Saturday, 3 October 2020

What is a coalition?

This week Adam Price ruled out Plaid Cymru forming a coalition with the Welsh Conservatives and being the junior partner to Welsh Labour in a coalition. Such pronouncements are nothing new. During the Lib Dem leadership election this summer the issue arose of being willing to form a coalition if the hypothetical situation arose. The Conservatives have used fear of a Labour / Scottish National Party coalition as an electoral tool during the last decade.

It is regarded as electorally advantageous to rule out coalition with an 'enemy' party. However, once you remove the electioneering aspect it is ridiculous that parties voluntarily constrain their options of forming a government months before a vote has been cast. This is even more the case when it relates to parties who favour electoral reform which would make coalitions a more common occurrence.

We would do well to take a more mature look at what actually is a coalition. To keep things simple, we will just look at a two party coalition, although the principles would apply to a multi-party coalition. Party A contests the election in every constituency and seeks to win and overall majority, so does Party B. Both make progress towards their target but fall short of taking overall control.

Despite vast differences in many policies, there will virtually always be plenty of common ground. For example both parties might favour a change to support hillside sheep farming. There isn't much high political principle involved, it is just a practical reform. The first part of drawing up a coalition programme for government would be to include that common ground. Easy.

Then there are the clear discrepancies. We'll go for a biggie in our example. Party A want separation from the UK, Party B wants to abolish the Senedd. There are two options here. One is that there could be a referendum on the constitution with the coalition partners taking either side. The other, which is far more likely, is the policy is simply parked until the next election when both Party A and Party B can seek a mandate for their constitutional proposals.

We've identified the quick wins, we've identified the policy areas which need to be set aside for this term. The next stage is the horse-trading. Which policies are important to Party A that Party B are not fussed about and prepared to include and vice versa. Sometimes this can work out very well indeed. In the 2010-2015 UK Coalition, Conservatives were generally delighted to adopt the Lib Dem policy of raising the tax threshold.

Being in government is an opportunity to change things. There is little one can do in opposition. The ideal is that 100% of your manifesto is implemented (this rarely happens even in majority governments). If the party stays in opposition then 0% of their manifesto will be implemented unless they have had enough influence on the odd single issue which leads the governing party to make a change. Surely, then if one cannot achieve the former it makes sense to do better than the latter and implement some key policy reforms rather than none. Dispassionately, there is no reason why any combination of mainstream parties could strike such a programme for government.

The electorate is made up of people who understand negotiating. They do it when they buy a house or a car, and they do it when they are discussing a new job. They might even negotiate over the level of pocket money in a test of the household fiscal discipline. There is little to be gained by a party constraining its options before any of us know what the electoral mathematics are going to look like.  I think there is scope to be forthright in a campaign for an overall win and honest that it is simply sensible to keep options open if a party falls short.