Thoughts on the British elections and coalition(!) negotiations

Well, a hung parliament it is, and British politicians are getting ready to enter unknown and potentially dangerous territory: coalition negotiations.

The real problem here is not that the party leaders don’t want to negotiate, but that nobody has any idea of how to do it gracefully. The poor things are quite out of their depth and try to hide their uncertainty by proceeding at breakneck speed.

So here’s some advice from a political observer from a country where coalitions and negotiations are not such much the norm but rather the fundamental revealed truth about all things political.

I will also project Dutch constitutional practice on the British situation, because the whole point of that practice is handling situations much, much more complicated than the relatively trivial three-way problem the Brits are so upset about.

But first, a little flashback.

What went wrong?

Exactly what went wrong for the LibDems? It was a classic case of large party contraction. An economically strained climate is not the right time for political experimentation. Better stick with the devil you know. Don’t vote for the smaller parties.

I see it happening here in Holland. The elections polls show voters are moving towards the three big parties, left-wing social-democratic PvdA, centrist christian-democratic CDA, and right-wing liberal VVD. The others, including Wilders, are deflating.

Actually, large party contraction happens all the time in the UK, due to the electoral system. It’s so normal that it isn’t even noticed — until a third party does much better than usual in the polls. And then voters decide to play safe anyway at the last possible moment.

Tory-LibDem negotiations

So parliament is hung, and negotiations have started.

I’m fundamentally sympathetic to the notion that the Tories take the initiative. They’re the largest party, after all — both vote-wise and seat-wise. (That one would go without the other is fundamentally alien and somehow distasteful to my mind.)

So Tory-LibDem negotiations are perfectly appropriate.

It seems that Clegg is well to the right of his base, while Cameron is distinctly to the left of his base. That makes it easier for the two party leaders to strike a deal, and afterwards they can both wield the national interest as a stick to get their base to agree.

This is as it should be. Leaders being more moderate than rank and file is one of the cornerstones of Dutch coalition politics.

Brown is demissionary

As to Brown claiming the negotiation initiative due to him being in office, although it seems to be a correct interpretation of the British constitution it’s not really proper behaviour as far as I’m concerned. He’s just lost an election, after all.

Apparently, the UK lacks the concept of a “demissionary government” — a government that continues to run the country while elections and coalition negotiations take place.

The Balkenende IV government fell in February and new elections were called for June, but Balkenende is still prime minister and still runs daily affairs. The only thing he cannot do is propose “controversial” laws — which, unfortunately, includes major economic initiatives.

This state of affairs will continue to exist until a new government has been formed after careful, proper coalition negotiations — probably somewhere in August or September.

That seems like a long time when the serious economic situation demands quick and efficent action. Still, look at it from the other side. Serious economic issues have to be solved, and the nature of the solution is a classic left-right political issue.

Even better, the voters will shortly speak and return a new parliament to deal with the issues. What’s more natural than parliamentary leaders representing their voters the best they can by solving the issues through negotiation?

Granted, the Dutch system is slow, maybe too slow. But the British system is far, far too hasty. Everybody has to be done right now; no time for deliberation or negotiation.

Timing and the LibDems’ problems

It seems the Tories want a deal to be struck on Sunday, or the City might go jittery on Monday and terribly important financial stuff might start to go down, causing consternation in the ranks of ... well ... the Tories.

Translation: the City is rooting for the Tories and is giving aid and comfort by putting pressure on the other parties.

Point is, you can’t form a coalition in three days. We Dutch commonly reserve three months for this delicate process, and that’s with a century of experience. Although you might argue that three months is rather slow, three days is definitely too fast. These things take time. Especially when they’re unknown and secretly considered somewhat distasteful.

The new government will have to take a lot of impopular decisions about the economy. On the other hand, precedent suggests that a hung parliament leads to new elections pretty soon. Elections, moreover, in which the voters will draw to the big two parties even more than they already did.

