Thoughts on the UK coalition

Well, the deal is done, and Britain is ruled by a coalition. Although I still feel they gave themselves too little time, it seems the Tories and LibDems have actually struck a reasonable deal. In fact, the deal is outright generous to the LibDems because the Tories were in too much of a hurry. Patience is a virtue in coalition negotiations.

The results

Both parties loudly proclaimed they intend to serve out the full five-year parliamentary period as a coalition. That is good, although it does not necessarily mean they will succeed (see also all Dutch governments from 2002 on). Still, nobody can doubt that a good-faith effort has been made.

The negotiations result document was only seven pages; and to someone used to the unreadable Dutch documents that go on for dozens, if not hundreds, of pages, this is a welcome change. Pity it won’t stay that way; the more experienced British politicians become with negotiating a coalition, the larger such documents will become. But for now it’s a perfectly decent result.

I haven’t studied the negotiation results in detail (I don’t follow British domestic policies, so I can’t judge most issues), but my overall feeling is that the result is a decent compromise between the two parties. The LibDems get their referendum on voting reform, while the Tories get their cap on non-EU immigration; both of which seem to have been important issues to their respective electorates.

In other issues I have the feeling the negative viewpoint prevailed: if one party was in favour of changing something and the other against, nothing will change. This is one of the less desirable aspects of coalition government, and the UK is not immune to it.

Still, the end result is pretty balanced, and that in itself is odd. The Tories were in a strong position, after all, and the LibDems in a lousy one. However, a tactical trick that would never even be considered in Holland saved the day for Nick Clegg’s party.

The LibDems’ sin

What shocked me to the core was the spectacle of the LibDems negotiating with Labour at the same time they were talking to the Tories. This is not only Not Done in Holland, with caps fully in place, but it would relegate the offending party to the sidelines of coalition politics for the next generation or so.

One talks to only one party at a time; you can’t negotiate for marriage with two different people at the same time either, after all. This rule is so basic that I never thought it necessary to spell it out.

Threatening to negotiate with another party in order to put pressure on your current negotiation partner, sure, that’s allowed — it’s done all the time, in fact.

Sending a negotiator to meet with a negotiator of another party in secret, that could be done, I suppose, although there would be some fall-out if it were discovered, and it would weaken the position of the offending party.

But openly boasting that you’re talking to another party at the same time, no, that really really goes too far.

Still, it seems to have worked. The Tories got nervous and gave in to the LibDems rather more often than they might have otherwise.

Lab/Lib was never a serious option. Everybody talked about getting a slew of regional parties in to support the broad progressive coalition, but that would not have been workable in the long run. They would all have their own demands for money for their Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish pet projects, but even when they got all they wanted it would not ensure that the herd of cats would stay together for five years.

Even the coalition grand masters in charge of the Dutch political parties would hesitate to throw together a coalition of two major parties and no less than three or four minor ones. It’s just untenable in the long run. I mean, even the Tory leaders should have seen this ... shouldn’t they?

The point of the Lab/Lib negotiations was to put pressure on the Tories; and that seems to have succeeded beyond reasonable expectation.

It’s just that next time they should just threaten to do it instead of actually doing it. That’s enough, most of the time, and it saves a lot of face. (Not that British politicians seem to have any concept of face during coalition negotiations, but it might grow on them.)


I get the distinct impression that the Tories have been too hasty in the negotiations, and that they could have brought home more of their pet projects if they had allowed negotiations to continue for a while.

It was the LibDems, after all, and not the Tories, who had most to lose from failed negotiations.

The only alternative to a coalition was a new election, and the LibDems would have been decimated in that election. This should have made the LibDems more eager for a deal than the Tories.

Besides, it was clear from the outset that the LibDems were in the sweet spot between the two large parties. Although that spot is desirable from a power-political point of view, it also puts the onus of making the negotiations succeed on the LibDems — they would have been punished by the voters if it had appeared they made negotiations impossible or even difficult.

These two factors combined mean that the LibDems had more to lose than the Tories from failed negotiations, and that the Tories could have held out for more concessions.

