Working together

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 23rd March 2015

What is the best way for parties to share power? How can you make minority government work? And how do you negotiate a successful coalition?

These are some of the questions likely to be at the forefront of the party leaders’ minds over the next couple of months. As we near a General Election which is almost certain to produce a hung parliament, now is the perfect time to draw on politicians’ rich experience of power-sharing, both in the UK and across the world.

That’s why we’ve brought together a group of senior politicians to share their experience of working in coalition and minority government, in a new report entitled Working Together: lessons in how to share power.

The report offers personal insights from British and overseas politicians on how to negotiate and manage power-sharing arrangements. There are contributions from:

  • Former whip and junior minister Jenny Willott giving candid insights into her experience of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Westminster coalition
  • Rhodri Morgan, former First Minister of Wales, sharing his recollections of negotiating with Plaid Cymru and how to deal with the internal party politics of coalition
  • Andrew Burns, leader of Edinburgh City Council, on his experiences leading Scotland’s only Labour/SNP coalition council
  • Former Treasury special adviser Julia Goldsworthy on the machinery of government and how to make coalition work in Whitehall
  • Former First Minister of Scotland Lord Jack McConnell discussing his time in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, demonstrating that coalition can be long-lasting and achieve real policy change
  • Former New Zealand Labour minister and ERS Deputy Chief Executive Darren Hughes on the different ways in which minority government can be made to work

There are also important contributions from abroad, including former Irish minister Ruairi Quinn, former Prime Minister of Lower Saxony David McAllister, and Professor Dennis Pilon of Canada.

Working Together offers five key lessons for party leaders in May:

  1. For coalition to work, there needs to be a common sense of purpose – clear aims and a united vision for what the parties want to achieve together
  2. It takes time to negotiate. Deciding how to govern a country is not something that should be rushed. And sometimes, the longer it takes, the better the outcomes
  3. Parties need to sign off on any power-sharing arrangement if it is going to achieve legitimacy. This can take the form of special conferences or other means of gaining party members’ assent
  4. Power-sharing comes in numerous forms. Each nation can develop models of coalition or minority government which fit with their own political culture
  5. Coalitions aren’t easy. They need constant dialogue, good personal relationships between protagonists and mechanisms for resolving disputes if they are going to work

People’s wishes have changed. In a poll by ComRes of the 40 most marginal Conservative-Labour constituencies (ie. the areas where the traditional two-party battle ought to be fiercest), we found that:

  • 78% believe the Opposition should work with the government on issues they agree on (against just 9% who support the opposite)
  • 54% believe Parliament works best when no party is too dominant so that cross-party agreement is needed to pass laws (against just 28% who support the opposite)

People want to see multiple parties competing for their votes, and then working together when they get to Westminster. Our new report offers tips and guidance on how to do just that.

Of course, the fact our broken voting system tries to cram people’s varied wishes into a two-party framework can make the whole process of power-sharing seem far from transparent. If parties were able to negotiate based on the real wishes of voters and not the disproportionate results of First Past the Post, then coalition and minority government would have the legitimacy it needs. We badly need to get rid of our outdated electoral system.

But in the meantime, let’s make sure parties are ready to work together after 7th May.

Read the full report here

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