Coalition politics after the 2016 Assembly election

John Osmond reports on a seminar in the Senedd this week that looked at the dos and don’ts following a hung election

Rhodri Morgan once famously remarked, in the early years of the National Assembly, that its electoral arrangements had been devised to ensure that Labour would achieve a majority of seats in at least three elections out of four. Speaking at a seminar on coalition government in the Senedd earlier this week, and with the benefit of hindsight, he revised that estimate sharply downwards.

He said that, at best, Labour could not hope to form a majority government following one election out of two. “The 1999 Assembly was not set up for majoritarian rule,” he reflected. “It was designed to make it as difficult as possible for Labour to form a government.”

The former First Minister also made it clear that he wasn’t just referring to the electoral arrangements and their form of partial proportional representation, but to the inaugural Assembly’s internal procedures as well. Ron Davies’ passionate pursuit of ‘inclusive’ government had resulted in excessive powers being handed to chairs of Committees, whose role gave them as much if not more influence than Secretaries in the Cabinet.  “It was all meant to operate as a happy clappy scout camp,” was the way he scathingly described it.

Which was why following the first coalition of Labour with the Liberal Democrats in 2000 he moved swiftly to rename Secretaries as Ministers, to ensure the separation of the legislature from the executive, and to institute as strong a system of Cabinet government as possible.

But more than providing a perspective on the history of Welsh coalition government the seminar, organised by Swansea University’s European Institute of Identities, provided an important glimpse of where Welsh politics could be following the May 2016 Assembly election. For the likelihood is that the parties will once more find themselves locked in negotiations to form another coalition.

Rhodri Morgan said he disagreed with a recommendation from the House of Lords Constitution Committee on the formation of coalitions, published last week (here ), that negotiations “should be concluded as quickly as possible”. The five days that it took to form the present Conservative Liberal Democrat government at Westminster was too hasty, he said, and destined to ensure that parts of the coalition agreement would unravel. He contrasted it with the two months it took to negotiate the One Wales coalition that he led following the 2007 Assembly election. That, he said, was closer to European norms.

It was important, too, that coalition agreements were endorsed by the parties involved. The 2007 Assembly agreement was voted on by special recall conferences of both Labour and Paid Cymru. This contrasted with what happened in Westminster following the 2010 coalition deal, when only Liberal Democrat MPs voted on it, while the Conservatives didn’t seek a mandate of any kind from amongst their party members.

Another speaker at the seminar, South Wales East Plaid Cymru AM Jocelyn Davies, who led her party’s team in the 2007 coalition negotiations, set out some practical lessons. She said it was important that she and Vale of Glamorgan Labour AM Jane Hutt, who led for Labour, knew each other well and quickly established a basis of trust. “Neither of us had leadership ambitions ourselves,” she said. “So there was no risk to either of us in whatever might have come out of the negotiations.

“We quickly established a safe environment and operated on a basis of trust. There were no leaks and no grandstanding to the press following meetings. We agreed that as far as possible our respective leaders should be kept away from the detail. We would only raise matters with them that we could not resolve ourselves.”

She said it was important that following the Agreement the subsequent coalition government acted as one in sharing the commitments in common and not identifying which came from either party. “That allowed us to be more progressive and braver in implementation,” she said.

Any disputes that arose during government over issues not covered in the one Wales Agreement were dealt with by a star chamber, made up of the two leaders – Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones – and their two special adviser, Mark Drakeford, now Health Minister, and Simon Thomas, now Plaid’s List AM for Mid and West Wales.

Both Rhodri Morgan and Jocelyn Davies rejected as a myth the notion that smaller parties should be wary of entering coalition government because they would reap adverse electoral consequences. Jocelyn Davies said her party’s setback at the 2010 election, when its seats fell from 15 to 11, was more to do with Labour benefiting from a Conservative-led government at Westminster than Plaid participating in the coalition government.

John Osmond is Editor of ClickonWales.

9 thoughts on “Coalition politics after the 2016 Assembly election

  1. Good to see some discussion about coalition politics. This was a key part of our recent political history and it requires further research.

  2. There’s no doubt in my mind that Plaid suffered electorally after its coalition with Labour. Not only that, it has lost momentum. As far as Jocelyn Davies’ opinion is concerned, I think she would claim that it wasn’t damaging considering the pivotal role she appears to have played in bringing it into being. As for Rhodri Morgan, he has nothing to lose, and everything to gain from a coalition with a smaller party which suffers electorally afterwards.

    If Plaid repeats the mistake it made, it risks greater losses subsequently, and being consigned to oblivion by the electorate as an irrelevance. Its strategy has been the opposite to that pursued by the SNP, which abstained from coalition, until it was in a position to govern itself as the largest party at Holyrood.

    A party that doesn’t learn from its mistakes won’t get anywhere.

  3. As a contributor to the seminar last Monday (and in fact, it was my argument that Rhodri Morgan was challenging!), I would dispute Rhodri’s argument and point to alternative research and some hard empirical evidence from politicians and officials involved with the planning of devolution. This suggests that the original design of devolution was predominantly and overwhelmingly majoritarian. We have written on this here:

    Yes, there were some idiosyncratic touches around ministers as members of committeesetc. but the fact remains that the limited PR system introduced in 1999 was unusually and heavily skewed towards its majoritarian first-past-the post element (unlike in other Mixed Member Systems) and WAS designed to give Labour majorities-it’s just that the political dynamics that emerged post devolution were unanticipated. Moreover, the handling of business and processes remain majoritarian in style.

