Mark Drakeford reflects on the conditions necessary to negotiate a successful coalition deal in the National Assembly
Experience teaches us that more often that not the electoral system used for the National Assembly for Wales is likely to result in the need for a coalition administration. Of course, if the opinion polls are to be believed May 2011 may be an exception. Nevertheless, if no one party wins an overall, workable majority in a few weeks time, there are lessons to be drawn from the formation of coalition governments in the past. This essay aims to draw out seven separate principles which, I argue, form the conditions for successful coalition negotiations. Whether they are pillars of wisdom or pillars of salt is, naturally, for the reader to determine.
As well as reflecting on the experience of being involved in the discussions which have produced two successful coalitions in Wales, what follows also contains occasional observations on what has gone on across our border and at the other end of the M4. Stresses and strains in the Westminster coalition have largely been dismissed by those involved in them as simply the sort of thing to be expected when two Parties come together to form a government. The argument set out here is that many of the fissures apparent between the Conservatives and Lib Dems are inherent, not in coalitions per se, but in the particular ways in which that specific coalition was constructed.
The first of my seven principles is that speed and timing matter. So far, since 1999 there have been three Assembly terms, and in two of them government has been conducted through a coalition. In the case of the Labour/Lib Dem ‘partnership government’ of October 2000, the first discussions took place immediately after Rhodri Morgan became First Minister, in February of that year. The detailed work of drafting the text of an agreement took place over the summer, intensifying in September and concluded by 5 October.
Following the inconclusive elections of May 2007, the negotiations between Plaid Cymru and Labour were, in the final stretch, carried out rapidly. Nevertheless, that was still underpinned by a slower-time set of discussions which had started, in face-to-face fashion, as early as the day after the election.
In both cases the ability to avoid a break-neck, headlong dash to agreement was helpful to long term stability. The beat of the media drum is a real difficulty in all of this, with its insatiable demand to move on to the next element of any story. Nevertheless, experience suggests that an outcome which has a chance of being reliable and lasting needs to have some element of slower time in its construction. The Government of Wales Act 2006 allows a period of weeks, rather than days, to form an administration. My argument here is that, if that proves necessary, those involved in any post-May 5th discussions ought to take advantage of that constitutional opportunity.
My second rule of coalition-making is that gender also matters. In my day-job, at Cardiff University, I am regularly asked by students whether the gender-balanced nature of the membership of the National Assembly makes any real difference to policy outcomes. I think it does, and the example I always cite is the creation of the One Wales agreement in June 2007. Put simply that agreement would not have happened, had the process not been driven by women politicians.
In my experience, when the going gets really tough, male politicians have a tendency to retreat to the testosterone-fuelled mountain tops, and shout at each other across the great divide. In contrast, women search relentlessly for the common ground, for the sometimes small piece of shared territory around which a wider jigsaw of agreement can be put together. Now, these are grand generalisations, I know. But, quite certainly, in the case of the Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition, the hard-edged business of exploring the really difficult issues from every possible angle, until a way through the thicket could be found was conducted with huge reservoirs of energy and determination by the women around the negotiating table.
If such negotiations are necessary again, after May’s elections, I hope the room will be full of women helping to conduct them.
My third principle shifts to the issue of content. Here, two key components seem to me to be essential in resolving the difficulties which agreeing content inevitably throw up:
- Any final joint programme should contain only items which had been put before the electorate by either one party or the other.
- It must not contain any item which had been explicitly rejected in the election by either of the coalition partners.
The importance here is two-fold. First of all, it minimises the areas for future disagreement between the two coalition parties. Secondly, it provides at least an inroad into the criticism of many coalition agreements – that they lack democratic legitimacy, foregrounding backroom deals and bristling with policy details which had never been put before the electorate (and, indeed, might have been specifically ruled out by the two parties during the election period).
Coalition programmes which fail these tests, and which tear up vast chunks of pre-election positions, while inventing wholly new policy proposals are not only intensely undemocratic, but carry the seeds of their own destruction.
The same question of democratic legitimacy applies to the issue of meaningful ratification of any agreement drawn up by the negotiating teams, and crucially by the wider membership of the parties involved. In 2000 the Lib Dems held a special ratification conference. The more difficult agreement, between Labour and Plaid Cymru, was put in full, separately, and successfully, to special conferences of both parties.
