Saturday, May 8, 2010


Negotiations are in full swing in Britain between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats regarding cooperation in forming the U.K.'s next government. In the runup to Thursday's inconclusive general election, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that those two parties would negotiate an arrangement under which the Liberal Democrats would refrain from voting a Conservative minority government out of office.

By now, there are indications that they might be looking toward forming a coalition government, with Cabinet positions split between the two parties. The Daily Telegraph reports that "the Tories denied they had offered three specific Cabinet seats to the Lib Dems – home secretary, transport secretary and Treasury chief secretary – but did not rule out Lib Dems having roles in a future coalition cabinet." The Times similarly reports that "Cameron is understood to be ready to offer at least three posts to Clegg’s team."

In terms of policy, one of the big issues is the Liberal Democrats' longstanding advocacy of proportional representation for House of Commons elections. Before the election Prime Minister Gordon Brown committed his Labour Party to a referendum on changing the voting system. But the Conservatives have consistently opposed any change to the so-called "first past the post" system, under which each constituency elects a single candidate to Parliament, with the winner being the top vote-getter, regardless of whether that vote total constitutes a majority of the overall vote.

According to The Times, "in a sign that the parties are moving closer to a settlement, senior Lib Dems indicated that voting reform is unlikely to be a “deal breaker”. That is consistent with other Liberal Democrat statements since Thursday.

In the past, when no one party has a House of Commons majority, the remedy has been minority government. Under that structure, the largest party holds all of the Cabinet jobs, and the role of smaller parties is limited to a pledge not to vote the government out of office, in exchange for policy concessions.

But coalition government is not unknown. Majority parties have brought other parties into the government at times of national crisis, for the purpose of achieving broader acceptance of difficult government actions. Those crises have included World War I, the Great Depression and World War II.

The use of the coalition concept to create a majority government that wouldn't otherwise exist is a common practice in many other parliamentary democracies, but would be a new experience for the British.

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