Flow-chart: The 5 questions that will decide if there’s another coalition in 2015

‘What are your thoughts on coalitions? Should the Lib Dems go with Labour or Conservatives – if they are in a position to choose?’ That was the question I was asked by the BBC’s Daily Politics in advance of appearing on Thursday to talk about any future coalition (you can catch my discussion with historian Lord (Peter) Hennessey here for the next few days).

Here’s the answer I gave, one I didn’t actually have chance to discuss during the programme… First, as a flow-chart and then my original email reply:

Coalition flow-chart - Sept 2013

It depends on 5 key things…

1) is there a hung parliament;
2) who’s won most seats;
3) will the combined parties have a secure majority;
4) can they agree on a programme for government that delivers enough Lib Dem policies to make the compromises worth it; and
5) have both parties signed up to a deal they can each deliver?

If all 5 can be answered then I’m content with either Labour or Conservatives. Fwiw, I think the Tory membership/backbenchers will make it very difficult for a second coalition to be delivered. And I see no evidence yet of Labour wanting to make any accommodation either. But, just like on the morning of 6th May 2010, facts have a habit of changing politicians’ minds!

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Peter Davies 22nd Sep '13 - 9:24am

    That doesn’t quite represent the current policy. Your item 2 is not an absolute deal-breaker. We are committed to talking to the party with more seats first but if they say no then we are free to talk to the others. In practice, the chances of both parties satisfying points 3, 4 and 5 are slim.

  • “can they agree on a programme for government that delivers enough Lib Dem policies to make the compromises worth it; ”

    Why would that be a consideration? It wasn’t a consideration for the current coalition, unless you think that the AV vote was worth it for accepting all the other policies that have been true blue.

  • Little Jackie Paper 22nd Sep '13 - 10:12am

    I would make three observations.

    1) By, ‘another coalition,’ in the title I assume that you actually mean, ‘another coalition involving the Liberal Democrats.’ I rather doubt that we will see a grand coalition in the UK, although equally I don’t think that the idea is quite so outlandish. We might well have a grand coalition in Germany soon. Given that all three parties subscribe to deficit reduction as the primary goal it is not as if there is no common ground.

    2) Your point five talks about a deal that can be delivered. That sounds like a hostage to fortune. It is a seductive idea but one that is less easy to really pin down and it is not clear to me how a Coalition Agreement can really be made binding. If a coalition is that unworkable then we need an election, not a hazy guarantee – and for that reason I am not a fan of fixed-term Parliaments. I would hope that in future the temptation to start linking things is resisted – all the school meals/marriage tax did was provide a double win for some at the expense of others regardless of wealth. Whilst I accept that there are downsides to the idea of the junior coalition partner having, ‘control,’ of one or two ministries wholesale I wonder if there might also be advantages too in terms of deliverability.

    3) It is perhaps the two words that are not on this flowchart which are telling. Unto 2011 it would have been unthinkable for this chart to have been produced without the words, ‘proportional representation.’ Perhaps the one upside to the AV referendum is that that there is less political pressure to work around the PR totem, on Lib Dems and the other parties. Whether you think of that as a good thing or not is, I suppose, another matter.

  • Why does it matter who has the most seats?

    As they have not won a majority then they have not ‘won’ – if it makes more ideological sense to do a deal with the second party that can still garner a majority then why is trying to make a deal with a party that you have not link with a better option?

  • Misses off the triple lock too, although I apse that could slot into point 5. Another coalition involving the lib dems will be orders of magnitude more difficult to deliver than this one was, for all sorts of reasons.

  • A Social Liberal 22nd Sep '13 - 11:30am

    What a load of rubbish.

    Would we go into coalition with a Tory government that insists on pulling out of Europe? Or pulls out of the European Bill of Human Rights. Or for that matter a Labour government that raises the top rate of tax to 60%.

    Coalition is about compromise, but when we compromise our Liberal ethic (secret courts anyone?) then it is a compromise too far – in any direction.

