Timothy Heppell

The General Election of 2010 ushered in a new form of politics with the emergence of the first post-war coalition government. The Cameron-Clegg administration cannot be described as dull. We have witnessed the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum of 2011, the recent vote on Scottish independence and the opening up of the English Question. There has been debate, too, about constituency equalisation and House of Lords Reform. David Cameron has attempted to diffuse the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) by seeking to renegotiate Britain's membership of the European Union and then putting this to a referendum. These discussions about our political system – the rules of the game – have continued against a backdrop of deficit reduction. Implementing austerity and coming out of recession has not resulted in rising living standards for all, and anxieties still exist for many over their economic circumstances.

This has impacted upon support for the coalition parties in opinion polls, but also in local and European elections. The Conservatives have rarely matched their 36.1 per cent vote share from May 2010. The Liberal Democrats have been punished for aligning themselves with the deficit reduction plan of the Conservatives, but most significantly for their broken promise over tuition fees. Labour, however, has not exploited these circumstances to the extent that would have been expected. As the 2014 European Elections demonstrated Ukip have benefited from electoral concerns about immigration and have captured the supposed anti-politics mood.


Multi-party politics

The emergence of a more complex multiparty system ‘reduces the likelihood of one-party governments that dominated British politics between 1945 and 2010. This change reflects the gradual reduction in the combined support of the two ‘main’ parties. Between 1945 and 1970, their combined vote oscillated between 87.5 and 96.8 per cent. This meant that, for example, Labour lost office in 1951 on 48.8 per cent and their successive defeats in 1955 and 1959 were on vote shares of 46.4 and 43.8 per cent respectively. The period since 1974 has seen a gradual erosion of support for the two main parties, with their joint vote hitting 80 per cent only once since (in 1979, at 80.9 per cent). The vote share needed to secure a parliamentary majority shrunk. Thatcher won three elections in a row between 1979 and 1987 (with large parliamentary majorities in 1983 and 1987) on vote shares of 43.9, 42.4 and 42.3 per cent respectively. The New Labour ‘landslides’ of 1997 and 2001 – majorities of 179 and 167 respectively – were won on vote shares of 43.2 and 40.7 per cent, and their 66 majority in 2005 was on a post-war low of 35.2 per cent. The gradual increase in support of the Liberals, the Social Democratic Party-Liberal Alliance and eventually the Liberal Democrats, has occurred simultaneous to increases in support for the Welsh and Scottish nationalists. Their growth, aided by the destabilising impact of Ukip contributed to the combined Conservative-Labour vote hitting a post war low of 65.1 per cent in 2010.

The peculiarities of the first-past-the-post system, however, means that it is possible for Labour to win a parliamentary majority in May even if they secure a low share of the vote. For the Conservatives to win a majority would require them to improve their vote share from 2010, but there has been little polling evidence recently to suggest that this is within their reach. Thus, a hung Parliament remains a possibility. For the two main parties the central decision is whether to seek to govern as a minority, or form a loose arrangement with others, or construct a formal coalition. These questions lead us to ask what the parties may have learnt from the coalition negotiations that took place in May 2010.


May 2010 coalition negotiations

In May 2010, the parliamentary arithmetic boxed the Liberal Democrats in. A coalition with Labour was harder to construct, because their combined representation (258 plus 57) still left them short of a parliamentary majority – i.e. 326. The possibility of forming a strong and stable government was more likely with the Conservatives (306 plus 57). Given the economic environment (and the perilous state of the Eurozone area) the new government was going to implement unpopular economic reforms. For Cameron the option was: minority government; instability and possibly another election, or coalition government and time to implement a long term economic agenda.


The junior coalition partner

Comparative coalition formation literature tells us that there are two central issues that need to be resolved in coalition negotiations: policy and personnel (Laver and Schofield, 1990). In terms of policy, the Liberal Democrats superficially did reasonably well. Over and beyond securing the AV referendum (albeit not their preferred option of proportional representation (PR)), they gained policy concessions in terms of the NHS, schools, pensioners, and a tax cut for the lowest paid. Indeed, approximately three-quarters of the Liberal Democrats manifesto commitments were in the coalition Programme for Government, whereas only two-thirds of Conservative manifesto commitments remained (Hazell and Yong, 2012).

