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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.