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.

The Cabinet Manual: where’s the beef?

After almost two years of drafts, three select committee reports, the UK now has a Cabinet Manual. I received my shiny grey copy of the first edition of the Manual a few days ago, and am only just beginning to read it. The grey cover is completely appropriate of course: it is a civil service document through and through. Truly, it is—as Lord Hennessy suggested memorably—a herbivore’s document. Nothing wrong with that.[1] But this is not a manual that ministers will use. It is far too formal for that. That’s a shame, but early days: this is only the first edition.

As with all good and great things, the Cabinet Manual has begun to develop its own little academic industry—which, of course, one can only applaud. But it’s easy to talk about what could and should have been in the Manual: eg., more about the Human Rights Act, Europe, a better discussion of parliament and its conventions, etc etc…. the list goes on. Instead, I would like to briefly talk about two matters, which are connected.

First point: it’s a surprise that the Manual was published at all. It needs to be recalled that prior to 2010 there were a fair number of executive guidance documents of varying size and accuracy scattered in different locations, and in some areas of executive practice there was no guidance at all. There was little understanding that this might be a problem—not just because of the possibility of a hung parliament, but because the scattered, incomplete nature of these documents might impact upon executive effectiveness. More generally, there was a need for greater transparency or at least openness about government. Robert Hazell and Peter Riddell’s original submission calling for a Cabinet Manual was made with all three considerations in mind. And if you read the submission, you will notice that many of the points are made quite cautiously. That is because there was no guarantee that anything would be done. To put it differently, the Manual’s publication was by no means inevitable.

The second point is from my brief experience in the Executive: the aphorism ‘bills are made to pass like razors are made to sell’ applies equally to executive guidance documents. Just because a need has been identified doesn’t mean it can be answered in an ideal form. There is a process, or processes by which things happen within the executive; and the executive is not a monolith—it consists of different groups with different interests. And sometimes the silences, omissions and ambiguities of the Manual are unintentional, and sometimes they are deliberate. That is the nature of the executive, because it does not necessarily speak with one voice, and because the executive also has to be aware of the other branches of government.

Is this cryptic? I hope not. But my basic point is this. The Manual is an imperfect document. But to me it is still a surprise that we have the document at all. [2]

[1] So perhaps it should have been called ‘the Cabinet Office Manual’, as all three select committees recommended. That would make it clear that it is a manual for officials rather than for ‘Cabinet’.

[2] This is not a veiled way of saying ‘be pleased with what you got’. I only wish to point out that two years ago no such document existed.

Why Written Constitutions are a Good Thing

The historian Linda Colley has written an article in the Guardian on the British experience of constitution-making. It is an argument about the uses of history. For too long, Colley argues, the British (the British elites, perhaps) have had a selective memory about constitutions and constitution making. Until the 19th century, there was a ‘cult’ of devotion in Britain towards various written constitutional documents—the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, and above all, the Magna Carta. This receded over time, and although this is not stated in the article, it may have been a response to the proliferation of ‘written’ constitutions, particularly on the Continent, and the need for Britons to distinguish themselves as different. Having said that, the British continued to draft written constitutions for their colonies well into the 20th century.

Colley’s point: it is not un-British to have or engage in a process of drafting a constitution. Britons have been interested and engaged in constitutional processes in the past; it is quite possible they still are. Colley ends by suggesting that years of ad hoc reforms and the increasing disunity of the United Kingdom may make a written constitution more important than ever. Whatever the drawbacks of a written/ codified constitution, one benefit may be it would offer “a single, recognised source from which citizens can learn about how their state is supposed to operate.” As they say, read the whole thing.

As an aside, the finalised version of the UK Cabinet Manual was published last week (more on this another day). I raise it not to point to its (murky) constitutional status, but rather to point to it as a neat inversion of Colley’s description of how constitutional ideas were transmitted from the centre to the periphery: the NZ Manual was the inspiration for the UK Manual. And so, New Zealand gives back to the Mother Country. It’s the least we could do.

A good day to bury news? More spads for the coalition

Yes Liam Fox has resigned after a week of speculation. But this has mostly gone unreported—from the FT’s Westminster blog two days ago: “Liberal Democrats will have a new special adviser covering the House of Lords and five more special advisers covering the work of government departments where the party has no ministerial support.”

See here. And here.*

*Shameless plug for previous blog post.

EDIT: since special advisers work for ministers, how can they cover departments where the Lib Dems have no ‘ministerial support’ (ie., DEFRA, DCMS, DFID, NIO, WO)? The answer is that they will probably be responsible to Nick Clegg.  It’s  worth noting that the Lib Dems now have a number of special advisers disproportionate to the number of seats won at the 2010 election. But on the other hand, as the Constitution Unit has suggested,** the Lib Dems are in dire need of extra support.

