The scene is set for a hung parliament. The polls are showing that the Conservatives and Labour are struggling to secure much above 30% of the vote, and are both on course to win a similar number of seats. The days following the 7th May are likely to be just as exciting as those preceding the day itself, with coalition negotiations dominating the headlines. Current speculation is leaning towards a renewal of vows between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. However, that possibility hinges on the extent to which the Lib Dem vote is diminished. Similarly, we cannot discount the possibility of of Labour forming a coalition, the possibility of a minority government, or other third parties coming into the mix to support a confidence-and-supply deal. So it’s all to play for.
The margins for forming a majority are likely to be tight. Ultimately it will come down to which party can successfully broker a workable majority, however slim. However, these negotiations won’t be simple. David Laws MP, a main player in the 2010 negotiations, recently predicted that negotiations could take two days longer than the five it took to form the current government. Others project that it could take much longer. Just last week, we read that civil servants are planning for weeks of negotiation, with discussions taking place outside of Whitehall to ensure that no parties have an unfair advantage. Crucially, messy and protracted coalition talks will be unsettling to the economy, may weaken the pound and cause volatility in the foreign exchange markets. As we countdown to 7th May, there are two key lessons from the experience of this coalition, which the Westminster parties will need to keep at the forefront of their minds, as they make their plans for coalition negotiations.
The parties will be seeking buy in from their respective parties. This is particularly the case for the Conservative Party. No.10 is acutely aware that the experience of 2010, where the views of Tory MPs were only briefly canvassed before the deal was presented as fait accompli, left backbenchers alienated. The consequence of this was that it encouraged rebelliousness among backbenchers. By the end of October 2011 there had been well over 150 separate revolts in the Commons by Government MPs, including a rebellion by 91 Conservative MPs on House of Lords reform.
This time around, it is expected the Conservative 1922 committee, the body representing Tory backbenchers, will be consulted throughout and that Graham Brady MP, the Chairman of the Committee, will have a crucial role in any coalition agreements. All parties would do well to remember that backbench support will have to be sought if coalitions are to function and maintain parliamentary discipline.
Chris Huhne captured this sentiment perfectly when he commented on Newsnight:
“The first and foremost lesson, make sure everybody has their hands dipped in the blood on both sides of the coalition, or all three sides of the coalition, because you’re going to need all of those votes and all of that discipline to get you through the period ahead.”
2) Draw your red lines and communicate to your voters
Going into a coalition, compromises over policy are inevitable. However, parties must realise what policies were totemic to their election campaign and ensure that any policy propositions central to the party’s pitch are secured. No party can afford to fundamentally let down their supporters. The Lib Dems and the tuition fees hike is the blinding example of this. They have consequently learnt a hard lesson for not sticking to their promises, with 90% of MEPs vanquished and polling popularity on par with UKIP and the Greens.
Alongside this, there is also the need for constant dialogue and explanation from leaders to their voters on why decisions are taken. In contrast to the smiles and the rhetoric of “political marriage” in the Rose Garden in 2010, future coalitions will need to promote the impression of a contract, rather than a marriage, from day one. This should help communicate to voters that compromises are inevitable, and limit the damage to the parties’ credibility along the way.
Ultimately, the process and consequences of this coalition reflect the lack of experience of coalitions in the UK – the 2010 election led to the formation of the first coalition since 1945. As we approach this year’s election, there will be a fine balancing act between criticising opponents to bolster support, whilst ensuring there will still be allies for a walk through the rose garden after the final votes have been counted.