Thoughts for an incoming Government: coalition

Posted on: September 19th, 2014

With 8 months left for the UK’s first peacetime coalition government strategists in the main political parties will be thinking hard about how to prepare in case they need to form another one next May. A report by BGI member Sir John Elvidge published today draws on his experience as Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government to identify factors that will enhance the prospects of success of a future coalition.

Before the election – make sure policy statements take account of the possibility of working in coalition with other parties.

The key difference between single party and coalition governments is that the policies of the latter can only be finally settled by negotiation. In countries where coalition government is the norm pre-election statements of parties’ future policy propositions are framed with an eye to an initial negotiating position with potential coalition parties as well as an attempt to win votes.

Pre-election contacts between the parties can also help to prepare the ground for negotiations. In the preparations for the 2003 election for the Scottish Parliament there was clear evidence of thought being given by senior politicians to the big ticket items which would be the subject of trading in negotiation of a new coalition agreement.

Negotiating a coalition agreement – consider the need for flexibility in the light of expe-rience and make sure the civil service fully understands what has been agreed.

Experience in United Kingdom and devolved governments so far fits the model of negotiating the policy content of a coalition agreement before the formation of the Government, with a parallel process of negotiating at least some key points about Ministerial positions, for exam-ple the number of Ministerial posts to be held by each party.

The involvement of civil servants in the coalition forming process in Scotland in 1999 and 2003 helped to ensure that an accurate understanding of the policy intentions behind the wording of the coalition agreement could be communicated to the parts of the civil service responsible for taking action, thus reducing the risk of subsequent accusations that the way in which agreed commitments were implemented was not consistent with the negotiations.

United Kingdom coalition agreements have tended to be highly specific, reflecting an implicit view that locking the coalition partners into a fixed deal is of greater importance than preserving flexibility. An alternative model placing greater emphasis on a shared set of guiding principles, as exemplified to some degree by the 1999 coalition agreement in Scotland, eases the task of evolving policy positions in the light of experience.

Governing – have systematic arrangements in place to resolve differences of view.

Mechanisms to resolve differences of view are of even greater importance in coalitions than in single party governments. An important part of the coalition negotiations should be a clear set of ‘operating rules’, for example about disciplines of collective responsibility, disclosure of civil service advice to Ministers of both parties and Ministers’ responsibilities to ensure that all significant policy developments are exposed to collective consideration. The more successfully the coalition partners have integrated their engagement in the operation of government, the more likely it is that they will be able to renew and refresh their policies without the need for a formal process of amending the coalition agreement.

There appears to be much more frequent need for the use of mechanisms to resolve differences in the current United Kingdom coalition government than was the case in the coalition governments in Scotland and Wales where the frameworks negotiated at the beginning of those coalitions sought to reduce the scope for continuing tensions over the life of the governments.

The end phase – ensure that the inevitable tensions in the last year of a coalition are managed successfully.

As a coalition government enters the final year before an election there is a tension between the continuing responsibility on the parties to govern together and the desire to differentiate from each other in their presentations to the electorate. There is also the challenge of having a shared track record in government but a desire to claim a distinct ability to influence the future. The model established in Scotland, which offered the coalition parties the opportunity to engage with the civil service in ‘separate space’ free from the obligation for civil service advice in relation to government business to be shared, showed that the tensions are capable of being managed successfully.