Saturday 13 February 2010

Who's Afraid of a Minority Government?

Some things have always filled Tory hearts with dread. One thing is smelly, unruly working class people. Another is a general election resulting in a hung parliament. Where no one party has an overall majority, the party with a plurality of seats must form a coalition with others or attempt to stick it out and hope the parties of opposition don't find common cause. As the organic party of the British ruling class the idea Tories would have to share power with social inferiors political opponents is an anathema.

Political science has a thing or two to say about minority and coalition governments. In Kaare Strom's seminal work,
Minority Government and Majority Rule, he argues political science treats "normal" (i.e. majority) governments as unproblematic expressions of legislative majorities, be it a one party majority or one achieved through a coalition of two or more parties. Strom identifies a further type of coalition - an informal arrangement or 'policy coalition' in which a nominal minority government is supported in office by parties without government portfolio, but are content to support government legislation.

Just as there is an aversion on the part of the Tories (and for that matter, large swathes of Labour) to minority and coalition government, this is reflected in the body of relevant academic writing. They are often located as an outcome of political crisis and deemed not viable in the long term after things have died down. The literature also believed minority governments usually occur when the main parliamentary parties cannot cooperate sufficiently to form a majority government. Often this itself is a result of fractionalisation and conflict within and between the interests political parties represent. A party's receptivity to coalition building is conditioned by the intensity of the conflict raging around its social roots. For instance, the perpetual difficulties of trying to build coalition governments in Northern Ireland, or the recent massive constitutional crisis in Belgium are more than just personality clashes among politicians or wrangles over office holders. Whatever the case, the received wisdom of political science was that minority governments were likely an outcome of “unstable and conflictual political systems, whose party systems may be highly fractionalised. Such cabinets are sub-optimal and unstable solutions, which are resorted to only when all else fails. … minority governments are usually associated with social and political malaise”. (1990, p16).

The problem with the assumption that minority government is a recipe for ineffectual government is the tendency for the to stubbornly recur. In a 1984 study of 20 liberal democracies between 1945 and 1980,
Arend Lijphart found that 67 of 218 governments (30.7%) were minorities. For Strom, rather than being aberrations minority governments are an outcome of cost/benefit behaviours of party leaders working within the constraints of given party systems. He argues that parties (or rather, their leaders) in coalition negotiations pursue certain actions and strategies aimed at securing certain objectives (e.g. portfolios). These potential outcomes are organised into a preference order, and finally a consistent choice of strategies is associated with preferred outcomes. For example, until recently the Greens in Germany viewed the Social Democrats as its preferred coalition partner to pursue its office and policy oriented goals.

In other words, Strom pursues a
rational choice model to explain the formation of minority governments, cutting against the 'breakdown' assumptions of previous attempts to explain them (there are very serious issues with rational choice as a perspective, but Strom maintains that it works for modeling coalition negotiations). To demonstrate, because legislative majorities are unnecessary for government formation, party leaders might purposely not seek a majority, secure in the knowledge that an informal policy coalition will ensure the passing of legislation. Or a minority government could calculate that it's in the party’s long term interests to accept minority status for now, believing future electoral prospects will be enhanced by incumbency.

However, on some occasions 'core' parties (i.e. the major parties of a party system) form minority governments when the cost to them is greater than the apparent benefits, and sometimes even when this cost could be spread if they were in coalition with others. Why? For Strom coalitions contain their own costs, such as conflict between the constituent parts (as anyone who followed Italian politics before Berlusconi will tell you). Tensions with coalition partners could lead to future poor electoral performance; a cost perceived as greater than forming a minority government.

Core parties have assumed the mantle of minority governments in periods of extreme cost, i.e. periods where the party system is in danger of collapse and/or undergoing significant transition. Ultimately by attempting to save the system in this way, the party is taking an entirely rational view of its own long-term survival.

And so if the next election returns a hung parliament, the political system won't collapse. There will be an absence of panic on the streets of Britain. But those who are pinning their bets on meaningful electoral reform on such an outcome could be disappointed. Proportional representation is likely to be the price the LibDems demand for supporting a minority government, whether taking up posts themselves or coming to a policy-based arrangement. Because Labour and the Tories will lose out under a reformed system they may calculate soldiering on without a majority and call a further (snap) election when political fortunes pick up might suit their interests. A minority government in a few months time could preface a historical shift in how Britain does parliamentary politics, or be a short pause before resuming business as usual. Minority governments are not inherently unstable or harbingers of political doom. Their impact, as always, is conditioned by the relationship between parties and the social forces that sustain them.


Unknown said...

Actually, I see the recent conversion to AV by the leadership of Labour as a sign of the willingness to form a coalition to block the Tories.

The other thing that fills Tory hearts with dread is the prospect of a permanent Lib-Lab/etc coalition. What's of interest is how the Liberals have got their fingers burnt in the past - recall Ashdown's position and what resulted.

Lallands Peat Worrier said...

Interesting. Before encountering this post, I was unfamiliar with the political science literature on governments of parliamentary minorities. What is curious - and here I speak context of the Scottish minority government post 2007 - is that the same themes and arguments emanate from the literature onto the 'commonsensical' political stage. On which point, I'm not sure how analytically useful it is to talk about 'how Britain does parliamentary politics'. This is potentially just a useful shorthand for British as opposed to devolved institutions - implying a particularist sort of methodology by which these institutions are best to be understood. On another account, it merely replicates Westminster biases as the 'font of British political authenticity' in a way which seems to me rather unconvincing.

Particularly in the context of minority government, squinting up to how things have gone in Holyrood and the dynamics at work there may be beneficial - not least to provoke reflection on the institutional differences which separate one place from the other.

EFComrade said...

from the experience of the Welsh Assebly Government which has no overall majority. In the immediate period following the election results there were various discussions between the 4 main parties in Wales and for a numer of weeks we had the situation that through various possible alliances all of the parties had the potential to be in the government in some way or another.

Eventually the alliance which came about became known as the One Wales Government a coalition of Labour and Plaid Cymru. This has presented some interesting situations. Both Parties involved blame the bad points on each other whilst trying to claim sole responsibility for anything good.

Nothing new in that really and indeed this government doesn't seem to be any different than the previous in policy but it has added a get out clause for both parties involved

Phil said...

Lallands, when I did my Masters in Political Science in 2004/5, the Strom book on which this post is based was still the mutts as far as this topic is concerned - despite being published way back in 1990, which meant it could not have drawn on devolved institutions.

But you do make an interesting point. Political science has long made the distinction between first and second order elections (i.e. general elections vs by elections, devolved elections, supra national elections, etc.) The assumption Strom makes is that party leaders act rationally to maximise their interests in the context of the party systems they operate in. It would be interesting to learn how much this behaviour is conditioned in devolved systems by the national priorities of parties. I imagine there's plenty of data available now from Scotland and Wales - there will be more from the micro party systems of council chambers too. I also think Germany would be a good place to look as well.

Anonymous said...

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