Coalitions, Pacts and the Future of British Politics


by Jason Parry

Coalitions and electoral agreements are especially pertinent in today’s political climate. Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have been much criticized for forming a coalition government with the Conservative Party. The electorate’s resentment towards the Liberals can be witnessed by the fact that Clegg’s apology in relation to the tuition fee rise spawned a popular video which sardonically mocked the party, ( Electoral agreements and coalitions are of course by no means a twenty-first century phenomenon. Whilst party politics were largely put on hold during both world wars, outside these times electoral agreements and coalition governments played important roles in determining legacies and worked for different parties and individuals to varying degrees.

There is no better example of this than Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first Prime Minister, and a man whose political career was bookended by electoral arrangements. In 1903, as secretary of the party, formed in 1900, he instigated an electoral agreement with the Liberal Party which resulted in limiting the number of three cornered contests at the 1906 General Election. This effectively meant that the chances of the ‘progressive’ (i.e. Liberal and Labour) vote splitting were significantly reduced and Conservative candidates would be more likely to be defeated. The Lib-Lab pact was enacted in secret and although at the time many speculated about the possibility of an alliance, few were aware of the number of seats the agreement covered. This goes some way to explaining how little controversy the alliance caused for Labour, as does the relative moderation of the party during this period. Although supported by socialists who often dedicated the most time and effort in organising the party locally, the national body was not committed to socialism. Rather, the large majority of the party’s candidates were sponsored by trade unions who were often more accepting of working with the Liberal Party, as they had done before the party was formed in 1900.

This is not to say that there was not opposition to these electoral negotiations. Socialists in and outside the party, as well as a smattering of other Labour candidates, were unhappy about the suspected negotiations with the party in different areas. However, with the majority of the party sympathetic to Liberalism, there was never significant opposition. Even Conservative rivals seemed to acquiesce: MacDonald’s rival in Leicester questioned why the Liberals were ‘smother[ing] him with kisses’ when they opposed him so fervently at the previous election, but this was as far as it went. The crucial reason for this was because the pact represented the blurring of distinctions between the two parties who came together in 1906 to oppose a decade of Conservative misgovernment. Historians have attributed the success of the pact to the electoral climate of the period, but its general acceptance by both parties from the start was due more to a unification of progressive ideas.

MacDonald faced a similar quandary but in very different circumstances in 1931. By then, Labour had eclipsed the Liberal Party and formed short-lived governments in 1924 and 1929. MacDonald was Prime Minister on both occasions, but his government resigned in 1931 in response to the economic problems caused by the Wall Street Crash, and had lacked the experience to deal with them effectively. In an extremely controversial move MacDonald decided to form a coalition with the Conservative Party, at the King’s request. The only political ground the two parties shared was the desire to bring the country out of recession, and yet even here there were fundamental differences on how this should be achieved. This was no war-time coalition, despite the economic circumstances, and Labour split, with the majority of the party opposing MacDonald. In response he attempted to convince the electorate to unite and vote for a national government in one of the first political broadcasts, ( Ultimately, the National Government swept to power with an overwhelming majority, although only two Labour MP’s formed part of MacDonald’s government and the rest of the party retreated into opposition.

MacDonald was not able to recover from the coalition. Portrayed as a traitor, Labour turned its back on a man who helped build the party, not least through enabling them to make their first gains through the 1903 pact. Certainly, the 1930s satire of MacDonald is particularly comparable to the backlash seen against Nick Clegg, as this short poem illustrates:

‘Here lies Ramsay Mac
A friend to all humanity
Too many pats upon the back
Inflated Ramsay’s vanity.
The Blarney stone he oft-times kissed,
But departed in his glory;
Having been born a Socialist
He died a bloody Tory’.

Clearly, electoral alliances and coalitions are products of their period. The 1903 pact was used by both parties in the short term to achieve electoral success, although it was less successful when it was implemented in 1910 against a stronger Conservative Party. Its success, therefore, can be attributed to a united ideology, something which Clegg and Cameron’s government has yet to demonstrate. The back-track over tuition fees in particular has highlighted the problems which junior partners can experience when in coalition. Whilst Clegg may not be perceived in the same way as MacDonald was as a ‘great betrayer’, it is yet to be seen if his political career will take a similar turn. Turning to the future, it is highly probable that we will see another coalition government. The Liberals may want to realign with Labour, a partnership with proven success in the past, or there may be an opportunity for another party to make gains in a similar way to Labour in 1906. A few years ago, at an event organised by the Students Union in Reading, then leader of the party, Caroline Lucas compared the plight of the Green Party to Labour. Whilst the Greens perhaps lack Labour’s historic strengths, and certainly their substantial grass-roots organisation, they have made local agreements with the party, including in Reading. However a question which all this suggests is, will the Greens ‘sell out’ nationally and if they do, who will they partner with and under what terms?


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