What Simon Hughes said about coalition politics in 2008

by Stephen Tall on July 2, 2010

In 2008 – when the general assumption was that the Tories would win an overall majority – the Hansard Society published a collection of essays on the impact of a balanced parliament on British politics, titled No Overall Control.

One of its contributors was Simon Hughes, then the Lib Dems’ shadow leader of the House, now our deputy leader. So how does what Simon said over two years ago about a hypothetical future measure up to what’s happening in the current reality?

Pretty well in most respects is the answer. While arguing that a balanced parliament was a less-than-likely eventuality, Simon noted that, when it did happen, it would prove “fascinating and interesting and stimulating”; if anything that’s an understatement as a characterisation of the last two months in British politics.

And Simon was an unapologetic advocate of coalition politics as the best way to reflect popular opinion:

A balanced parliament would be desirable because immediately from the election the largest party would understand that it could only govern if it wins and holds wider support across the Commons. At last, the breadth of public opinion, which had shown no party majority support among the electorate, would have to be reflected in the House of Commons. … As a welcome by-product, many more voters would feel that their votes were actually influencing the policies that government could successfully pursue in Parliament, and even more voters would realise how every vote counted in bringing about the election result and the policies that follow.

That final point – that some 60% of the population are now seeing at least some of the policies advocated by the party they supported being enacted in government – may well help explain the currently very positive approval ratings for the coalition (+41% according to YouGov’s post-budget poll).

Simon also notes an important point for the health of Parliament as a legislative body, with political balance on select committees and public bill committees: “debates and decisions in these places would better reflect the political balance of public opinion”.

On one element, though, Simon’s prediction has come partly unstuck:

Speaking for myself and my party I can envisage no circumstances in which Liberal Democrats, after the next general election, would contemplate or do a deal with either of the other parties without their commitment to introduce and vote for legislation which would lead to a politically proportional parliament.

In reality the Lib Dems ended up with the promise only of the alternative vote, a non-proportional system, and with the Tories free to campaign against even this measure of electoral reform. But then the party lost MPs, putting us in a weaker position to take a stand with the Tories than might have been the case if we had emerged with c.80 MPs as many of us hoped.

Simon also considered a wildcard: that coalition politics would, literally, re-shape the Commons: “A balanced parliament might give real impetus to the debate about redesigning our parliamentary chamber, so that the Commons catches up with most parliamentary chambers of the world and has a semi-circular debating chamber, rather than a rectangular one”. The expense involved in such a move might have been considered pre-credit crunch. It’s off the agenda in these straitened times.

But perhaps it’s Simon’s final point which gives the biggest clue to his enthusiasm for the coalition, and indeed for the pivotal role he’s taken on as deputy leader of the parliamentary party:

… it is probably much easier for individual parliamentarians and parties within Parliament to be influential when no one party can presume it always gets its own way. Some of the greatest periods of radical politics and political momentum have occurred in a context like this. It is a great opportunity and not a threat.

Iconoclastic individuals driving radical politics: it’s pretty clear what could have attracted Simon Hughes to a balanced parliament.