Making Coalition Government Work: Lessons for the Future

In 2011 the Constitution Unit spent one year examining how the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition works. We interviewed almost 150 people about the Coalition: individuals from both parties—both in and outside Parliament—as well as civil servants, journalists, and interest groups. We have just published the result of our study in a book: The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Works.

We are particularly grateful to all those Lib Dems who were so generous in giving their time to be interviewed, and for Mark Pack’s very kind review of our book. And in the same spirit, we offer some thoughts on lessons for the future. Professor John Curtice argues that the conditions that led to a hung parliament in 2010 remain; and even if the boundary reforms goes through, the possibility of a hung parliament is still quite high. Even if, as some suggest, the Liberal Democrats will lose a large number of seats in 2015, they may still be in a position to determine the shape of a new government. So what lessons are there to be learned from the last two years of the Coalition, and how might the Lib Dems approach a hung parliament in 2015?

Our project was about making coalition government work. But how coalition works depends on the observer and their point of view. So some suggestions will be in tension with others: lessons for the smaller party may be at the expense of the larger party; lessons for the backbenchers may be at the expense of the frontbench, and so on. With this caveat in mind, here are some obvious suggestions.

Write a manifesto which is not geared towards single party government.

Think carefully about manifesto pledges: which ones are non-negotiable; which are bargaining chips? The party might be more careful about making firm commitments on unachievable goals. They might also think about having a more detailed manifesto. Many of the Programme for Government’s pledges are Conservative pledges because it was the Conservative manifesto which deal most with detail.

Preparation, preparation, preparation.

One of the key lessons from the 2010 hung parliament was that prior contacts and preparation made all the difference. Good relationships with the leaders and senior members of the other parties should be maintained, not least because they may become members of the negotiating teams. The other parties’ manifestos should be analysed for points of agreement and disagreement. Labour failed to do much of this, and it showed. For the Lib Dems, the problem was not so much a failure of preparation for a hung parliament, as it was a failure to prepare for government.

Take your time in negotiations over government formation.

Easier said than done. But arguably the five days to negotiate the formation of the 2010 Coalition was rushed: several Lib Dem interviewees regretted this. One Lib Dem minister we interviewed said:

If we’re going to be in coalition for five years, then you do want to spend a bit of time and avoid having tired people make a decision over four days . . . what I would do differently is to at least have a fortnight doing these things and getting things like support and . . . protocols. . . . and not having to backfill the whole time. And we’re still backfilling.

The 2010 negotiations focused mostly on policy, and everything else was secondary. The result was that the allocation of ministerial office was somewhat rushed, and the very important issue of party funding (Short Money and Cranborne Money) was completely forgotten. The latter in particular continues to have an impact on the capacity of the Lib Dems to act quickly and effectively.

Balance visibility and influence

The smaller the party, the more difficult it is to maintain visibility in the eyes of the public. The international experience is that the smaller partner in a coalition is often overshadowed by the larger partner, and in fact tends to do disproportionately badly at the second election.

In 2010, the Lib Dems went for breadth over depth: they sought to cover most of government by having a Lib Dem minister in all the Whitehall departments. That may have given the Liberal Democrats influence, but it may have come at the cost of visibility. A similar approach was taken to policy. In the future, an alternative for the Lib Dems might be to aim for visibility and limited influence, perhaps by taking a smaller number of high profile departments closely connected with the party’s key policy priorities.

Prioritise.

The decision to go for breadth over depth has a much broader impact for the Liberal Democrats. In trying to cover everything, the smaller party in the Coalition risks both overstretch, but also early exhaustion. This is not just so for the Lib Dem ministers in departments; Lib Dems in parliament have also struggled to maintain coverage.

Leaving aside whether or not one goes for depth over breadth, the Liberal Democrats need to think carefully about what is achievable. Aim high, but aim for tangible achievements. Instead of aiming for little wins across government, aim for a smaller number of high profile, high quality policies. Indeed, there are some signs that senior Lib Dems are beginning to focus and communicate in a more integrated way their key priorities.

Again, all easier said than done. Being the smaller partner in a coalition is never easy. But recognition of one’s weaknesses might be one place to start.

The Constitution Unit’s research on coalition government was generously funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

This blogpost was cross-posted at Lib Dem Voice.

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