Coalition politics is a familiar process in most European countries. There are no guarantees of the final results, as polling day can bring many unexpected outcomes, sometimes generating month-long negotiations requiring grand coalitions of parties drawn from across the political spectrum in order to cobble together a government. Nevertheless during the election campaign, European parties often signal their willingness to collaborate with potential coalition partners, and which parties are outside this process, providing voters with clues about the eventual outcome.
In the United Kingdom, however, the British government coalition joining the fate of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties, announced yesterday in the Rose Garden of No 10, seems to have been utterly serendipitous for all concerned, even to commentators, pundits and the party leaders involved at the heart of this process. The outcome, the first governing coalition in Britain since the end of World War II, and the first ever Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition in history, was unexpected despite the long series of public opinion polls predicting a hung parliament. It was agreed by the party leaders only during the five days of negotiations following the election, after it became apparent that the Conservatives were the largest party at Westminster but without an overall parliamentary majority.
Why the surprise?
In terms of ideological and policy positions, for a decade the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party have always been closer; indeed in the 2001 and 2005 elections, the Comparative Manifesto Project estimated that the Liberal Democrat manifesto was more progressive and slightly to the left of the Labour party platform, especially on issues of taxation and proposed levels of social welfare spending. By contrast, although the Conservatives have moved closer to the center of the British political spectrum under the leadership of David Cameron, nevertheless they remained further to the right of their other main rivals. And on certain issues, notably Europe, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives remain miles apart.
But how are the parties placed by voters? Did the coalition, and the decision by Nick Clegg to join with the Conservatives rather than Labour, reflect the outcome that the British public wanted? During election night, Paddy Ashdown famously said that the people have spoken, but we still don't know what they have said. One problem was that the main exit polls, commissioned by all the major media organizations, failed to ask any questions beyond voting. So the coalition has generated a mountain of speculations offered by all sides but no systematic evidence. Those reading the tea-leaves often claimed that the British public 'wanted' a hung parliament but, in fact, this cannot be deduced from the outcome. Each citizen cast a particular vote in their specific constituency, but the final outcome was the collective result of millions of independent decisions.
One way we can throw light on this question is to turn to the 2010 British Election Study (BES) which has just been released. The BES data provides some revealing clues about what the electorate actually preferred. And in particular the results tell us something important about the second choice of Liberal Democrat voters. If the decision about entering a coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives were in the hands of Liberal Democrat voters, what would they have wanted?
The table below, drawn from the BES campaign panel survey among 1,355 respondents, reports how people voted on May 6th and also reveals their second choice preference among those who voted but who really preferred another party. Among those in this group who cast a ballot for the Liberal Democrats, only 12% opted for the Conservative party as their second choice preference. By contrast, almost half the Liberal Democrat voters (48%) chose Labour as their second preference. Likewise, the Liberal Democrats were the 2nd choice preference of four out of ten Labour voters.
In other words, it is not simply that the Labour and the Liberal Democrats parties are far closer in their manifesto policies and ideological values, but Liberal Democrat and Labour voters also recognized the close affinity in their willingness to switch votes. The Conservative party was in a far different position, where UKIP (to the right of the party) were their largest 2nd choice party.
Thus the new coalition governing British politics has clearly shaken up the old pattern of British party politics. Whether the decision of the leaders will cause Liberal Democrat voters to move gradually closer towards the Conservatives in their electoral sympathies, or whether instead the Liberal Democratic party will eventually be punished by their supporters for entering this alliance, remains a fascinating question which only time will tell.
How people voted on May 6th 2010
Among those who preferred another party
Con 2nd choice
Lab 2nd choice
Lib-Dem 2nd choice
SNP 2nd choice
PC 2nd choice
UKIP 2nd choice
BNP 2nd choice
Green 2nd choice
Other 2nd choice
Source: British Election Study 2010 Campaign Panel. F/w YouGov. N. 1,355