Parties who lose elections after long periods in power often talk about 'refreshing', 'taking stock' and 'renewing'. They claim to have become stale in government, of running out of steam and ideas and of succumbing to the inevitable position where their mistakes outweigh their achievements in the minds of the voters. The end of two long administrations in the last fourteen years has helped demonstrate this problem perfectly. The Conservatives' struggled to regain the trust of the British public, going through 3 leaders before coming to the now Prime Minister, David Cameron. For Labour, this process is just beginning with projects such as Refounding Labour now underway. Despite the evidence of the previous two governments, this process is not inevitable. Coalitions may be the answer.
There are copious reasons for this recurring scenario of exhausted administrations. A culture of managerialism has burrowed its way into the way our governments operate and our nation is run. Without the driving force of ideology, the victorious party is left with only course adjustments and minor policy alterations to make. This leaves policy with a lack of direction and ambition, and governments with very little to inspire either voters or themselves. With no grand target to aim for, government's become administrators of power, and leave themselves open to an apathetic electorate.
In government as in life, the longer it continues, the more inevitable mistakes become. And as these mistake mount they increasingly block out an administration's positive intentions and achievements. A party cannot distance itself from them, and as history will attest, a change of leader does not necessarily wipe clean the slate.
A lack of new ideas does not lie entirely in the realm of government responsibility and it is often prudent to remember Harold MacMillan's famous quote 'Events, dear boy, events". The globalised nature of the world means a party's power to change, to influence and indeed to govern is significantly weakened, with markets, international institutions and individuals all able to substantially affect the country's economic and social condition. As a government becomes ever more emboldened to exterior forces, it loses the thrust that brought it to power.
Of course, a stale, exhausted government may in fact be neither stale nor exhausted. The condition is often highlighted in the media and seized upon by fickle voters whose excitement of a new start outweighs any trust they have in the existing government. It is often remarked that the economic boom Labour enjoyed in the late 1990's was already well underway under the previous administration. Yet after 18 long years in power, the Conservative government stood no chance against the media juggernaut of New Labour. Government exhaustion was evident in the minds of the voters, if not in the policies of Whitehall.
Coalition can help solve this problem and ensure a government retains a sense of self-awareness and self-renewal. Because there is a far broader range of ideas and a constant discussion and reappraisal of policy positions it becomes easier to renew and refresh the administration. It is also easier to assess successes and failures, as parties consider their accomplishments within government, rather than simply consider themselves the government itself.
Having multiple parties in government also helps provide a wider range of ideas and ensures they are accountable to more diverse range of voters. While this could lead to compromise and a loss of the more radical and inventive solutions available, it also leads to fewer unsuccessful or unpopular policies being passed by powerful majorities and strengthens the democratic nature of government.
Of course, the risk with coalitions is that they are unlikely to last more than one parliamentary cycle, and indeed may fail to last a full 5 year term. Thus, coalitions may be significantly less likely to encounter the problem of stale and exhausted administrations. However, their status at elections may enable them to avoid the political boom and bust encountered by long term single party governments. They are better able to isolate their achievements from their mistakes, offering the prospect of the best part of their previous attempts and insulating themselves from the criticisms levelled against them. This campaign tactic does not prevent further coalitions, of course, and a repeat of the cycle. But by claiming they would be the best of the previous administration, a former party of coalition can renew, regroup and re-appeal much quicker than is usually the case.
This is not to say coalitions are immune from this process. Voters are still fickle, mistakes will still be made and they are inherently more unstable than single party governments, meaning they are much more susceptible to mid-term collapses. Nor is it to say that coalitions should be utilised for electoral protection. 2015 will provide the acid test of whether parties can remain fresh after a period in government. However, as a way to renew and restore while remaining in power, multi-party administrations may provide the key to political hegemony.