In Nick Clegg’s party conference speech last week the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear that he wants the Liberal Democrats to remain a ‘party of government’ beyond 2015. This requires the party both to make a success of the next 18 months, and to plan effectively for the period beyond the next election.
Based on research into coalitions in other countries – and the specific question of how smaller parties have fared – the Institute for Government recently published a paper setting out five lessons for the Liberal Democrats as they move towards the final phase of the coalition:
- Smaller parties can only distance themselves from larger coalition partners to a limited extent. Coalitions are often rewarded or punished as a whole for their performance in office. Ensuring that the government is seen as effective and competent is crucial, and particularly so for the smaller party, which will often have less credibility at the outset as a party of administration. This will often require smaller parties to show discipline in supporting major policy initiatives of their larger partners, as when the German Greens backed Chancellor Schroeder’s Agenda 2010 welfare reforms in Germany.
- However, smaller parties also need to be able to demonstrate their distinct contribution to government, and therefore need to have some distinct flagship policy successes to point to at the next election (as the Scottish Liberal Democrats with free care for the elderly, and the German Greens with the abolition of nuclear power were able to do). But parties should pick their battles wisely – securing a concession that is seen as self-serving or irrelevant by voters can undermine the wider strategy. For instance, early in the current German coalition, the liberal FDP prioritised a VAT tax cut for hoteliers, helping a small FDP-supporting sector but alienating other voters.
- Small parties’ success rests greatly upon the performance and profile of the party leader. Successful junior coalition partners have leaders with a strong public profile and a clear personal record of achievement in government (as did the German Greens, for instance, in Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who took bold action to support German intervention in Kosovo, and in opposing the US war in Iraq). Parties with weak or unstable leadership have fared poorly (like the FDP and the Dutch Democrats 66, who both changed leaders in mid-term). What Nick Clegg has personally achieved or delivered is a key question for the Liberal Democrats in 2015. This week’s free school meals for all announcement may form a central part of the party’s answer to that question.
- Parties associated with the premature coalition breakdowns are rarely rewarded by voters. Smaller parties in coalition elsewhere such as New Zealand First (in 1998) and the Irish Greens (in 2011) have pulled out of coalition early facing unpopularity and tensions with the coalition partner, and were hammered at the following election. On the other hand, the German experience from 2005 – when SPD Chancellor Schoeder forced an early dissolution of the Bundestag – is a reminder that coalitions can be brought to an end due to splits within the larger (and apparently dominant) party too, even when there is a strong fixed term parliament law.
- Smaller parties in any case have a limited influence over whether they remain in government or not. A party may remain in coalition even after a poor election result (as did Democrats 66 in 2003) or may end up in opposition even after performing relatively well (as for the German Greens in 2005 or the Scottish Liberal Democrats in 2007). The lesson here for the Liberal Democrats is to therefore make the most of the rest of this Parliament, and seek to achieve as much as possible before 2015.
A final point is that the party should prepare for the days and months after the election more thoroughly than last time. In 2010, too little planning had been made for government itself – in part because Cameron’s openness to coalition was so unexpected. This contributed to mistakes being made. Foolish pledges were, of course, made in opposition and then dropped. Little thought went into the party’s position on major issues like NHS Reform – until it was too late. And while the party negotiated hard on key policy priorities, other crucial issues – like the ministerial portfolios it would take, and the support and resources Nick Clegg would need as Deputy PM – were almost an afterthought. This has undermined the party’s effectiveness in government.
The decline of two-party dominance (the Conservatives and Labour took 97% of the vote in 1951, but just 65% in 2010) means the Liberal Democrats are indeed likely to have further bites at the coalition cherry. The question is what the party will make of the opportunity when it next arises. International experience and events at Westminster since 2010 should help inform the party’s answer to that question.
For more information on the Institute’s work on coalition government contact [email protected].
* Akash Paun is a Fellow of the Institute for Government in London, which is an independent and non-partisan thinktank that works to improve the effectiveness of government in the UK. He has led the Institute’s work on coalition and minority government since 2009, publishing a number of reports and articles in this area. He is currently conducting research into challenges faced by the civil service in supporting the two coalition parties in the final period of coalition.