**plug.

Strange Love: Or, How Conservatives and Lib Dems Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Coalition Government*

We published our interim report on coalition government Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works [1] a couple of weeks ago, and it behooves me to be grateful for the press our interim report, received. Thus: “How David Cameron and Nick Clegg decide policy – by phone”! and “Lib Dems and Tories get on better than Blair and Brown”!

Alas—that is not quite what the report says. What we say is that formal cabinet government has returned; but that coalition issues are mostly dealt with through informal mechanisms, of which the Cameron-Clegg weekly bilaterals are but one mechanism—to be sure, the most important, but not the only one. None of this means policy is ‘decided on the hoof’: just that coalition issues are decided in informal channels. That’s slightly different.

Do Tories and Lib Dems get on better than Blair and Brown? Well, yes and no. Yes, there are strong relationships within the executive. Yes, it is true that Cameron and Clegg, Letwin and Alexander, work well together. And that makes executive government much smoother. But, but… in Parliament, the parties operate as they always have. The relationship between the parties is cordial at best. And it is at the parliamentary level where problems may emerge.

It’s also important to address a couple of criticisms of our report. One: how can we claim that ‘the coalition is working well’ when a good part of the report is devoted to the problems that the Lib Dems are having? Two: it’s too process-based; too structural. These two criticisms merge into each other.

On the coalition working well: the problem is that there are two measurements of ‘success’ are being run together here. One measure is how well the two parties are working together; the other is the ability to implement party policy and/or the ability to project party distinctiveness. I take the point that perhaps we weren’t clear enough on what our measures of coalition ‘success’ were.

On the first measure, it’s worth bearing in mind that prior to May 2010 coalition government in Westminster was thought to be a recipe for unstable, unworkable or inefficient government: that two national political parties could not work together. But at least in the first year, that doesn’t seem to be so: there is no sign of imminent collapse; and decision-making hasn’t slowed down at all. That is what we meant by ‘working well’. (Yes, now there are the NHS reforms, but is this a coalition issue? There are differing schools: one school pointing to a Lib Dem response following the failure of the AV referendum; the other school suggesting a U-turn from the Conservatives themselves because of a fear of ‘retoxifying’ the Conservative party. And anyway, it’s not clear that this is a systemic problem—yet).

On success in implementing policy—how can we talk of success if the Lib Dems are doing so poorly? And are we not being myopic for simply looking at process over policy? We did say this was not a review of policy. And it seemed to us that there had already been plenty of discussion in the media about the Lib Dems’ failure to have a noticeable impact in government in terms of policy implementation, but very little discussion of some of the very substantial structural problems the Lib Dems have. We thought it worth stressing that the Lib Dems made some crucial choices at the formation of the coalition which continue to hamper their ability to push their policies within government—losing short money, accepting the cap on special advisers, and most of all going for breadth over depth in terms of the allocation of Lib Dem ministers.

But anyway—as I said at the beginning, I’m grateful for the comments and criticisms. We will try to address some of these issues in the next report.

*Next week’s post: Tainted Love: Or, “It’s not you, it’s me”

[1] Thank you to all the interns who have worked on the coalition government project so far. Thanks to Ruchi Parekh (aka: Ms Doubtful), Jessica Carter, Ian Jordan, Alex Jacobson, Patrick Graham, Andreas Kutz and Chris Appleby. Props to y’all—except maybe you, Ian!

The Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works–A Summary

The Coalition in Whitehall

  • Finding a balance between unity and distinctiveness is the key problem for coalition government. The current coalition has successfully ensured unity, and stability; but struggles to allow the two parties to express their distinctiveness.
  • Formal cabinet government has been revived: Cabinet and cabinet committees now meet regularly, but these are mostly forums for dealing with interdepartmental issues rather than specifically coalition issues.
  • The main forums for reaching agreement between coalition partners are informal. Coalition issues are often dealt with before they reach the formal machinery of government.
  • This informality of coalition decision making is based on high levels of trust between the leadership of the two parties. Trust, and the importance of compatible personalities, are essential for coalition government.
  • However, this informality has one drawback: it means that the Lib Dems are often unable to demonstrate their influence in government.
  • Some machinery has surprisingly not been effective in coalition brokerage—in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, special advisers, and Liberal Democrat junior ministers.

The Coalition in Westminster

  • Flexibility within the executive is not always matched by flexibility in parliament. Compromise hammered out in government has led to excessive rigidity when policies are introduced into Parliament.
  • The informality and relatively close relationships in the executive are not matched by similar relationships within Parliament. In both houses, the coalition is tolerated rather than embraced.
  • Coalition governments often lead to a divide between the frontbench and backbench. Rebellions in this parliament are historically at record highs.
  • The parliamentary parties have begun to modify their backbench committees to prevent the divide between frontbench and backbench widening.

