Making coalition government work

Examining how the new coalition government works is vital, as the UK appears to be moving toward a multiparty system, making hung parliaments more likely in the future. These formative years may determine how future coalitions are perceived and governed.

Coalition governments face two major difficulties

  • Instability: coalition governments in Europe are more short lived than single party majority governments.
  • Conflict: half of coalition governments end because of conflict between the governing parties or within them.

In light of these, this project will address two main research questions:

  • How can coalition government remain stable?
  • How can coalition government reconcile unity in government with the need for the parties to project distinct identities?

Interim findings
In the Unit's first year report, it concluded that despite the political strains which have affected the coalition in recent months, it has functioned very well in its first year. Viewed from inside, the ructions which have dominated the headlines have not destroyed the coalition’s effectiveness. The report, Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works, details the first year's findings, which include:

  • The Lib Dems did well in the coalition negotiations, with 75% of their manifesto items going into the coalition agreement compared with 60% of the Conservative manifesto. But in any future coalition, they should focus as much on the division of office as the division of policy. It is through ministerial leadership that coalition partners have visible impact.
  • By going for breadth over depth in their selection of ministerial posts, the Lib Dems risk spreading themselves too thinly. They may have achieved hundreds of small policy wins, but their influence is invisible to the public
  • Cabinet committees deal mainly with interdepartmental issues. Coalition issues are resolved in half a dozen informal forums, and are dealt with before they reach the formal machinery of government.

Methodology
The research team is examining primary and secondary literature about the new coalition, and interview ministers, civil servants and senior party figures. Access to Whitehall interviewees has been authorised by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Sir Gus O’Donnell.

Project details

 

Researcher:

Robert Hazell and Ben Yong, UCL Constitution Unit

Funding programme:

Open door

Grant amount and duration:

£76,487

January - December 2011