The process of securing ratification was not straightforward, in either Party. However, certainly from a Labour Party perspective the huge effort invested in assembling the convincing majority by which ratification was secured turned out to be an essential investment in underpinning the long-term stability of the government that followed.
5. Status of coalition agreement
From the point of view of day-to-day coalition management, this fifth principle casts the sharpest distinction between the way in which coalitions have been brought about in Wales and the events of May 2010 at Westminster. In both Welsh experiences, the text of the coalition agreements has been treated with utmost seriousness. If a commitment appears in the agreement, it has to be delivered. If a policy proposal is not contained in the agreement, then it cannot form part of the joint programme for government. Inevitably (and especially as time moves on) exceptions to this golden rule have to be negotiated, but they are just that – rare and exceptional.
The reason for this seriousness is that the text of the coalition agreement provides party leaders, in particular, with means of exercising the discipline which is necessary for the implementation of any political programme. Yet, this very substantial advantage of treating the coalition agreement seriously was thrown away in the Westminster case almost before its ink was dry. Rather, the agreement of 12 May 2010 (and its elaboration on 20 May) has been treated as a blueprint for a hokey-cokey, with items moved in and out of it at increasing speed.
Andrew Lansley’s decision, on 12 July 2010, to abandon both health service commitments of six weeks earlier – to retain the Primary Care Trusts and to ‘stop the top-down reorganisation of the NHS’ in England – certainly lacks political wisdom, whatever the policy merits or demerits. Once the coalition agreement was exposed as something with which individual ministers could play fast-and-loose, almost at will, then its power to act with a binding force on reluctant government supporters was destroyed, and a powerful weapon in the armoury of coalition management was thrown away.
In Wales, coalitions have proceeded on exactly the opposite basis. Where there have been departures from the original One Wales text – such as changes to the student fees regime, or the decision not to proceed with the M4 relief road – they have been painstakingly negotiated and have been remarkable for their rarity.
6. Political management
The daily survival of a coalition depends upon a dogged attention to the detail of legislative programmes, policy announcements, ministerial decisions and so on. An ongoing set of discussions are needed, between the parties, in which potential problems are, as far as possible, identified early and resolved at the lowest possible level of political authority. Where special advisers cannot broker an agreement, Ministers must become directly involved. The desks of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should be reached only on those few and far-between occasions, when all prior levels have been exhausted. All that requires is a set of political arrangements in which the process of resolving difficult issues is clearly set out and properly understood.
None of this can prevent political trouble from occurring. However, it can reduce the occasions on which that happens, and help minimise the difficulties when they occur. That is why, in Wales, both coalitions have published a set of political arrangements, to go alongside their policy programmes. My sixth principle is that any future coalition will need to do the same.
7. Ambiguity: coalition, or incorporation?
Finally, to address an issue which appears to lie close to the heart of a fundamental instability in the 2010 coalition. In both Welsh cases it has been clear that the coalitions are fixed-term and fixed-purpose arrangements which carry no implication for wider political re-alignments. The temptation, in the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, has been for all sorts of ambiguities to creep into the arrangement. At various moments in the past year far reaching suggestions or proposals have been made for the two parties to build on the coalition deal they have brokered – special deals in individual constituencies, joint manifestos at the next general election, extending to a full merger of the parties. All these and even more inventive possibilities have been suggested, each one bringing a new wave of instability in its wake.
The moral is clear: muddying the waters in a way which suggests that coalition is only part of a slippery slope towards merger (or incorporation) is much more likely to sink a coalition than to sustain it. Post-devolution experience in Scotland and in Wales suggests that parties can successfully come together for important purposes, while retaining clear separation as political entities.
Over the past four years in Wales we have witnessed nationwide local authority elections, European elections and a General Election, as well as the usual admixture of local by-elections. Of course, an Assembly election poses the greatest challenge to an orderly disengagement which leaves open the possibility of further constructive dialogue, if that is what the verdict of the voters requires. Continental countries have a length of experience in this sort of disengagement-followed-by-reengagement which produces a maturity of process. Even if we don’t have that length of history, we have demonstrated, I believe, the truth of this seventh and final principle. This is that coalitions are best brought about and sustained by Parties with distinct and distinctive identities which choose to work together over a fixed period and with a set of fixed and public purposes.