Comment: Time to work together

By Katie Ghose

The result of the 2010 election was meant to be an anomaly. Britain, it was said, could not adapt to hung parliaments or coalition government and would soon revert to type. But as we near May, it looks like we'd better start getting used to a different way of doing politics.

Our party system is fragmenting. Labour and the Conservatives look set to get less than 70% of the vote this May, a figure which has been declining at every election since 1992. It's a story that mirrors Canada, where three of last four elections have produced minority governments under First Past the Post.

So whoever leads the next government this May will almost certainly have to work with other parties – whether that's the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, UKIP, the DUP or others. But the two big parties, clinging to the increasingly outdated notion of single-party government, seem reluctant to admit that fact.

A new report from the Electoral Reform Society, Working Together, shows how that reluctance is misplaced. There's nothing to be scared of when it comes to sharing power.

The report is a collection of reflections from senior politicians in the UK and overseas with experience of coalition or minority government. It confronts the common misconception that all of this is new to the UK. In fact we have a wealth of knowledge on power-sharing from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, from local government and now even from Westminster. And there are also lessons to be learnt from abroad, where coalitions and minority government are the norm.

If we had to distil all of that knowledge and experience into five key lessons, they would be as follows:

  1. For coalition to work, there needs to be a common sense of purpose – clear aims and a united vision for what the parties want to achieve together.
  2. It takes time to negotiate. Deciding how to govern a country is not something that should be rushed. And sometimes, the longer it takes, the better the outcomes.
  3. Parties need to sign off on any power-sharing arrangement if it is going to achieve legitimacy. This can take the form of special conferences or other means of gaining party members' assent.
  4. Power-sharing comes in numerous forms. Each nation can develop models of coalition or minority government which fit with their own political culture.
  5. Coalitions aren't easy. They need constant dialogue, good personal relationships between protagonists and mechanisms for resolving disputes if they are going to work.

With these lessons in mind, power-sharing arrangements can produce effective and stable government.

But in Britain, there's a catch. Under our current electoral system, those negotiating coalition or minority government are standing on shaky ground. When it comes to sharing power, the parliamentary arithmetic is key – and yet under First Past the Post that arithmetic will bear little relation to voters' wishes. A more proportional system would put negotiators in a much stronger position, with a clear mandate from voters to enter into discussions with other parties.

And it's clear that people want to see parties working together. In a recent ERS-commissioned ComRes poll of top Tory-Labour marginals (ie where the traditional two-party battle ought to be fiercest), we found that 78% believe the opposition should work with the government on issues they agree on (against just nine per cent who support the opposite), 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 support the opposite). People are crying out for a more co-operative politics, more open government, and less of the toxic hostility of the 'yah-boo' Commons culture.

The future of UK politics is in working together – it's not such a complex idea. Politicians preparing to go into the negotiating room in May would do well to listen to the experiences and insights of those who have made power-sharing work.

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.