  • Yo missed the bit about the leaders being genuinely open to coalition. The noises have changed somewhat but I still reman to be convinced that Clegg could or would work with Labour. Unless a coalition with either main party is a possibility then my vote will probably stay at home…

    One of the big mistakes made in 2010 was the fairly public demand for Brown to go. I have zero respect for the man, but this should be about policies and the willingness to commit to seeing them through not about the personalities involved. It is true that Brown had lost credibility with those voters who deserted Labour, but if the Lib Dem share of the vote is significantly down in 2015, especially if it leads to a reduced number of seats, then so has Clegg. Leaders should be for the relevant party to decide.

  • As a party, and as supporters or one time supporters (or for that matter, media commentary shaping attitudes) have still not come to terms with the fact that at the time of the election, opinion was moving fairly strongly in favour of Labour (in the shadow of Cleggmania). There is a wish – no doubt strongest among Tory supporters and their media – to paint 2010 as a time when Gordon Brown and his ideas were TOTALLY rejected. I don’t think that was ever true.

  • Cameron failed to beat Brown despite the fact that he had most of the media on his side, despite the fact Labour had been in power for 13 years and despite the economic crisis. Hardly a rejection of Brown. These are the percentages of the popular vote:

    Cameron: 36%
    Brown: 29%
    Clegg: 23%

    which isn’t a clear preference for any of the three, but the least popular and most rejected was Clegg. That Clegg thought he had the right to insist on Brown’s removal is astonishing and was clearly driven by ideology rather than the result of the election.

  • David Denton 22nd Sep '13 - 1:14pm

    Having heard Clegg’s list of things the Libdems have stopped the Tories doing; the big question will be can the find a similar next time with either of the ‘main parties’

  • So, vote Lib Dem and let Nick Clegg decide to hand your vote to the red or blue camp on a whim of his choosing?

    You have just outlined why a Lib Dem vote is a wasted vote.

  • peter tyzack 22nd Sep '13 - 2:31pm

    if the three main parties come out of it more or less equal, which is possible, then we could take the bold step of seeking members from all other parties to deal with us on our agenda. With PR on our red-line list we could find several of the smaller parties ready to join with us simply in order to deliver that, and then call an election.

  • The idea that a coalition can consist of two and only two parties, one of which must be either Labour or the Conservatives, is not what I understood Liberal Democrat policy on coalitions to have been. I was under the impression that the Lib Dems would be quite happy to be part of a multi-party coalition, as long as it could secure a majority. Did I misunderstand the policy, or has it changed?

  • Tony Greaves 22nd Sep '13 - 2:55pm

    If we win 150 seats or more at the next election I will.;..no don’t say it…

    It’s true that “largest party” is not an absolute requirement. If Labour and Tories get a similar total, and we get enough to matter in the maths, it will be possible to negotiate with both of them very seriously at the same time, and it would be possible to do a deal with the second largest party.

    All assuming that the first and second largest parties wanted to do a deal with us. (ie were prepared to compromise sufficiently). It’s fairly obvous that the party that would find that easiest next time would be Labour.


  • andrew purches 23rd Sep '13 - 10:06am

    Depressing as it is, the result of the German Federal Election point to what the future will hold for the Lib Dems in two years time, and as things stand now, our General Election in2015 will be a mirror image of this German example.
    Cameron will play the Merkel card,to be sure, and will gain support for doing so, the Lib Dems, as with their German / Bavarian right wing counterparts,will be largely wiped out, Labour will trail a sorry second,though with the higher percentage of the votes cast overall, the Greens will hold there own with perhaps one or two further seats, and Ukip could well win a few seats. And if Scots Independence finds its way on to their statute book, then the Tory Party will be running the country for decades to come.

  • Dave Simpson 23rd Sep '13 - 10:24am

    Another condition of forming another coalition should be the ditching of the doctrine of ‘Collective Cabinbet Responsibility’ which has been behind many of the problems encountered by the Lib Dems with the present coalition.
    Collective Cabinbet Responsibility’ may make sense in a single-party government, or in a wartime coalition, where (apparent, at lest) unanimity of opinion within the government is necessary. However, in a multi-party coalition, the partners should be free to express publically and vociferously their disapproval or opposition to any policy agreed onand forced on them by their other coalition partners – e.g Tuition fees; A.V. … in the present coalition.

