What can we learn about coalition negotiations?

Posted on April 29th, 2015 by

Negotiation Sign

Letting a party know that you are in negotiations with others can be an important tool to get the best deal. When negotiations have become stagnant and the other party has lost sight of the strength of your position, making it clear that they are the ones that need you – and that you could walk away – can add impetus to negotiations. One political equivalent of the sort of “win-win” deal that can result is the “coalition” model.

Much of parliamentary politics is about negotiating; with the public, with your own party, with the opposition, with business, with special interest groups and with other governments. Where some of the techniques used by party whips would be unethical or impossible in the business world… there is much we can learn from the current inter-party coalition negotiations.

The most recent polling data certainly suggests that the age of coalition is not over, at least for now. Unless there is a major shift in public opinion, the 7th of May will leave us in limbo waiting for party leaders to negotiate the makeup of the next government. As the numbers are today, this is likely to include a formal coalition agreement between at least two parties and could potentially be coupled with an informal agreement to vote with a minority government in budget and confidence votes.

The events of 2010 will live long in the collective memory as the first time the Liberal Democrats or their predecessor had been in government since the Second World War, and the first formal peacetime coalition government since 1922. The negotiations that led to coalition were even more extraordinary.

Britain went to the polls with a legitimate third party in mind. For the first time in generations, the Lib Dems became a real option for huge swathes of the country. Opinion polls had demonstrated an expected Lib Dem parliamentary breakthrough, with dozens of seats swinging to Clegg’s party. It could have spelled a permanent end to one party rule.

Polling Station 564x175 crop

The result was far less decisive. The Lib Dems received a higher proportion of the national vote than 2005, but actually lost two seats because of the peculiarities of the first past the post system. Yet there was no majority government – neither the Conservatives nor Labour managed to inspire. We were left in limbo, with the people not convincingly deciding who should be in government, or that they wanted an end to a two party system.

In this context, the Lib Dems became the kingmakers. Both the Conservatives and Labour needed them, but they had not commanded the electoral legitimacy to dictate the terms of any agreement.

As the Conservatives were the largest party, it seemed logical for the Lib Dems to enter negotiations with them first. Yet the Lib Dems and the Conservatives were two very different parties with two very different manifestos. The Lib Dems were aggressively pro-Europe, pro-electoral reform, anti-Trident and anti-university tuition fees. The Conservatives were effectively on the opposite end of the spectrum. Both parties needed to come to an agreement that they could sell to their parliamentary parties, their wider parties, and the general public.

Famously Clegg was photographed with his notes for his meetings with the Conservatives. It made for gloomy reading for those harbouring hope of a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition. The Conservatives were refusing to budge on Europe and there were still question marks on voting reform and the number of Lib Dems in government.

That’s when the Lib Dem’s negotiations with Labour came in handy. According to Lib Dem MP Tim Farron, senior Labour figures involved in the negotiations did not seriously want a coalition. He has claimed that Labour entered the negotiations cynically, knowing that they would be better off in opposition. Of course, Labour denies this and claim that the Lib Dems entered negotiations knowing that they could not work with Labour. However, it is common knowledge that the man leading Labour’s negotiation team, Lord Mandelson, never warmed to the idea of forming a ‘rainbow coalition’.

Photograph of hands on top of each other.

Despite the futility of these negotiations, they became an important tool in the negotiations with the Conservatives. When the dealings became public, the Conservatives were made all the more aware that it was the Conservatives who needed the Lib Dems, as the Lib Dems could have potentially left the Conservatives alone and received more concessions from the Labour party.

The Lib Dems used this leverage to achieve a number of concessions, including a solid commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote system. Clegg won just enough to sell coalition to his party, and with the passing of the Parliament Act (which stipulates a minimum time between elections) the Coalition agreement led to a government that could hold a full five year term.

