United Kingdom warms up to India-style era of coalition governments

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Apr 19, 2015 01:34 IST

Anybody following India’s many coalition governments since the mid-1990s will find the situation in Britain before the May 7 poll familiar. After David Cameron led the first coalition government since 1945 from 2010 to 2015, the country seems set for another.

After decades of a stable two-party system, Britain has clearly entered into a multi-party system even though politics continues to revolve around the two poles: Conservative and Labour, but neither is in a position to win a clear majority.

The discourse of coalitions is well developed in India: terms such as ‘common minimum programme’, ‘steering committee’, and ‘convenor’ are widely known, so are abbreviations such as UF, UPA and NDA.

But in Britain, after five years of relative stability since 2010, many are yet to be comfortable with the idea of a coalition, particularly due to the uncertainty spawned by the emergence of what are called ‘insurgent’ parties.

Hitherto bit parties such as UK Independence Party (UKIP), Scottish National Party (SNP) and Green party have burst on the scene, upsetting calculations and sidelining the Liberal Democrats party, which held the balance of power in 2010-2015 with 57 seats, but is now poised to be relegated down the order.

The year 2014 saw profound shifts in British politics. First came the rise of the anti-European Union (EU) UKIP in the European elections, and then the Scottish referendum saw SNP upstaging Labour as the dominant force in Scotland. Pundits now predict SNP winning nearly 40 of the 59 seats in Scotland.

Since the economic crash of 2008, public faith in political leaders has dwindled. This is reflected in opinion polls as a new generation of voters reject traditional parties and opt for those with radical views such as Green and even UKIP.

It has become something of a cliché that the 2015 election is “the most unpredictable ever”. It is impossible to say who will be the next prime minister, but it will be one of the two contenders: David Cameron or Ed Miliband, though it is not clear which smaller parties will help one of them enter 10 Downing Street on the basis of what demands.

Opinion polls continue to reinforce the prevailing thick fog of uncertainty: Conservative and Labour account for little more than 65 per cent of the voting public. But the contours of possible post-poll axes — even if not formal coalitions — are emerging from recent US-style television debates.

The smaller parties have laid out their stalls. For the record, both Cameron and Miliband claim they are working to win a majority, but parties such as SNP, Green and Plaid Cymru are increasingly gravitating towards Labour “to kick Cameron out”.

Given serious misgivings in England over the Scottish “tail wagging the English dog”, Labour has rejected a coalition with the SNP, but is open to accepting support from the party and others from the outside.

Liberal Democrats, hoping to emerge as king-makers again, are happy to enter into a coalition with either Conservatives or Labour. But not many see the party regaining its 2010 position.

On his part, Cameron is loathe to be clubbed with UKIP’s Nigel Farage, but there are common grounds — the most important being the issue of UK’s membership of the EU. UKIP wants Britain to opt out of EU, while Cameron has promised a referendum on the issue in 2017 if in power.

The broad choice is basically between what Green’s Natalie Bennett called the Conservative party’s ‘austerity-heavy’ approach to Labour’s ‘austerity light’ one: both parties agree that public funding cuts will need to be continued during the next parliament to balance the books.

The fact remains that none of the parties have a trump card, and as promises, claims and counter-claims fly in the cut and thrust of campaigning, a key challenge for all parties will be to ensure a decent turnout from an increasingly cynical electorate on May 7.


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