So in theory a government that has just taken very impopular decisions must defend itself for new general elections that will disproportionally hurt the LibDems. Which is exactly the party that both Tories and Labour try to woo now.

To make matters worse, the LibDems also hold the key to succesful government — and will be held accountable for any failure to produce it in case new elections are held within the year.

The LibDems must get something worthwhile in return for coalition participation. Electoral reform? Something else? I don’t know, but I do know there’s no way these delicate negotiations can be finished in three days.

The LibDems’ other option would be supporting the Tories (either a minority government or a formal coalition) no matter what so that new elections can be postponed. In other words, becoming the Tories’ most loyal and obedient slave in order to save some seats.

The LibDems are in deep, deep trouble. Trouble you can’t solve in three bloody days.

So the negotiations are going to take a lot longer, or new elections will be held pretty soon, and the LibDems will go down even more.

So Clegg might have to play for time, even if that makes him more impopular. There is no easy way out of this one ... unless the Tories play fair and want a genuine coalition. Precedent suggests this might not be the case.

Labour would do exactly the same, by the way, except that it can’t right now. It’s how the two parties of a two-party system treat the third party.

I don’t think this wouldn’t work in the Netherlands. All voters would immediately see a Tory-LibDem coalition as obvious, and would punish both impartially if the negotiations went wrong. This sort of stuff is part of your job as a politician, so you better measure up.

But that’s under proportional representation, where you can vote for two to four parties without venturing too far outside your political niche. It just doesn’t work that way in a First Past the Post system.

Electoral reform might offer a way out, and the LibDems will certainly demand it. What I plain don’t know, however, is how much the average Brit in the street cares about electoral reform. If the answer is “not bloody much” the Tories will survive saying No.

Proportional election results

What would a proportional election look like?

Just for fun I took the 2005 and 2010 election results and treated them as if they had been held under the Dutch system, with the entire country forming one huge constituency, and with a one-seat electoral threshold.

Party 2005 Change 2010
Conservatives 215 +25 240
Labour 234 -40 194
LibDems 146 +7 153
UKIP 14 +6 20
BNP 4 +8 12
SNP 10 +1 11
Greens 6 0 6
Dem. Unionists 5 -2 3
Sinn Fein 4 -1 3
Plaid Cymru 4 -1 3
Ulster Unionists 3 -1 2
SDLP 3 -1 2
English Democrats - +1 1
Respect 1 -1 0
SSP 1 -1 0

Of course these results are totally un-representative of a true election outcome under some form of proportional representations.

For starters, I don’t think the smaller parties such as UKIP and the Greens participated in many constituencies, so they are underrepresented in the table. In addition, many who now vote strategically would vote for their true party of choice under PR.

I’d say about 50-100 seats over and above what’s shown in the table would move from the three large parties to the smaller ones in case full PR were introduced.

Coalition governments will become the norm. Better start practicing. Lesson 1: take more than three bloody days.


Finally, the BNP. Some British friends have outspoken opinions on them, and would prefer them not to enter parliament, which would inevitably happen under proportional representation.

Point is, you can’t solve this problem by excluding it. Been there, done that, and it just isn’t worth the trouble. If you marginalise Griffin, you’ll end up with a Fortuyn or a Wilders. And I can assure you that Wilders has taken populist nuisancism (is that a word? now it is) to heights that Griffin can only dream of, up to and including the House of Lords.

Better to get it out in the open, debate the issue openly, and know how many people feel that way.

Bigotgate was the classic example of modern social-democratic leadership being in complete state of disconnect with traditional social-democratic voters. We basically saw Brown turning a decent Labour supporter into someone who just might vote BNP-ish next time.

These people aren’t racists, they’re legitimately worried. But you can turn them into racists by ignoring their worries. Ask the Dutch social-democratic leaders about it.

I’ll have to tell you the sad and sordid story of the Dutch extreme right one day. It started just like this: a social-democratic party completely unconcerned with legitimate worries of their traditional electorate, and a decent but misguided wish to keep the bigots out of parliament no matter what. It backfired. Rather dramatically.