On personnel, the Liberal Democrats were effective negotiators in numeric terms. In coalitions, the larger party does tend to secure slightly fewer ministerial positions than proportionately would allow. The Liberal Democrats had 15.7 per cent of the parliamentary representation of the newly formed coalition, but 19.8 per cent of the ministerial positions.

However, to assert that it was a ‘win-win’ for the Liberal Democrats is questionable. In terms of policy three issues challenge this. First, the Conservative ‘red lines’ – on deficit reduction, defence, immigration and Europe – were protected. Second, any perceived gains that the Liberal Democrats had secured on social policy terms were nullified by the fact that future policy would be subordinated to the need to reduce the deficit. Finally, the Liberal Democrats allowed themselves to be exposed on their most prominent electoral commitment – a pledge not to increase tuition fees.

In terms of personnel, it is portfolio distribution and prestige that matters as much as numbers. Here the Conservatives outmanoeuvred the Liberal Democrats. The five Liberal Democrat Cabinet posts were either peripheral or advantageous to the Conservatives. Offering the Liberal Democrats the Scottish Office was peripheral to Conservative concerns and ironic, given that the Liberal Democrats had previously questioned its need in the post-devolutionary age. It was useful to have a Liberal Democrat minister in the Treasury to share responsibility for the austerity programme. Cuts were therefore presented as being in the national interest, rather than being ideologically driven. Offering the Liberal Democrats Energy and Business served a partisan purpose. It would ensure that it was Liberal Democrat Cabinet ministers (Chris Huhne and Vince Cable respectively) who announced the creation of new nuclear power stations and tuition fees increases, both of which they had opposed in their manifestos months earlier. It was also helpful to the Conservatives to leave Nick Clegg preoccupied with political reform, at a time when economic concerns predominated.

Evidence from coalitions abroad demonstrates that the junior partner needs to acquire ‘ownership’ of distinct policy areas. Ownership equates to visibility and associations with distinct policies, but those policies (unlike tuition fees) need to aid the junior partner in electoral terms. The Liberal Democrats might wish, therefore, to reflect on the merits of depth rather the breadth. Having secured 23 ministerial positions in May 2010, the Liberal Democrats spread themselves thinly across government. The party calculated that having ministers in virtually every department would ensure impact across all aspects of government policy. However, this is difficult to demonstrate to the electorate. In retrospect depth rather than breadth, may have been a better option – position ministers in a small number of departments where they can make a clearer policy impact and sell this to the electorate at the end of the parliamentary term.

This may be necessary in future negotiations, as a reduction in parliamentary representation for the Liberal Democrats, would mean that the larger party will have to offer fewer ministerial positions. In addition, they should consider the idea that the Deputy Prime Minister should be placed within a major government department. If, however, Clegg remains without a major department, the Liberal Democrats should seek to base the office of the Deputy Prime Minister inside the machinery of Number 10, rather than being based in the Cabinet Office (Hazell and Yong, 2012).


Coalition lessons for the largest party

The likelihood of forming a coalition in a hung Parliament, will depend upon which is the largest party in terms of parliamentary representation and vote share. It will also matter how close the largest party is to holding a majority and whether this might compel them to want to form a minority administration. Should the largest party seek to negotiate to form a coalition then the dynamics of this process could be different from May 2010, for a number of reasons.

First, the larger parties should be better prepared for engaging in coalition negotiations than in May 2010. The Labour Party were widely criticised for their limited preparation and attitude to coalition negotiations. Part of that preparation process must involve constructing their manifestos in a manner than provides scope for flexibility, and that would allow them to be implemented within a coalition arrangement.

Second, in coalition negotiations the party leaders matter. The parliamentary arithmetic effectively scuppered any prospect of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in May 2010, but its prospects were also undermined by the Liberal Democrats' lack of faith in Gordon Brown. The perception that the party leaders could establish a working relationship is important. It also creates the uncomfortable situation of coalition negotiations, involving parties attempting to veto a deal, unless the leadership of the other party changes. It is known that relations between Ed Miliband and Clegg have been problematic, most notably over the AV referendum. Labour, however, may have to reconcile themselves to tolerating Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister in order to get into power.

