape the party system, using the Liberal Party as a strategic device.

Then you have a period of post war consensus that lasts for two decades when sometimes 97% of the electorate vote goes to the two main parties. Smaller parties, including the Liberal Party, are effectively on life support. But then you reach the 1970s, the increased pluralism in British politics and the partial collapse of that two-party system in 1974, when the Liberal Party received 19% of the vote. Under the conditions of a hung Parliament Edward Heath tries to make a deal with Jeremy Thorpe. The parliamentary dynamics following the rise of a competitive third allowed Jeremy Thorpe to initiate talks on electoral reform. But Ted Heath refused this initiative because he couldn’t get it through his party, and as a result he had to leave office.

Then you have the Lib-Lab pact, where Labour leans on the Liberal Party to stay in office in 1977. Then you have the Thatcher-era when the left is in political turmoil. The 1980s bring another attempt at the realignment of British party politics, the most significant one until the Brexit era, with the rise of the SDP, who form an agreement with the Liberal Party. The two parties were very similar in ideological terms, and there was much debate at the time whether they should combine or whether one should subsume the other. Ultimately the electoral system locked out the Liberal–Social Democratic Alliance, but they had shared policy ideas, a shared candidate list, and dividing up the UK’s constituencies in an electoral pact. Many in these parties tried to sell the deal by emphasizing cooperation itself as a new, more virtuous approach to politics.

Ultimately this led to a merger, and the Liberal Democrats. For many years they struggled in the polls, then Paddy Ashdown revitalizes the party by forming a sort of entente, if you like, with Tony Blair. The strategy of New Labour to win office was through cooperation with the Liberal Democratic Party. I’ve spoken to senior people in the New Labour party, and they confirmed that they were very close to create a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 1997. But the large size and scale of the victory of Tony Blair made the governmental coalition unnecessary.

Then you get Labour government for 13 years only broken up by the coalition of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. This was a moment of coalition politics meeting the Westminster model.

Nick Clegg tried to change the party system by creating this coalition, but the referendum on changing the voting system failed, and a whole raft of constitutional reforms ultimately failed or have not survived.

So, this was a quite a long list of different forms of cooperation in British politics. The inherent assumption is that we have a two-party system where one party wins and the other party doesn’t. But the party system fluctuates and when it becomes more volatile these instances of inter-party politics emerge.

Some would assume that in first-past-the-post system, you don’t need alliances by definition. Could you comment on the role of electoral system in helping or hindering alliances and perhaps going even further, about the institutional incentive structure in the UK as a factor in shaping party cooperation.

There’s been some work by Sona Golder according to which pre-electoral coalitions are incentivized in majoritarian systems. In the UK first-past-the-post constituencies the electoral geography also encourages electoral pacts. Crudely speaking, principally in parts of the North of England that voted Brexit and have a Labour lineage the Liberal Democrats have no chance of winning as a progressive party, while in parts of the South and the suburbs around London, the Liberal Democrats are the best placed party in electoral geography terms. The socially liberal and economically centrist or center right voters there are less likely to vote for Labour.

In rational terms, there is a very clear case for cooperation between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrat party. There’s only one or two constituencies in England where the two parties are in direct competition. But cooperation is difficult in practice because you need highly centralized parties, you need to be able to stop splinters who would run against the party in individual places. In practice you end up having more informal forms of co-operation. One is signaling to the voters in individual constituencies that one party isn’t really competing, the other one is making voters aware that the parties, in this case the Liberal Democrats, Labour and, potentially, the Green Party are willing to form a coalition after the election. Just like a hundred years ago with the Labour – Liberal Democrat alliance, the cooperation is not explicit. You may even have “paper candidates” running against each other, but in parallel there is signaling to demonstrate that the two parties will work together.

How the signaling happens in practice? You put less money into those districts? Do you field a weaker candidate? Do you openly speak about the possibility of future governmental cooperation? Basically: how do you tell your voters to vote for the other party’s candidate?

Yes, you need to tell people to vote for the other party’s candidate without explicitly saying it. In some by-elections we see that, for example, is the Labour Party leader does not visit the district but the Liberal Democrat leader does. You may have some outriders in the local, and indeed, in the national media, that are able to say that the Labour voters should or shouldn’t vote for the Labour Party. People that aren’t members of the shadow cabinet, or aren’t members of the front bench, for example, are able to make those sorts of more informal interventions. And you may indeed have less money spent in that constituency. Those are the ways in which you do the signaling. One can also get the signals from places like The Guardian. This is far from perfect system, it comes with plenty of potential costs, it isn’t the cleanest way of doing it, but politicians think that more explicit cooperation would come with electoral costs that are just too high.

You have already touched upon the recent configuration of British politics. The Brexit referendum and then the 2019 December election played a big role in reshaping the British party system. How did party cooperation unfolded on the Remain and on the Leave side?

In this case you have a very clear instance of rational cooperation and of irrational cooperation. The Conservative Party was able to attract three quarters of Leave voters and essentially unite the Leave vote. The Labour Party attracted less than half of Remain voters despite having a pro-referendum position. Originally there was an intensive cooperation to stop a no-deal Brexit from happening, but this legislative cooperation ultimately unraveled, and the pro-Remain parties also failed to form a deal at the election. The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party formed some alliances but without Labour they were largely peripheral.

In 2019 Labour and the remain vote did not unite, leading to an 80 seat majority for the Conservatives, despite the fact that the majority of voters at that time did not want to leave the European Union.