Let the BNP get elected, let them have their shout, and let the voters figure out that what they’re proposing is no solution. It takes quite a bit of time, but it works in the long run.

At least, I think it’s starting to work against Wilders at home. His cardinal mistake? He refused to negotiate properly and reached his decision to sulk in an outrageously short time of only two weeks.

Patience is a virtue. I wonder if the Brits learn it this time.

<— Where we stand now | New polls —>

This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.


Comments (closed)

1 Posted by bruce on 8 May 2010 | Permalink

Good write-up!

Small correction: as you've noted, I have no time for the BNP. I would prefer them not to enter parliament because in an ideal world, no-one votes for them.

But as 500,000 do vote for them, they should have some seats. All views should be represented, no matter how inane or revolting I find them.

2 Posted by ppk on 8 May 2010 | Permalink

@bruce: Good. Then we agree on that. It's not exactly fun, but in the long run it's the best solution.

3 Posted by Peter Robinett on 8 May 2010 | Permalink

As always, a very interesting write-up.

For your word search, I think the traditional 'nuisance' will do just fine. =)

4 Posted by John Ruddy on 9 May 2010 | Permalink

Interesting analysis, especially the look at the 2010 election under the dutch system. I think the results you have may flatter the likes of the BNP, as there would likely be several (maybe tens of) regions, and there are soem where the BNP don't do well at all - eg Scotland.

5 Posted by Richard Gadsden on 9 May 2010 | Permalink


Thank you very much for writing this, I've been telling people to calm and and think; nice to see such intelligent agreement.

I got 6,883 votes for myself, and am quietly pleased.

6 Posted by Raphael on 9 May 2010 | Permalink

I think you're the first blogger I've read who's been direct about translating what people mean when they talk about "the markets" doing this or wanting that. Thanks!

I'm kind of confused about one thing, though: In this post, you're fairly supportive of some aspects of the Dutch system and similar systems- like, for instance, leaders who are more moderate than their supporters working out deals that their supporters have to accept- that were criticised quite harshly by the 1966 "Appeal to the Dutch people", but in your political history series, you seem fairly sympathetic to the Appeal. What about that?

7 Posted by ppk on 9 May 2010 | Permalink

I am in favour of some change in the political system, whether that's the British or the Dutch. Besides, I feel the issues are different in the current UK negotiations and the sixties in Holland.

Right now, with a hung parliament, the Dutch system is superior to the British one because it's actually created to help political parties find a proper coalition.

However, that does not mean that the Dutch system is perfect. It's slow, as I already said, and besides there is rarely an obvious coalition that everybody expects the minute the polls close. Instead, there are several options, and it would be a good idea to give voters a way of selecting one of those options.

Still, I don't want Holland to switch to a FPTP system, despite the problems the current system has.

So it's all about context. In the context of a hung parliament the Dutch system is better than the British, but in its own context it's not perfect.

8 Posted by Bernard Naylor on 9 May 2010 | Permalink

I agree very much that the present frantic haste to stitch something up must be grounds for anxiety. I always remember the caution to be sure to distinguish between the urgent and the important. The financial crisis is very urgent and quite important. But remember that in a capitalist market economy, we tend to get one every twenty years or so (c.1930, then 2nd world war and recovery, 1976 and 1992)and experience shows they do get resolved, even in times of political crisis. So we mustn't put the rest of our preoccupations on hold, while we just tackle the latest financial crisis. Our political system, on the other hand, has scarcely changed since the 1920s. So what we have now is a very rare challenge/opportunity , and one that most of us get just once or twice in a lifetime. If we don't seize it now, we may never get another one - and I, being 72, almost certainly won't.

9 Posted by paddy wright on 9 May 2010 | Permalink

This is the best article on the election that I have read in the last three days

10 Posted by William Cullerne Bown on 9 May 2010 | Permalink

V interesting. But note that FPTP creates additional dynamics not in the Dutch system. Eg it is also in Labour's interest to avoid a quick re-run of the election in your scenario of voters cleaving to the main two parties, because the principle effect of that is to give the Conservatives a clear majority (partly because most LibDem seats are mainly contested by Tories).

