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Coalition mechanism

Print edition : Jul 15, 2011 T+T-

A book on the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in the United Kingdom has much relevance for India.

THIS book deserves to be read widely in India. We have had coalitions at the Centre since 1996, and the prospects are that it will be long, very long, before a single party forms a government in New Delhi. Coalition governments in the States became a vogue in 1967, what with the ramshackle, opportunistic Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) governments in northern India. Right now we have coalitions in West Bengal, Bihar, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra and Kerala.

Politics shapes the working of Constitutions which, in turn, influence the political process. We have long neglected this aspect the impact of coalitions on the working of the Constitution. In September 1970, we had an Attorney-General opine, on his mere ipse dixit, that once a coalition broke up the Chief Minister should resign. In that eventuality the Assembly could give no verdict. Needless to add, New Delhi was very pleased. The Attorney-General rose to acquire immortal fame during the Emergency. He was Niren De. His opinion drew a withering riposte from the Advocate-General of Uttar Pradesh, K.L. Mishra, a far abler lawyer.

The Supreme Court of India has ruled repeatedly that since our parliamentary system is based on the British model, the conventions of the parliamentary system in Britain are very relevant to a proper interpretation of our Constitution. That, of course, requires erudition and research. Small wonder that two constitutional experts cavil at that one, a former bureaucrat, the other an academic with a past stretching to the Emergency times.

Coalitions become inevitable when the electorate returns a hung parliament, one in which no party commands a majority. Questions more than one arise. Should the incumbent Prime Minister resign at once or when defeated in the new House? What kind of a coalition agreement is the head of state entitled to demand of the coalition partners? The scholar Ronald Brazier urged a copper-bottomed agreement. What is the status of the Prime Minister in a coalition? Can he advise dissolution of the House by himself without the concurrence of his allies?

In 1967, the Research and Policy Planning Division of the Home Ministry prepared an able study entitled Comparative Study of Coalitions. The then Home Secretary, L.P. Singh, his senior colleague the late T.C.A. Srinivasavardhan, and B.S. Raghavan worked on this study. It made a strong plea in support of coalitions. France under the Third and Fourth Republics had coalitions. Germany has had continuous coalitions since 1949. Australia, Ceylon, Belgium and Italy were some of the other countries that have had coalitions.

Three conclusions were drawn by this study group, the last two points specifying the circumstances under which coalition governments tended to exist. These points were: coalitions were far more common than was usually supposed; frequent resort to coalitions became necessary when there was a multiplicity of parties contesting elections; they had, indeed, been chronic in countries with an electoral system based on proportional representation or list system or variants or a mixture of these.

Time has, however, demonstrated as unrealistic the hope, expressed by the study, that coalitional stresses and conflicts, due to ideological and programmatic incompatibility, would prove to be a passing phase. We have had stresses and conflicts for reasons far worse than ideological or programmatic incompatibility. Personality clashes and personal aggrandisement have dominated the scene.

No coalition, for that matter, no government that impairs the strength of its coping arch the Prime Minister can succeed. In all parliamentary democracies, dissolution is a recognised weapon in the hands of the Prime Minister to keep his flock together.

Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Oxford until 2010 and now at King's College, London, is one of the most highly respected authorities on the British Constitution. It is amazing how he wrote this erudite work and the publishers produced it in record speed in excellent form to cover the events preceding and following the seminal event last year of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government headed by David Cameron, the Conservatives' leader, with Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats' leader, as Deputy Prime Minister.

Powers curtailed

We had in the past a Minimum Common Programme to bind coalitions. It was distorted curiously, to be called a Common Minimum Programme, which betrays the casualness. Cameron and Clegg concluded a more binding pact. It was an agreement proper called Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform. Under it, the Prime Minister shed some of his prerogatives. The Prime Minister agreed that the Cabinet Committees and their members would be appointed and their terms of reference determined on the basis of agreement with the Deputy Prime Minister. On dissolution of the House of Commons, too, the Prime Minister's powers were now curtailed (see box). Such a pact must be stipulated when the alliance is forged, not later. Accompanying the agreement was another document The Coalition: Our Programme for Government. The distinction between the two is obvious.

England does not love coalitions, Disraeli famously said. The 2010 coalition arose out of Britain's first hung Parliament since 1974. Previous coalitions arose from national emergencies war in 1915, 1916 and 1940, and the financial emergency in 1931. In the past, hung parliaments led to short-lived minority governments, not coalitions. Is it in accordance with the norms of democracy for the nature of the government to be determined after the votes have been counted? The voters are given no chance to endorse or repudiate the coalition pact. Nor are they given a chance to endorse or reject the coalition's programme for government, drawn up by the partners after the election and held by them to supersede any promises made in their election manifestoes, their real mandate.

The book covers both the political process and the issues of constitutional law. The working and evolution of a Constitution cannot be independent of political circumstances. The British Constitution, after all, worked very differently between the wars, when Britain was governed for all but six of the 21 years from 1918 to 1939 by coalition or minority governments, than in the years since 1945, when single-party majority government has been the norm. If we are once again entering a world of multi-party politics, hung parliaments and coalition governments, the Constitution will have to change to accommodate the changed political landscape. The book analyses the changes in the landscape.

The new government has proposed the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, which makes dissolution more difficult. Nick Clegg saw to it that he was not left hanging by a dissolution designed to secure a majority for Cameron. The outcome of the 2010 general election was: Conservatives won 36.1 per cent share of vote, 307 seats and 10726,614 votes; Labour won 29.0 per cent share of vote, 258 seats and 8,609,527 votes; Liberal Democrats won 23.0 per cent share of vote, 57 seats and 6,836,824 votes.

