Coalition politics: why the public is the winner

by Stephen Tall on May 11, 2010

Amid all the chatter and speculation in the last few days, one point has been repeatedly uttered by those in the Labour and Tory parties opposed to electoral reform: that the fact that politicians have spent the past few days talking to each other to work out where they agree will mean the public will never vote for a proportional system which is likely to lead to regular coalition government.

I’m not too sure where they draw their conclusion from – most non-political friends I’ve talked to have been quite enjoying the spectacle, finding it all quite fascinating.

Now that might be mere novelty value. But I think it’s also because the public appreciates seeing their politicians having to work hard and seriously to draw up a programme for government.

(It might also, I concede, be because they’re amused by politicians looking confused and uncertain, rather than projecting mythical confidence that they know best always).

It looks like today will be the day when we find out what will actually happen to the government of this country. Until then, all those of us who aren’t directly involved can do is watch and wait.

But I’ll hazard a guess that some form of agreement will be reached, most likely between the Lib Dems and Conservatives (whether full coalition or ’supply and confidence plus’). And what we’ll find if that does happen is that the programme for government drawn up will be a compromise, one which will test the loyalty of the Lib Dems’ and Tories’ respective party members. Policies to which we are wedded will have failed to make the cut. Policies to which we are opposed will be part of the deal. It could all get quite messy. Or people might just recognise that the art of politics is compromise, and never more so than when no one party has a majority.

But I’ll also hazard a second guess: that for every party member (whether Lib Dem or Tory or potentially Labour) who looks at the deal and says, “I just can’t stomach that“, there will be a member of the public looking at it and thinking, “That looks sort of sensible”.

And that’s the point of consensual politics. Many of the hobby horses of political parties which are not mainstream, and do not command majority public support, are jettisoned. Instead politicians learn to focus on those policy areas which they know the public will like, and on which there’s widespread agreement. Parties hate it – they like to be in control – but the public is the winner.