Like you, I wonder whether in 2010 there is isn't something better than the existing systems of (what we call) PR. Like you, it's the lack of control over the government that emerges that strikes me as the deficit. In Britain, the first PR legislation was drafted and very nearly passed about 100 years ago. Surely we can do better now?

One idea would be to use technology to make some form of exhaustive ballot practical - ie to have several rounds of voting, possibly in as little as one evening.

11 Posted by Kevin Driscoll on 9 May 2010 | Permalink

Excellent article! This has got to be the best one I've read on this election so far. I'm an American so I know NOTHING about coalition governments, and I quickly figured out the Brits don't really either, so hearing the opinion of someone regularly acquainted with these things is informative.

Couple of question. Do you think that if the UK institutes PR they will consider all of the UK one big constituency? Seems to me like the nationalists would fight for having their own constituencies.

Second, something I've noticed, do you consider left-wing to be the liberal (ie communist, socialist) side and the right wing the conservative (fascist, monarchical) side? I spoke with a Dutch citizen not too long ago who referred to them backward from the way we do here in the States.

12 Posted by Richard Gadsden on 10 May 2010 | Permalink

@Kevin (11) in the Netherlands, the main right-wing party is the liberal party (VVD); the main left-wing party is social democratic party (PvDA) and the main center party is a conservative christian party (CDA).

13 Posted by ppk on 10 May 2010 | Permalink

@kevin Socialist is not equal to liberal. In Holland the Liberals are right-wing, and not left.

As to the number of constituencies, that's the question. In general, the less constituencies, the more seats for small parties.

14 Posted by jonathan on 10 May 2010 | Permalink

very good article. thank you very much.

someone has put in on facebook over at Democracy UK


thanks again

15 Posted by Kevin Driscoll on 11 May 2010 | Permalink

@PPK and Richard

Yeah, apparently the usage is quite different here in the states. A quick wikipedia review pointed out that here liberal is synonymous with "modern liberalism" which advocates for the welfare state, a large public sector, etc. Apparently you folks use liberal to mean something akin to what John Locke or Thomas Hobbes might have used it for. Something advocating self-determination and economic freedom.

This difference in usage is pretty confusing. Here in the States Socialism is universally regarded as one form of Liberalism. Economic freedom, on the other hand, is seen as a Conservative, right-wing idea. It seems that on certain issues the two uses are exactly opposed. Here, Liberal means the same thing as left-wing and conservative means the same thing as right-wing.

I don't really know how the difference developed but it has consistently impeded my efforts to understand European politics.

Also, given that a Lab-Lib coalition NEEDS the nationalist votes, I wouldn't be surprised if a PR plan includes separate constituencies for Scotland and Wales.

16 Posted by Raphael on 11 May 2010 | Permalink

Kevin Driscoll, things might be less complicated than you think. You just have to keep in mind that the word "liberal", in continental Europe, means a kind of watered-down libertarianism by North American standards. (The rhetorics of Continental European liberals are often the same as those of libertarians, but actual policies are a lot more moderate.) Oh, and in Britain, the Liberal Democrats are apparently somewhere between the North American and the Continental European meanings of the word "liberal", depending on what wing of the party you look at.

(From some parts of your comment no. 11, I get the impression that you think that in Europe, the terms "left-wing" and "right-wing" mean the *reverse* of what they mean in the USA- that's not so. Sure, mainstream European politics in general is relatively far enough to the left that the actions of many European conservatives can look left-wing to Americans; but when it comes to describing where two people or groups or parties stand relative to each other, "left-wing" and "right-wing" mean mostly the same thing in Europe and the USA.)

17 Posted by Firma Ara on 12 May 2010 | Permalink

I found this article useful in a paper I am writing at university. Hopefully, I get an A+ now!