If you were to judge British public opinion from newspaper headlines, you would assume we were terrified of the idea of political parties working together. The horror stories of smaller parties ‘holding the country to ransom’ suggest an electorate fearful of multi-party politics and utterly committed to the old model of single-party majority rule.
But this ignores an inconvenient truth – Britons actually quite like the idea of parties working together. A recent ComRes poll of voters in the 40 most marginal Conservative-Labour constituencies – in other words, where you would expect two-party competition to be fiercest – found 78% think “the Opposition should work with the government on issues they agree on”, while 54% believe “parliament works best when no party is too dominant so that cross-party agreement is needed to pass laws” (against just 28% who thought the opposite). These are not the attitudes of an electorate yearning for the comfort of one-party rule.
This contrasts with other polls which suggest people don’t like coalition. But perhaps that’s because we don’t have enough experience of what power-sharing is like, at least at the Westminster level.
That’s why the Electoral Reform Society, in its recent report Working Together, asked senior politicians from the UK and overseas to give their advice on how to make power-sharing work. And a key lesson from the report is that there are a multitude of different ways to do it.
For instance, as former New Zealand Labour minister (and ERS Deputy CEO) Darren Hughes points out, you can have all sorts of mechanisms for involving smaller parties in minority or confidence-and-supply arrangements. A recent feature of power-sharing agreements in New Zealand is “the appointment of ministers from support parties who do not become members of the government but are bound by Cabinet collective responsibility for the portfolios they held”. It is innovations such as this which make power-sharing seem less scary and more possible.
As former Lib Dem MP and special adviser Julia Goldsworthy notes, “more change and adaptation will be necessary” after the coming election, to reflect the changed political circumstances and different parliamentary arithmetic. But we don’t even have to look overseas to find inspiration – we have a wealth of experience of power-sharing in the devolved institutions and local government.
In fact, the UK has seen every conceivable form of power-sharing from full coalition to minority government via confidence-and-supply and minority coalition. You just have to read our report to realise that’s the case.
So, when it comes to sharing power, what is there to be afraid of?
Read more about Working Together here
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Image: Robert Clemens