UNC Assistant Professor of Political Science Anna Bassi just wrote a guest post at The Monkey Cage on the formation of the coalition government in the UK. (This follows another recent post which cited the work of Georg Vanberg, another UNC Prof. Good to see UNC represented so well at the Cage.). She finds a few surprises:
Taken together, the recent events in the UK offer important insights about how the coalition formation process should be analyzed as an endogenous free-style negotiation process among parties, rather than as formalized by specific rules concerning the selection of a formatuer. They also provide questions about what could happen in other parliamentary legislatures. If coalitions among extreme parties can form and survive despite the popular belief, intra-party politics may harshen, leading to possible parties’ splits in search of new coalition agreements.
This is not at all my area of expertise, but it sounds right enough. The question is whether it's surprising. Bassi argues that it is if you buy into dominant models of coalition-formation. I wonder if it makes a difference that the LibDems campaigned as the center-left alternative to Labour? If the LibDems are interested in building a larger constituency and increasing their role in UK politics it could make a lot of sense to show voters they can govern without Labour. This interpretation would seemingly be supported by the fact that the LibDems' price for forming a coalition was electoral reform (to proportional representation from the current first-past-the-post system) rather than any particular policy. Labour was hesitant to grant that wish -- presumably because it would weaken their traditional position as the dominant center-left party -- and the Conservatives seem willing to put it up for a referendum. Hence, the coalition with the Conservatives.
Again, I don't know much about this so all of that could be completely wrong. Bassi in fact argues that it is:
Third, if instead parties are not policy pursuing, but just office seekers, a coalition between the Liberals and the Conservative is –theoretically- not the best coalition to seek. The Liberal Democrats(57 seats) could have coalesced with Labour (258 seats), SDLP (3 seats), Plaid Cymru (3 seats), Alliance(1 seat), and either SNP or Green which would very likely agree on coalescing in the left wing government and get just the required majority (SinnFein does not take any seats, thus the quota required is 323). In this coalition, the relative weight of the Liberal Democrats would be larger, and therefore they could get away with a larger share of offices.
But that depends on the LibDems discount rate, no? If they wanted a greater say in the government in the short run then the above is certainly right. But if they want greater long run influence on UK politics, then it makes sense to side with the party who is willing to at least countenance electoral reform. In this case, that was the Conservatives. It remains to be seen if the strategy will be successful, but it seems like that's what Clegg was thinking of. Again, though, I could certainly be wrong.
The whole post is worth reading. I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of new comparative research on this election, and Bassi is probably correct in saying that previous theories might need some revisiting.
UPDATE: As I suspected, I was wrong about at least one thing. Emmanuel corrects me in the comments.