Machiavelli on Our Mind

Machiavelli on Our Mind

Brian Brivati: Coalition Building in the UK

There are many paradoxes in the current situation in the UK. And there is much crap being talked continually on 24 hour news. Combined they produce a sense of artificial crisis because of the great unknown political landscape the British think they see. But actually we have been here before. Indeed we are usually here and we just do not see it.

Three out of the four nations of the United Kingdom are government by coalitions. Many local councils are run by coalitions; as were the national government for much of the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s and 70s. The early 1980s saw the operation of a three part system. These periods of multiparty democracy ended when third party positions were absorbed into the two major parties. Both these major parties are coalitions of ideas and of interests. Keeping these parties together is an exercise in running coalitions. What was the John Major government if not a coalition of widely disparate groups held together by deal making and trade offs?

Democratic politics under any political system is about coalition building and coalition running. What people are really defending are the purities of party brands and the operation of party discipline through the whips office. Moreover the overwhelming contradictions of the existing electoral system, for all of its strengths, have been made clear in this result. A presidential campaign, with debates and centrally run campaigns focused on the personality and hair style of three male leaders, has produced a parliamentary result full of local swings that reflected individual campaigns and in which the composition of parliament and not the image of the leader will determine who gets to form a government. This result was determined by the just 16,000 voters who could have given the Conservatives a majority–a system designed to produce an answer threw up only questions. Our ancient constitution bites back and through the television feeds.

Let us assume then that we could form a coalition in this country. The question then is which one? For the Labour Party, the answer is actually finely balanced. The principled case against joining a coalition has been well made by John Reid and others. But there is also a self-interested case against. If Labour goes into this coalition, it will massively mobilize the Conservative Party, and if the next election is fought on AV or indeed if there is a referendum on PR, they would be lost. There would then be a majority Conservative government and both Labour and the Liberals would be punished. This might be exactly how this all pans out.

The trouble is there are just too many variables to base the decision on Mandelson-style rational calculations of self interest. We need to approach this with rather more than Machiavelli on our mind. Everyone is opportunistic at this moment: let us have opportunism with a purpose. Instead of opposition and an uncertain future, we have the chance to delay the deflation until later in the economic cycle. On balance I believe this to be the right choice, but it is a tough one, and as we all know most economists contradict themselves twelve times before breakfast. However my instincts are against cutting early, so we would manage to delay those cuts, though they will need to come. That really leaves political reform. If you believe in the necessity of electoral and constitutional change, then support for the Rainbow coalition?the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Nationalists?is a no-brainer. Nationalists are actually relatively easy to accommodate in this process. And with Sinn Fein out of the House a majority for the Queen?s speech and supply is secured. Following on from this will come a referendum on the electoral system, an elected upper house, and hopefully other elements of constitutional reform. A leadership and a fresh election in the Autumn or Spring next year on a new system to new Houses of Parliament. If the Tories win then the cuts will come but hopefully at the right time in the cycle and without damaging the recovery. The alternative will mean early cuts and the introduction of an electoral system scarcely different from the current one and little further political reform, despite the good intentions contained in the Conservative manifesto. The progressive agenda is best served by a rainbow coalition now.

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