British politicians still have a lot to learn about coalition negotiations.

Electoral reform?

Anyway, we might even see some electoral reform in the not-too-distant future, and I will follow that developing story with all the attention it merits. After all, if even the UK abandons First Past the Post, there might be some discussion in the US about a similar measure.

That’s not to say UK and US politics are similar — they’re not; and any UK change will certainly not mean that the US will do the same.

Still, when it comes to foreign politics the US is only aware of the UK, and thus the changes will be noted, discussed, and maybe there will be some feedback.

But what will happen in the UK? From the coalition document:

The parties will bring forward a referendum bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the alternative vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. Both parties will whip their parliamentary parties in both houses to support a simple majority referendum on the alternative vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.

That gives some clarity, but I’m confused as to the “fewer and more equal sized constituencies” bit. Does that mean less MPs? Or larger constituencies that elect several MPs? (The latter would basically mean a single transferable vote will be introduced.)

Still, the end result is not bad. If the Cameron government holds out until the end of this year, the Brits will have proven they can actually work with coalitions.

<— How to discuss coalition preferences | Polls and new coalitions —>

This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.


Comments (closed)

1 Posted by Shinydan Howells on 13 May 2010 | Permalink

I think it means fewer MPs and larger constituencies. Various LD people I know here in the UK seem to think it's a good thing. It's true that AV isn't truly proportional, but if we have AV then STV becomes a much easier sell, one or two parliaments down the line.

2 Posted by Richard Gadsden on 13 May 2010 | Permalink

I’m confused as to the “fewer and more equal sized constituencies” bit

It means fewer MPs. Both parties proposed a reduction in the number of MPs; the Conservatives also proposed a stricter rule on equal electorates for each constituency. This appears to accept the Conservative proposal, but tie it to the AV proposal in the referendum (a really devious bit of negotiating; David Laws is *very* good).

3 Posted by Bryan on 13 May 2010 | Permalink

Discussions of voting reforms, including proportional representation may be able to swim the English Channel, but not across the Atlantic ocean to the U.S. anytime soon. The concept of a “Hung Parliament” was hard enough to explain for the newscasters, remember, America has a Presidential, not a Parliamentary system.

Also, totaling agree “dueling negotiations” is definitively bad form. Hope LibDems promise of good faith effort to serve full period is not more duplicitous speak.

4 Posted by Martijn Grooten on 14 May 2010 | Permalink

The main difference between the negotiations as they took place last week and the ones common in the Netherlands is that the latter are fairly official. The queen has appointed an official negotiator ("informateur") whose explicit task is to see whether there is a possibility of a coalition between parties A and B. If B in the meantimes helds secret talks to party C, that is really Not Done. (And would make you wonder why B agreed with the appointment of the negotiator in the first place.) In the UK, there was no such thing; it was like a children's game where all children in the class were sent out to form a government and the first to come to the queen with a majority of MPs behind them was to be PM.

5 Posted by Q. Pheevr on 14 May 2010 | Permalink

I don't know about the U.S., but I'm hopeful that if some kind of electoral reform is adopted, or even seriously discussed, in the U.K., that will help pave the way in Canada. The current Canadian system is much more similar to the British one than the American system is, and Canada is much more inclined to see the U.K. as a role model. (Hey, they even have the same head of state!)

In Canada, the party that would stand to gain the most from some form of proportional representation is the New Democrats (analogous to the Lib Dems in the U.K.); the party that would probably lose the most is the Bloc Québécois (analogous to, if anyone, Sinn Fein, but imagine Sinn Fein holding 15% of the seats in the House of Commons). The 1993 election was as dramatic a demonstration as anyone could possibly want of the degree to which First Past the Post disproportionately rewards parties with a narrow regional focus, but so far no steps have been taken to change that. Maybe the example of the U.K. will provide an inspiration.

6 Posted by Raphael on 14 May 2010 | Permalink

Regarding first past the post and the USA, I think some states do already have runoff elections for Senate and House seats, allthough most states don't.