This coalition agreement was unique. It was the first peacetime coalition since 1922, not because it was the first time a government had no majority in the House of Commons, but because it was the first time two parties had been able to agree on terms for coalition. And it was all the more surprising in view of the Lib Dems’ positioning of themselves as a centre left party during the late 1990’s and the 2000’s, their modern incarnation stemming from Labour party defections.

The Liberals had had a previous chance to negotiate a coalition in 1974, when Heath’s Conservatives found themselves needing the support of Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal party to retain power. In that case, they were not successful – the Liberals had campaigned aggressively against the Tories prior to that; distracting rumours about Thorpe’s personal life were also circulating Westminster. Ultimately, the negotiations broke down because Thorpe realised that he wouldn’t retain the support of his party should he enter coalition with the Conservatives; while Heath decided that he couldn’t sell the coalition to his party or the electorate.

We are already seeing parties prepare for post-election coalition. Party leaders are managing expectations and either drawing their ‘red lines’ in advance, or hedging their bets. At the time of writing, Labour’s refusal to reject a deal with the SNP is mirrored by the Tories’ declaring they want nothing to do with UKIP… whilst Conservative warnings about the danger to national unity of a SNP-dominated Labour coalition are being met with even more confusing rhetoric (most recently from Alastair Darling) about the Tories’ “divisive” scaremongering and apparent call to… English nationalists.

If the opinion polls are anything to go by, even the days of two-party government may appear a thing of the past come May… The latest indications from the polls suggest that Labour and the Conservatives will each win between 265-275 seats, the SNP 50, the Lib Dems 30 and UKIP 4, with around 20 shared between the smaller parties (including one for the Greens). There are no easy coalition options for a government to achieve the 326 seats required for a majority. With the exclusion of absent Sinn Fein MPs, this figure could fall to 322 or 321.Debate

If we assume that some parties could never form a coalition with each other, the most likely combinations are as follows:

  • Labour and the SNP (it would be tight; its viability depends on results)
  • The Conservatives, UKIP, The Lib Dems, and the DUP in Northern Ireland (depending on results – without a Conservative surge, the numbers may not add up)
  • Labour, the SNP, and the Lib Dems

None of these look like easy agreements. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that these are the least unlikely rather than the most likely.

The concepts of legitimacy and choice figure strongly in such dealings. In the event of a hung parliament, all MPs will have been elected to represent their respective parties and will have campaigned on their own issues. The electorate will have voted for these MPs because of their policies and ideology: not the policies and ideologies of their opposition.

With our politics as divided as they currently are, there appears to be no legitimate route to government and little real choice for the electorate, in terms of voting for an outcome they desire. Perceptions of legitimacy stem from the way political parties have sold themselves to the electorate, especially the “wriggle room” they have built into their narrative. Some parties would be naturally suited to coalition, and have set themselves up as so. Others have ruled themselves out already.

When a smaller party sells a coalition to the people, they have to be able to show that they have achieved concessions on at least the majority of their major election promises, and wield enough power and influence to make coalition worthwhile. Being perceived as power crazed ‘sell outs’ decimates any good faith in their party.

When a larger party sells a coalition to the people, they must demonstrate that they have allied to a party that shares their views on the path the government must take.

Meanwhile, our system itself is geared for one party rule, making it very difficult for political parties not just to form, but also to keep to, any agreements. As things stand, the next government could last only months before falling apart. Unless there is a sizable swing towards a UK-wide party, we can expect any solution to be temporary. After all, there had only been one agreement of the current sort before 2010: the lib-lab pact of 1977-1978 – which fell apart and led to the 1979 Vote of No Confidence.

All this has already led to some tough negotiations between the parties, and we can expect to see even tougher and more convoluted wrangling over the next couple of weeks.

Whatever the outcome, it will come down to who performs better in negotiation. If you’d like to know what kind of negotiator you are and how you can improve your technique, why not take our quick quiz? As with this election – you might not be the only one surprised with the results!