On the other side you had the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, and the Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson, that were able to unite their vote. So, in every seat that was held by the Conservative Party, the Brexit Party stood down. Many of these districts had a Remain majority, but because the Remain fragmented, the Conservatives were able to hold on to their seats. This is why we ended up with the form of Brexit that we have.

The fate of the current government depends to a large extent on whether Labour and the Liberal Democrats manage to unite forces in one way or another. What are the strategic considerations on both sides and what kind of arrangement they may arrive at?

Kier Starmer and the Labour Party appear to have made a clear strategic decision to target constituencies that they lost as a result Brexit. These constituencies are principally, but not exclusively, in the North of England. And therefore, in terms of political messaging and political communication, an agreement with the Liberal Democratic Party isn’t necessarily that beneficial for them. For the Liberal Democrat Party there is a clear rational incentive to cooperate because they have chance for an extra 20 or 30 constituencies in affluent, pro-Remain districts. The Liberal Democrat resurgence in the south could also decrease the electoral mountain that Starmer has to climb. These are the sort of strategic discussions that both parties are having. There are important organizational, intra-party questions to solve. In the Labour Party there is an interesting phenomenon. For much of the 20th and 21st century, many in the Labour Party were opposed to electoral reform. But now many trade unions, many left wing organizations affiliated with Jeremy Corbyn and also many moderate members of the Labour Party who see themselves as part of a social democratic centrist tradition are in favor of electoral reforms. This means that one of the main organizational and institutional hurdles to cooperation is potentially gone away in the Labour Party, which makes it more likely that we ended up with some deal between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats after the next election.

Ultimately this is a question of parliamentary arithmetic. Kier Starmer would need to win back from the Conservative Party over 100 constituencies out of the 650 that are available for a majority. That’s a huge challenge for one single party. In order to achieve this in one electoral cycle, one is likely to need some form of inter party politics, that’s why we we’ve already begun to hear about it.

To what extent do you have party alliances that operate at regional or local levels? Are those alliances different in their composition than at the national level? Is there some role to be played by minor parties like the Greens?

Yes, you have plenty of examples of cooperation at the level of local and devolved parliaments, both within England but I suppose most clearly, within the Welsh Senedd where you have seen Liberal Democrat–Labour cooperation, and in Scotland where you have the SNP-Green governing alliance, as well as across a string of local councils with England where you have cooperation in various forms between – principally but not exclusively – the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. But what’s interesting, is that we have now had these devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales for over two decades and we’ve seen Liberal Democrat — Labour governments forming in Wales, for example, for a long time and coalitions in Scotland following devolution. But they don’t really seem to have a cultural impact on how we think about coalitions at the national level. The Westminster model implies adversarial relations in the House of Commons, and the centralized nature of British politics makes political actors at national level divorced from the devolved level.

There is no major change in the culture of cooperation happening ‘from below’, or being influenced by what is happening in Scotland and Wales.

Do parties try to influence what is happening in the other party within these alliances? Are there examples where issues that are normally dealt with only by intra-party actors are suddenly influenced by external actors?

Yes, for example David Steel, who was a Liberal leader during the 1970s and 1980s, made a specific effort to destabilize the Labour Party and to encourage splinters among the Social Democrats in the Labour Party by making the case for cooperation. There was also talk within the Conservative Party that the continuation of the Liberal-Conservative coalition could ultimately break the Liberal Democrat party into an economically right-wing faction that would become part of the Conservative Party, and another smaller rump. This is indeed a way in which parties try to use cooperation to their advantage.

Party cooperation happens in various arenas. To what extent is the electoral process itself shaped by the supportive interactions among parties? Are there examples of know-how being passed from one party to another or concerted efforts of activists to get out the vote together? Is this kind of organizational cooperation part and parcel of British political life, or is it rather exceptional?

I wouldn’t say it’s part and parcel, but there are clear examples of it. The one most talked about is the dynamic between New Labour Party and Paddy Ashdown’s Liberal Democrat Party. By 1997 the Conservatives had been in power for 18 years, and the Liberal Democratic Party made a very clear case that they were no longer equidistant between both main parties, they were more in favor of a coalition with the Labour Party. There was no formal agreement but there were daily meetings between these parties, an agreed set of constituencies that they put out in newspapers, setting out where tactical voting would be most beneficial, some shared analysis of the electoral situation, discussions about where party leaders should go, and some coordination over messaging. These were the ways in which in 1997 tactical voting was encouraged. That was the clearest example of national level coordination.

To what extent do the party leaders have to worry about backlash from the voters, from affiliate organizations or from associated media if they decide to cooperate with a party that has a different tradition?

There’s a very clear and pervasive sense that coalitions and pre-electoral alliances aren’t trusted by the electorate. They are supposed to disrupt the ability of voters to choose a single party government, to switch between the incumbent to the new prime minister within hours without any coalition negotiations. These are seen as intrinsic parts of the hidden wiring of British system. And that’s why parties are often of the view that any sort of explicit co-operation will be seen to game the system, denying the voters a choice at the ballot box, and that they are likely to be punished. That’s why, for example, the term of the Parliament was fixed to five years in 2010. It was driven by the fear of a backlash against the coalition. This is how the elites thinks about this issue. That phrase that we started with, that England does not love coalitions, is one that every MP knows and can recite. But in fact the survey evidence behind this attitude isn’t necessarily there.

My very last question is what will be the title of your book and when it is likely to be published?

I’m due to finish it in July. So hopefully it should be out in time for the next election and in time for the next attempt at coalition in British party politics. It’s called Cross Party Politics in Post-War Britain.

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