Third, any coalition negotiations need to involve consultation with the parliamentary party and the wider membership. In May 2010 the Conservative leadership simply imposed the coalition agreement upon the party. This created considerable resentment, as the option of governing as a minority was not considered (which was the preference of many Conservatives). Whether they would sanction another coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to stay in power, would be dependent on the policy concessions made and the ministerial posts sacrificed, but the rank-and-file would expect greater consultation. For Labour, the problem is the widespread hostility amongst their activists towards the Liberal Democrats, for having entered a coalition with the Conservatives in the first place. The instincts of many Liberal Democrats would be towards Labour rather than Conservatives, and the damage to their representative base at local level, from sitting in coalition with the Conservatives might intensify that instinctive pull to the centre-left.

Fourth, the larger party needs to show greater sensitivity in terms of their own party management. The Prime Ministerial power of appointment is a weapon of party management. They can use the 100-plus ministerial offices as a way to reward their supporters and neuter their opponents. They can also create balances across the ministerial ranks that are reflective of the balances within the parliamentary party in terms of ideology, age, region and gender. Handing a percentage of these ministerial positions to your coalition partners, stalls the career advancement of many of your own parliamentarians. When their loyalty is tested, many resort to retaliatory parliamentary rebellions. Dissent has been widespread for the Conservatives since 2010 (Cowley and Stuart 2014). Conceding fewer ministerial positions would help. In addition, more thought needs to be given to how to incentivise and reward those disappointed that the number of ministerial positions is lower than when in government alone.

Declining Support for Two Main Parties



Coalition negotiations are conducted in highly pressurised circumstances. Negotiators are exhausted in the aftermath of campaigning. Despite this, the media demands a speedy resolution. Matters are complicated further by party pressures to concede as little as necessary and for consultation with wider membership.

The novelty factor of May 2010 no longer applies. The parties should be better prepared than last time. As the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats appeared to have negotiated effectively in terms of policy and personnel, but the experience of coalition left them marginalised in terms of prestige ministerial posts and without ownership of policy areas that distinguished them to aid electioneering. If Labour is the largest party it should note the damage done to Cameron from the lack of consultation with his own party, and the implications in terms of party cohesion from policy concessions and fewer ministerial rewards for your own parliamentarians.

This analysis rests on the assumption that the Liberal Democrats will hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament. But as we approach the 2015 General Election, the range of potential governing options seem greater than ever before. Either a Labour or Conservative majority government looks unlikely. Will either Labour or Conservatives wish to govern as minority administrations or agree to confidence and supply arrangements with another party? Moreover, the Liberal Democrats may not be the only coalition option, even if for Labour a coalition with the Scottish National Party might be unpalatable. Seats in Northern Ireland will only be relevant if one of the two main parties is very close to a majority. Complexities are added by smaller parties outlining who they will not go into coalition with. For example, Plaid Cymru and the SNP (as well as the Greens) will not enter a coalition with the Conservatives under any circumstances, and the Greens seem only interested in a confidence and supply arrangement with Labour.

Such is the toxicity of Ukip to the mainstream parties, a coalition with them seems improbable, even though there has been speculation of a three-way coalition between the Conservatives, the Democratic Unionists and Ukip. The increasingly fragmented nature of party competition has even led to outlandish talk of a grand coalition between Labour and Conservatives. However, such is the tribalism of British party politics that there are innumerable obstacles to this occurring. Nonetheless, as the General Election approaches, the question is not whether Conservative or Labour will win as has been the case since 1945. Rather, speculation is on vote shares; parliamentary representation, and scenarios around minority government; confidence and supply arrangements; or numerous two party and multi-party coalitions. One thing is certain: Britain has truly entered the age of multiparty politics.



  • Cowley, P and Stuart, M. (2014) The Four Year Itch: Dissension amongst the Coalition's Parliamentary Parties, 2013–2014 (University of Nottingham).
  • Ford, R. and Goodwin, M. (2014) Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (London: Routledge).
  • Hazell, R. and Yong, B. (2012) The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Lib Dem Government Works (London: Hart).
  • Laver, M. and Schofield, N. (1990) Multiparty Government: The Politics of Coalition in Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press).