In 1974, the Conservatives secured 297 seats, and 37.9 per cent of votes; Labour 301 and 37.1 per cent of votes; and Liberals 14 seats and 19.3 per cent of votes. Labour formed a minority government.

The author reminds readers that every hung parliament in the 20th century in 1910, 1923, 1929 and 1974 had led to a minority government rather than a majority coalition. A minority government can survive in the House of Commons provided that the other parties do not successfully combine against it. That was how the Labour minority government survived in the seven-month minority parliament of 1974, and again during the years from 1976 to 1979. By 1976 it had lost, through defections and byelection defeats, the small overall majority which it had won in the October 1974 general election. For around half of the period 1976-79, the minority Labour government survived through the Lib-Lab pact, but for the rest of the time it survived because the other parties were unable or unwilling to combine against it, until, in March 1979, following the failure of devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales. The government was then defeated in the House of Commons on a confidence motion by one vote, and was forced to go to the polls.

Under the Lib-Lab pact between March 1977 and October 1978 a confidence and supply agreement the party outside the government would agree not to vote against it in confidence or supply motions, in exchange for policy concessions and a promise of consultation on legislation. A confidence and supply agreement provides for a parliamentary coalition, but not a governmental coalition.

Coalition pacts can also contain an agreement to differ on specified issues. One very important development has gone unnoticed in India. The author records: In early February 2010, aware of the strong possibility of a hung parliament, Gordon Brown asked Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, to produce a Cabinet Manual bringing together the laws and conventions relating to Cabinet government. By the end of February, the Cabinet Office had produced a chapter laying out the procedures to be followed in the event of a hung parliament. This was sent to the Justice Select Committee of the House of Commons, which, after examining various witnesses, including Sir Gus himself, issued a short report in March endorsing these procedures. The procedures were generally accepted as appropriate, and it was striking that they gave rise to hardly any controversy during the period of government formation. The part of the Manual was therefore, in Sir Gus O'Donnell's words, tested under fire'.

The document runs into 149 pages and deserves to be studied carefully by Indian lawyers. It is aptly titled The Cabinet Manual Draft: A Guide to Laws, Conventions, and rules on the operation of government.

But, what is its constitutional status? It was published in December 2010, by the present government, following Cabinet approval. The author remarks: But the precise constitutional status of the Manual is not wholly clear. In reply to questioning by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the Cabinet Secretary accepted that while the Manual might be the nearest we have come to a written Constitution, and indeed might serve as a first step towards such a Constitution, it is nevertheless a long, long way from a written Constitution'.

Fixed Term

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill was presented to Parliament in July 2010. Under it neither of the two possible coalitions in the current Parliament a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition or a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition can obtain a dissolution without the support of other parties. The two-thirds provision has enabled the coalition to meet the accusation that it was seeking to gerrymander the Constitution. The earlier 55 per cent provision would have allowed a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition to obtain a dissolution; but not a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. The effect of the two-thirds provision is seemingly to put dissolution outside the range of the coalition majority. The coalition can no longer, by contrast with the 55 per cent provision, secure an early dissolution unless it has the support of the opposition; and dissolution remains outside the range of any alternative coalition. As the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced on July 5, 2010, on introducing the Bill in the Commons, These changes will make it impossible for any government to force a dissolution for their own purposes. An early dissolution will be possible only when both the Conservatives and Labour favour one. The provision will, however, confer on a government which has won a landslide, with two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons, the special privilege of securing an early dissolution. There were four such governments in the twentieth century, none of them since the war.

The title of the Act is a misnomer. It does not prescribe a fixed term for the lower House as some Indian politicians ignorantly demand. It only removes its dissolution from the vagaries of party politics.

Prof. Bogdanor points out three problems that are inherent in coalition agreements. The first is that, unlike the manifestoes, it will not have been put before the voters. Therefore, while a single-party government might insist, with varying degrees of plausibility, that it has a mandate for its policies since they are spelled out in its election manifesto, no such claim can be made with regard to a coalition agreement. Not only, therefore, might the government be decided upon after the votes have been counted, so also might the policies. This, as we have seen, could have consequences for the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which has hitherto conducted its affairs in the light of the Salisbury convention, requiring acquiescence to measures foreshadowed in the governing party's manifesto.. Coalition government inevitably involves compromise. But the Liberal Democrats laid themselves open to the criticism that, on three issues - . they have gone further than compromising their party's manifesto: they have repudiated it, supporting policies directly contrary to those which they presented to the electorate.

The second problem with the doctrine of the primacy of the coalition agreement is that, in contrast with an election manifesto, it was drawn up in a hurry in five days in 2010. This hardly allows for detailed scrutiny of policies. A party manifesto, by contrast, is usually the product of a long period of discussion and debate within the party.

The third problem with the primacy of the coalition agreement is that party discipline becomes more important than is the case under a single party government, since a dissenting vote from a member of the governing coalition threatens the agreement and therefore threatens to destabilise the basis of trust upon which the coalition was formed.

In order to mitigate these weaknesses, two things are needed: first, parties should signal their intentions with regard to coalition partners before rather than after an election; and second, more attention must be given to working out the details of coalition agreements.

In an earlier work, The New British Constitution (also published by Hart), the author pinpointed the fundamental changes the British Constitution has undergone. A unitary state, based on parliamentary sovereignty and a largely unwritten Constitution, has given way to one based on the separation of powers, a quasi-federal state and a Constitution that is coming to be codified.

In India, a country of continental size, people demand repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution conferring a special status on Kashmir. In Britain Scotland acquired a special status with devolution of powers by statute. On May 6, 2011, the Scottish National Party won 65 seats out of the 129 in the Scottish Parliament. Unlike the elections in Kashmir, this was not a rigged election.