    PS Geraint- we are developing a next stage to our research on coalitions and minosity governments with a major funding bid which we hope will draw lessons for and from Wales.

  4. This article sums up the two great ironies of Welsh politics.

    Irony One is that an organisation supposedly set up in the name of democracy makes democratic change less likely: although the Assembly has the legal form of democracy, it cannot be called a functioning democracy because there is no correlation between how the public votes and a possible change of policy. There is no imaginable scenario in which the Assembly is not Labour-led. ‘We’ are given a choice between (1) Labour majority, (2) Labour minority, (3) Lib-Lab, and (4) Labour-Plaid – except ‘we’ do not even make that choice: it is made for ‘us’ in closed rooms after the elections, and, as the article makes clear, depends less on votes than on the prejudices and personal relationships of the party leaderships. Voting is a cosmetic exercise because, irrespective of how we vote, we will always end up with an unimaginative left-of-centre, pro-devolution administration led by the most reactionary political party in Wales.

    Irony Two is that independence requires a functioning democracy but the supposedly pro-independence Plaid Cymru are an obstacle to establishing such a democracy. The anti-Tory prejudices of Plaid activists meant there was never any chance of a ‘rainbow coalition’ being set up as an alternative to Labour. As a result, Labour always have an ace in the hole in any negotiations, and, whether in coalition or minority administration, can treat their collaborators with more or less open contempt.

    On a personal note, it is only a matter of time before the unsubscribe button on this site is pressed. This is not because of any objection to what is written here but – quite the contrary – because it is extremely frustrating and depressing to keep reading that there is so much exciting and original thinking going on in Wales when there is no realistic prospect of things changing for the better so long as we have this one-party state.

  5. I think we would all concede, would we not, that there is a substantive difference between forming a Westminster government and a Welsh government? The Welsh Government has no macro-economic function whatsoever and its policies and actions are of no interest to global or even domestic markets. That is not the case with Westminster and it is therefore subject to much greater pressure to ‘declare its hand’. Whilst 5 days may well be inadequate, I’m not sure that the 2007 Assembly scenario provides that much comparative collateral for those interested in improving the Westminster process…

  6. Laura McAllister is entirely right. The electoral system was sold to a sceptical Labour Party on the basis of UK election results up to 1997. The assumption was that Labour would cross the magic 30 by always having a majority in the first post the post constituency section. The top up list was seen as the fig leaf on what was designed to be a perpetual one party system no different from the state of play in Welsh local government from the 1920s. Sometimes you would do badly as in the 1977 County and 1979 district elections but you would still run the show because your opponents would never be able to get their act together. What I found interesting in the recent You Gov poll was the negative assessment of the Assembly Government linked to the continued popularity of the Labour party suggests that there still really isn’t a Welsh political dimension to politics. The biggest reason for Labour’s so called success in 2011 was the defeat of Gordon Brown’s government and the arrival of the UK coalition. The 2016 Assembly election will obviously be influenced by which party wins the 2015 Uk election. A Tory win and Labour might even gain an outright majority in the Assembly. A Labour win ,on the other hand , with the party have to contend with the need to reduce the deficit coupled with three years of cuts and large council tax increases by Labour councils should make it easy for at least two of the opposition parties to make gains .

  7. John Winterson Richards

    I would encourage you to keep with it! It wasn’t Plaid opposition that foiled the ‘Rainbow’ project in the summer of 2007, but a finely balanced rejection by the Welsh Liberal Democrats, on the decisive vote of the present leader Kirsty Williams, in a smoked-filled room in Llandrindod Wells (a stance I would hazard to guess. she would be unlikely to repeat if a similar opportunity ever presents itself). Undoubtedly there is a strong view amongst the Plaid membership against doing any deal with the Tories. However, when it came to the crunch in 2007 a majprity within the Plaid group in the Assembly were prepared to do so, up to the last cliff-hanging minute. I recall the Times led with a story overnight that Ieuan Wyn Jones had become First Minister! Some version of an alternative to a Labour or Labour-led administration in Wales could still happen at some future juncture…

  8. John, thank you for your kind comment. I bow to your superior knowledge of the facts of the demise of the ‘rainbow’ and am happy to stand corrected.

    Either way, a great opportunity was lost. A ‘rainbow coalition’ would not only turn Wales into a viable democracy, but Plaid and the Conservatives in particular might both learn a great deal from working with each other.

    Alas, Plaid are less likely to contemplate such a deal under the current leadership, and what might have been possible in the dying days of the Blair regime is more doubtful when the present Coalition is a recent memory.

  9. As the last contributor on the seminar, I’d like just to point out that one should keep clear in mind that parties, when coalesce, do not seek only for one goal. That’s to say, they do not look for portfolios only, rather than policies, (future) votes and intraparty cohesion as well. It means that, when deciding to form a coalition government parties should answer to these four goals from an strategic approach related to their mid-term objectives.
    Find here an article I wrote with Torbjörn Bergman:
    In this sense, one of the more relevant concerns when a small party (in parliamentary terms) decides to join a coalition government is both to keep itself as united as possible and, more important, try to foresee what’ll be the electoral impact of its decision. When sharing power you should consider that will share responsibilities as well, and sometimes voters do not have detailed information enough to correctly allocate responsibilities for each of the partners in coalition.

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