The Dilemmas for the Junior Partner

  • The Lib Dems are still reeling from the loss of their state funding, given only to opposition parties. This has led to the loss of many of their staff. It may help explain their under powered performance, particularly with the media.
  • By going for breadth over depth, the Lib Dems have spread themselves too thinly. They need to prioritise. Given the numbers they have, what can they realistically do which will have an impact with the public?
  • In a future coalition, the junior partner might seek to specify the support to be made available to them, in terms of special advisers, expanded Private Offices, and additional support for the parliamentary party.

Spads: Who they are, what they do, why they exist—and why they will continue to be appointed

What are spads, said everywoman, and would not stay for answer. Everyone knows about certain notorious special advisers—Alastair Campbell, spin doctor extraordinaire; Damien McBride, attack dog for Gordon Brown; and Jo Moore, forever infamous for sending an email around on 11 September 2001 saying, “today is a good day for burying bad news.”[1] Under the Cameron-Clegg administration, media reports on the whole remain fairly hostile.

There have been some dissenting voices, calling for more spads. Jahan Ganesh in Prospect (££); Tim Montgomerie on ConservativeHome; our esteemed (and rather more flush) colleagues at the Institute for Government as well. The recent reconfiguration of No 10’s policy unit suggests the coalition is feeling the absence of spads.

But what are special advisers, and what exactly do they do? There is surprisingly little on this, academically.

A technical definition: they are temporary civil servants, drawn from outside the traditional civil service structure, and subject to the patronage of ministers for whom they work. In layman terms, civil servants are appointed through open competition and promoted by merit. Special advisers, on the other hand, are appointed personally by ministers, to work for those ministers; when a minister leaves, the spad leaves with them. They may or may not have policy expertise.

What do spads do? Most think of them as spin doctors, but this is too crude. Maria Maley, at the Australian National University, has identified five basic functions:

  1. Personal support: managing the minister’s time, determining priorities
  2. Political support: in parliament, within the party, etc
  3. Communication: media management, but also management of relations with other key actors
  4. Policy matters: initiatives, development, implementation
  5. Executive coordination: between portfolios and between ministries.

The focus has always been on ‘spin’, but the truth is we don’t know what the majority of spads do. Some clearly are spin doctors (Alastair Campbell), but others are not (Jonathan Powell’s key ‘function’ would have been executive coordination; Andrew Adonis perhaps for his policy knowledge). There are usually about 75 spads in any one year: we tend only to hear about a tiny few, usually those at the centre; not those in departments.

Spads are often thought of as bright young things with an eye to a political post in the future. They are often thought to be former parliamentary researchers or think tankers. Former special advisers include David Cameron, George Osborne, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Jack Straw … the list goes on. But again: we don’t know if the labels ‘bright young thing’/ ‘political careerist’ are appropriate because no one yet has studied them in detail in the UK (see below for the exceptions).

A final point, before this post gets too long. The focus has always been on spads, and their apparent malign influence—but there is a prior question: why do ministers keep appointing spads? Well—again, we don’t know the actual reasons. But we can guess. Spads exist because there is a demand for them. And there are at least three reasons why ministers may want to appoint spads:

  1. Ministers are overloaded.[2] They just have too much to do—so spads help ministers to determine their priorities.
  2. being (ostensibly) neutral, civil servants cannot offer ‘political’ advice; spads, often being appointed for their political qualities, can.
  3. Ministers want to increase the ‘responsiveness’ of the civil service, which is seen as passive and obstructive; spads can drive the machine because they exist outside the civil service.

There may be a fourth reason: coalition government. Coalition government may require greater negotiation between parties; spads may provide that liaison function.

Whether or not these reasons are legitimate reasons is another story. But these are likely to be the reasons ministers will give in appointing special advisers. We should be asking ministers what they think special advisers are for, and to what extent they fulfil this function (or functions). It is time we moved on from talking about spads in a largely negative manner and asking whether there are too many, to asking why are they there, how they contribute, and whether they can improve ministerial effectiveness.

Background

The Constitution Unit has been working on a grant proposal on special advisers, and so it seemed appropriate to blog on this. For those really interested in spads, there is Andrew Blick’s excellent text. On the internet, start with the House of Commons’ library research note; or  the Public Administration Select Committee’s 2001 report, Special Advisers: Boon or Bane, which is still good value. There’s also an excellent article by a former spad to Jack Straw here, which gives an insight into a spad’s everyday life. The Powerbase website has (very) uneven coverage of special advisers. On what ministers do, and ought to do, there is the (so-so) Public Administration Select Committee report What Do Ministers Do?

EDIT 14/04/11: a very interesting report on the coalition’s spads here:

http://network.civilservicelive.com/pg/pages/view/564295/

EDIT 16/09/12: I should have updated this long ago. But the Unit is now carrying out a project looking at special advisers 1997-2012. Watch for more news here:

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/special-advisers


[1] And of course Sir Richard Mottram’s rather choice response when he discovered Jo Moore’s email had been leaked.

[2] I could write a whole post on this. Ministers have ridiculous workloads. This is partly because of the complexity of modern government; and partly because of an unwillingness to define what a minister ought to do.