This is the first in a series of blogs using the European Social Survey (ESS), a high quality survey across a number of European countries, to look at how the UK compares with the continent on some of the big issues coming up in the May General Election.
Polls are currently suggesting a hung parliament is the most likely outcome of the election, meaning post-election coalition building will be something party strategists will be pondering keenly.
But how do the British public view coalitions and how do their attitudes compare with people around Europe?
In 2012, two years into the coalition, ESS asked people around Europe their thoughts about whether they consider single party government or coalitions to be better for democracy.
The UK public favours single party government
After two years of coalition government the British public was still inclined to say that single party government is the best for democracy, just over 60% favour this option, with around a third favouring a coalition.
Support for single party or coalition government
Question: The government in some countries is formed by a single party; in other countries by two or more parties in coalition. Which option on this card describes what you think is best for democracy in general?
How does this compare with the rest of Europe?
Of the 29 countries in the study UK views are most strongly in favour of single party government over a coalition – 32% favour coalition compared with 61% saying that single party government is best for democracy. Portugal and Bulgaria are the only other countries where a minority in favour of coalition government.
Proportion saying coalition government is best for democracy
It is perhaps not surprising, given Britain’s long history of single-party government, that the UK public favours this system. Or that people in European countries prefer coalition, which is the norm on the continent.
However, the UK view on coalition government is still stronger than European countries that have had a similar history of single party-government.
Take Spain and Norway, which like the UK have had long periods of single party government in the 20th Century. A majority in both these countries still favour coalition government.
What this data also shows is that people tend to favour the system that they are most used to. In some countries where single party government is unheard of Switzerland (96% favour coalition), Finland (94%), the Netherlands (90%), virtually everyone thinks coalition is better.
Even countries like Belgium, where there has been a lot of political instability related to coalition governments collapsing, still strongly favour coalitions – 84% believe coalitions are better for democracy than single party governments.
So one obvious lesson from this data is that another coalition government might bring the UK closer to the European view and more favourable to coalitions. Clearly this has implications for the election and whether politicians feel, in the light of a hung parliament, it is better to call another election or create try to build a lasting coalition.
It also has implications for other issues. For example, if the UK becomes more favourable to coalition, perhaps it could open the door for electoral reform and a more proportional electoral system used by many European countries.
The ESS is a cross-national survey that has been conducted every two years since 2002. It provides methodologically rigorous, comparative data about public attitudes and behaviour over time in more than 30 countries. It has its headquarters at City University London.