Wednesday 21 April 2010

Coalitions and the (not quite so) new 'Britishness'

The Guardian reports Ed Balls arguing against Proportional Representation on the grounds that coalition politics 'is not the British way of doing government'.

Two comments.

First, as Tim Fenton reminds us at Liberal Conspiracy, and as Sunder Katwala reminds us here at Next Left, coalitions have played a huge role in 'British government' at the centre for much of the twentieth century (not to mention the nineteenth century). The 'Liberal government' of 1906-14 was in parliamentary terms in effect a coalition of Liberals, Labour and Irish Nationalists. It was followed by a succession of war-time coalitions and a Tory-dominated coalition after the war. Then there were the Tory-dominated coalition National governments of the 1930s and, of course, the coalition government during WW2.

And if we look beyond the centre, we see or have recently seen coalition government, e.g., in the Scottish parliament and in local government.

Second, insofar as there is truth in Ball's remark - and obviously coalitions have hardly been the norm at the centre since 1945 - why isn't it time for the national identity to, well, evolve?

One might think that the enthusiasm behind the Lib Dem surge and majority support for a hung parliament indicates that a large proportion of the British population now find this kind of 'Britishness' rather constraining and want to be free of it.

Resistance to Proportional Representation and the coalition politics it entails is a mysterious position for any social democrat to hold. There was a time when one could argue with some plausibility that while PR might be fairer in itself, it will produce worse outcomes for social democrats in the long-run. But when the numbers are crunched on this, the claim doesn't seem to stack up. The evidence from political science is that in the long-run PR systems are better than 'majoritarian' systems in terms of social spending and reduction of inequality.

I can't believe Ed Balls seriously means to suggest that it is better to try to uphold an inherently dubious notion of 'Britishness' rather than do what is good for social democracy (not to mention, democracy...) - to introduce PR.

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