Permission to share power?

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 19th January 2015

When it comes to forming a coalition, is it better to get your party on side before committing, or to take the plunge without consultation?

The Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps has recently said that Tory MPs will be given a role in any new coalition agreement after this May’s election. This decision has no doubt been influenced by experience of coalition over the last five years. Time and time again, Conservative backbenchers have been able to cite the lack of consultation over power-sharing as reason to rebel.

The Liberal Democrats did it differently: they had a ‘triple lock’ mechanism when going into coalition in 2010. This mechanism ensured that for the party to enter government it had to get the approval of the parliamentary party and the Federal Executive (the party’s governing body, mostly elected by members). If 75% of both groups did not vote in favour, a special conference of members had also to be convened. In 2010 this hurdle was easily reached, but the party held a conference anyway.

The triple lock mechanism had notable effects on the party in coalition. Firstly, it legitimised the coalition agreement within the party. It became more difficult to argue that the agreement was simply the whim of an unrepresentative leadership when the whole party had acceded to it. This helped to bind the party together and helps explain why, despite many predicting otherwise, it has not fallen into infighting or mass defection.

Secondly, the triple lock appeared to help the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 negotiations, giving the leadership a reference point for what was and wasn’t a red line. “The membership won’t support that under any circumstances,” they were able to say. The triple lock hardened their negotiating position.

In comparison the Conservative Party held no vote, and hence was not bound into coalition in the same way. Backbenchers became rapidly rebellious, with some openly voicing distrust and dislike of their coalition partners.

When it comes to securing legitimacy for coalition-forming, international comparisons suggest the Liberal Democrat approach is more on trend. Historically the view tended to be that the parties which survived coalition best were those whose leaders made all the decisions on behalf of their party. This top-down process would supposedly stop parties being held hostage by unreasonable backbenchers and members. This would also slow down the process of government formation, it was argued.

Trends are now moving in the opposite direction. Before the 2013 German election the Social Democrats (SPD) changed their party rules so that their whole membership would have the right to vote on whether to enter coalition. The change in rules was said to help the SPD in negotiations, particularly with achieving the core SPD demand of a minimum wage.

In India, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) exploded into life in Delhi in 2013 running on an anti-corruption platform. When the Delhi State election saw a hung parliament and the AAP was asked to form an administration, they launched public consultations which included the ability for members of the public to have their say online and via SMS, in addition to public meetings.

The AAP’s strategy was to get their own voters’ assent for joining the government. Although the AAP government would prove to be very short-lived (it resigned after 49 days after other parties refused to back their key anti-corruption legislation), this exercise in wider consultancy on coalition may prove to be where the longer trend takes us.

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