Previous event

50 ways to leave a coalition – and how to govern in the final phase

Thursday 28 November 2013, 18:00

Our panel:

Stefanie Bolzen, Die Welt / Welt am Sonntag, Germany
Noel Dempsey, minister from 1997 to 2007 in successive coalitions in Ireland
Stan Kaatee, Senior Finance Adviser to the Prime Minister of the Netherlands
Magnus Wallerå, Centre Party State Secretary, Policy Coordination Secretariat, Prime Minister’s Office, Sweden
Chaired by Akash Paun, Fellow, Institute for Government

With 18 months until the next general election, thoughts are starting to turn to the endgame for the UK coalition. Whitehall and Westminster have no recent experience of the final phases of a coalition and there is therefore huge interest – as well as some concern – about how government will function in the final period. This event brought together a panel of speakers from countries with some experience of coalition government, to share their thoughts on the challenges of the final year of coalition.

Stan Kaatee began the event with a presentation on the Dutch experience of coalition government. Coalition is the norm in the Netherlands – the civil service is used to coalition context, and has learned to work well with all parties.

He gave his insights of what happens in the final year of coalition government:

  • There will be no new policy initiatives (except vote-winning ones)
  • Coalition ministers need breathing space to campaign and freedom to express party political views
  • Elections are fought by parties, not coalitions – don’t expect ministers to behave as coalition partners during the election period
  • Even if a coalition continues after the election, it will not be the same because of shifting electoral support

There are a number of warning signs that could indicate the premature end of a coalition, such as open quarrelling between partners, (accurate) leaks in the press, and poor poll results for one party. However, he warned against prematurely ending a coalition – in the Netherlands, voters always punish parties who break up a coalition.

He offered some advice for UK civil servants in the final year of coalition:

  • Don’t expect politicians to carry out new reforms – give them space
  • As politicians won’t be thinking strategically, make sure the Civil Service does, preparing dossiers on key policy issues
  • Make sure the Civil Service acts impartially, providing information equally to all ministers and parties

Noel Dempsey talked about the Irish experience of coalition government. The key challenge in the final year of coalition is electoral nerves and paranoia among politicians. That paranoia is intensified by coalition government by the fear of giving the other party an electoral advantage – as a result, parties become reluctant to develop new policies ideas, so don’t expect anything new in the last 12 months.

He offered the following advice to minimise that paranoia and ensure effective coalition government:

  • There will be pressure from party members to emphasize wins from coalition and attack the other party – that rivalry needs to be tightly managed by party leaders to prevent premature dissolution of the Coalition
  • Parties can rightly claim successes from coalition, but the role of the partner party should be acknowledged, not ignored
  • Effective and clear communication between party leaders is vital
  • The Civil Service also has an important role in keeping lines of communication open between parties, and flagging controversial issues to either side
  • Finally, one of the best ways of solving disputes is referring back to the Programme for Government – this gives parties a clear, shared strategy, and focusing on delivering that rather than straying into new, contested policy areas can help to reduce inter-party tension

He also reiterated the warning that parties who break up a coalition are always punished by voters. The survival of coalition government depends on the commitment of each party to each other and to the Programme for Government.

Stefanie Bolzen explained that coalitions are ‘in the bloodstream’ of German politics. This is the consequence of the proportional representation electoral system, but also the power of the Lander – governing parties need a majority in both the Bundestag and the Bundesrat to ensure that legislation can be passed. There can be a lot of tension between coalition partners but it is extremely rare for German coalitions not to reach their full term. The electoral risks of leaving a coalition are too great – voters punish politicians who are seen to put party interest above government stability, and parties who squabble with their coalition partner generally see their polls ratings fall. There is a very good chance that the newly-formed Grand Coalition will stick together for the full four-year term.

Coalition can be tough on the junior partner. In the two previous coalitions the junior partner (the FDP and SPD) each saw their share of the vote fall, with the FDP losing all their seats in the Bundestag in September 2013. Voters punish parties who fail to stand up for their principles or don’t deliver key policies – the FDP, for example, failed to deliver promised tax cuts. Compounding the problems facing junior parties at present is the almost presidential status of Angela Merkel, whose political strategy is flexible and adaptable. She often absorbs key policies from her coalition partner and in doing so wins over some of their electoral support.

Magnus Wallerå explained that despite the consensual stereotype, Sweden is not a country of coalitions. For much of the past 100 years the country was governed by the Social Democrats, either in majority or minority government. However, since 2006, Sweden has been governed by ‘The Alliance’, a four-party centre-right coalition. There is a ‘new political reality’ in Sweden – coalition government has been accepted by the people, and the Social Democrats are now frequently asked who they would form a coalition with. The Alliance parties realise that they are greater than the sum of their parts, and their parties. Each party has a position – environment, education, economy – but together they have wider appeal. The fact of being in coalition adds value to what each individual party can offer. Each party therefore believes that they are better off in coalition than as a single party. They have stopped infighting.

His advice for the final year of coalition was:

  • Parties must prepare to govern. The Alliance spent two years developing a common manifesto and made a pre-election pledge to stand together before the 2006 and 2010 elections – they are currently working on their common manifesto for 2014
  • Compromise is vital – the only way for the Alliance to win was to work together and build a consensus
  • Coalitions need commitment and trust between party leaders
  • Strong internal decision-making processes are vital, to work out disputes internally before presenting a united front
  • There must be strong communication with and involvement of MPs and party members, to ensure unity

He added that the Alliance has a shared principle that all parties contribute, and all gain – there is no fighting over credit for policies. To leave the coalition before the end of the term would be very risky, and would probably be punished by the electorate.

Questions from the audience covered a number of topics, including:

  • Will we see another coalition in the UK, or has the Conservative-Liberal Democrat arrangement been an ‘aberration’?
  • What are the consequences of fixed-term parliaments?
  • What is the role of the Civil Service in the final year of coalition, in ensuring that coalition parties have implementable policies to be set down in the Programme for Government?
  • In terms of UK government after 2015, could the panel envisage a Lib Dem-Labour coalition, or a Conservative minority government?