Making time to talk

John Osmond says coalition negotiations normally take much longer than the few days Westminster seems to expect

It was intriguing over the weekend to note that many Westminster politicos and pundits were forecasting some resolution to the negotiations underway between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives before the markets opened on Monday morning. Our friends in London are plainly on a steep learning curve about coalition politics.

As Laura McAllister pointed out here the other day, coalition politics are normal just about everywhere else in Europe, where elections are fought in two halves – first the campaign in the run-up to polling day, and then the talks to achieve a consensus that take place afterwards. Generally these take weeks rather than days. In Belgium they can take months, even approaching a year. In Wales following the 3 May 2007 election they took two months. During that time, it will remembered, three major programmes for government were hammered out:

  • The Labour Minority Government Stability Agreement with Plaid Cymru – a document prepared by Labour for presentation to Plaid Cymru on 22 May on a no prejudice basis, setting out the suggested terms for a Stability Agreement between the two Parties and covering both policy matters and institutional arrangements.
  • The ‘Rainbow’ All Wales Accord – an agreement to establish a coalition government, negotiated between Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and arrived at on 21 May.
  • One Wales: A Progressive Agenda for the Government of Wales – an agreement between the Labour and Plaid Cymru Groups in the National Assembly that was eventually  delivered on 27 June.

All three are contained in my Crossing the Rubicon: Coalition Politics Welsh Style in which I also provide a blow-by-blow account of how the negotiations were conducted during the two months. The difference in Wales was that, because of our additional member proportional system and the state of the polls, a coalition of some kind was anticipated ahead of the election. Moreover, a deadline for negotiations being concluded was enshrined in the 1999 Wales Act. If a Government was not formed within 28 days of the election – that is by 30 May – a new election would be triggered.

In the event, after the Welsh Liberal Democrats failed to agree the Rainbow coalition, Rhodri Morgan was installed as First Minister on 29 May at the head of a minority Labour administration, a day ahead of the deadline. However, very soon he was in renewed talks with Plaid Cymru that led to the One Wales coalition government.

Many involved in the negotiations during the May and June 2007 felt that the 30 days deadline was unrealistic and that part of the legislation establishing the Assembly should be revisited. I imagine that most people engaged in negotiations in Westminster at this moment would be horrified at the idea that their talks might drag on for another week, let alone another month. But that is the nature of producing programmes for government which also need to be ratified by the various parts of the machinery of the parties involved. A back of an envelop is not sufficient for an agreement that is going to last for a parliamentary term, especially when constitutional reform is at the centre of what is being discussed.

Nonetheless, the parties in Westminster are under huge pressure to make much swifter progress than the luxurious two months that accompanied the Welsh negotiations in 2007. This lends added credence to Lord Ashdown’s suggestion on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning that if there is to be an alternative to a Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition then the best bet would be a Liberal Democrat/Labour alliance, operating as a minority government.

Whatever the outcome, from the perspective of those of us keen to see a referendum on further powers for the National Assembly pursued this Autumn a coalition of some kind is the best outcome. If the Conservatives were allowed to put in train a minority administration the likelihood of another Westminster election intervening before the end of the year would be much greater. In turn that would frustrate the possibility of holding a referendum on more powers for the Assembly this Autumn, the optimum window of opportunity for a successful outcome we have.

John Osmond is the Director of the IWA

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