The Constitution Unit


The tuition fees issue exposes the perils of coalition

6 December 2010

Constitution Unit research cited in Guardian article by Anne Perkins

With party loyalty in decline, coalitions are likely to be the future. But for them to work, the culture of politics must radically change

The heat of the battle around the trebling of the cost of going to university, which will be the subject of a key vote in the Commons on Thursday, is out-dazzling the light of what may in the long run be a more significant event. This row over tuition fees could be the fuse to light the explosive under the coalition: or it may come to be seen as the moment when the culture of government began to change.

It has to be something pretty remarkable that makes a smart bloke like Vince Cable come up with possibly the most bizarre formula ever heard in the age of mass democracy: that he may not support his own policy, in the interest of solidarity with the rest of his party. But it is a dilemma at the heart of coalition politics. It is wonderfully easy to sneer at a) the self-serving ambition that allows Lib Dems to be part of a government that is sometimes perilously close to the edge of what they came into politics to fight against, and b) in the case of tuition fees is absolutely contrary to an express commitment given before the election.

But we need to find a way of doing politics differently, if only because of what is happening to the electorate. For 50 years, party loyalty has been in decline. That means minority governments or coalitions are likely to become the norm, even without electoral reform. That is why the Constitution Unit, and now the Institute for Government, have been working for some time on how to make coalitions work.

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