  • Shouldn’t one of the options be “Do Labour/Conservatives want to negotiate a coalition with the Liberal Democrats? ”

    its not beyond the realms of possibility that they’d prefer to go it alone or seek C&S. Or go into coalition with another party or parties, or with each other.

    Whenever Clegg goes on TV talking about coalition I wish he’d bring these points out more – he can only seek a coalition if the other party(s) come to him.

  • Liberal Neil 23rd Sep '13 - 4:06pm

    @A Social Liberal, Steve Way and Tabman – I interpreted Stephen’s Stage 5 as covering a willingness on behalf of the other party to want to go into coalition, and Jennie, yes, I think that covers our party consenting too.

    I think it is a fair point that it won’t necessarily come down just to which other party has the most seats – it’s quite possible that one party might have more seats but another more votes. Or that they are pretty close.

  • Bill le Breton 23rd Sep '13 - 6:02pm

    I think Stephen should think about making his flow chart a little more sophisticated 😉 by adding something that would make it Fixed Term Parliament Act future proof.

    This legislation may give the leader of a party with a majority in the House of Commons of less than (say) 20 a powerful argument within his own party, should he need it, for offering a deal.

    The motive behind such an offer can be constructive or malicious.

    Constructive? The PM has lost the power to set the day of the General Election, but this makes the ability to set up economic and other policies carefully timed well in advance for May 2020 even more important. A deal also weakens the power of a rump (Major’s bxxtards) within his party.

    The Party’s ‘reliability’ as a partner will have eased concerns held by those who did not have direct experience of working with Liberal Democrats in local government.

    But then there is the type of offer accompanied by a very tight deadline designed to put enormous and disruptive pressure on us – the divide and destroy ploy.

    Some might think that a constructive offer is more likely to come from Cameron, a malicious one from Labour, but from a cursory view of Labour’s Conference there is a lot of Tory bashing, some Coalition bashing, but a notable scarcity of Liberal Democrat bashing.

    May 2015 will be a very testing time for Party solidarity whatever the result of the General Election.

  • Julian Tisi 23rd Sep '13 - 6:03pm

    A pretty good flowchart. I would dispute / amend slightly:

    1. Point 2 – who has the most seats? is I think too simplistic. It’s one factor but not the be all and end all. For example, Labour might get more seats but fewer votes. Or even more likely, the party with the most votes is unwilling to go into coalition or unwilling to make the compromises required to get agreement

    2. There’s a step missing, perhaps between points 4 and 5 – BOTH parties come to an agreement which does not cross their respective “red lines”. This to me is the most important step. Before going to their members or MPs each party needs to be able to live with the compromises they’ve made. FWIW (as you say!) much of the Labour party will be against ANY compromises whatever – their view of a Lib/Lab coalition will be an entirely Labour program with some Lib bums on seats of ministerial limos and nothing more. I don’t see most of the Labour party getting that they will HAVE to compromise if they want a coalition. As for the Tories, what exactly will a 2015-2020 program look like exactly? I don’t really see an agreement between Libs and Cons without crossing one or either party’s red lines. But as you say, if there IS a HUNG parliament, perspectives may change.

  • The problem with the flowchart is that it ignores the sixth and vital question.

    “Do you believe that our leader has the ability to use the coalition to strengthen Lib Dem values in the country and have the courage, strength and guile to ensure that all Lib Dem requirements in the agreement are delivered?”

    Based on the experience of the last three and a half years, that will depend on who is the leader.

  • Simon Banks 26th Sep '13 - 7:50pm

    I think Nick Clegg’s formula that we’ll talk first to the party with most seats is a sensible and fair way of avoiding getting skewered on the question of whom we’d prefer to deal with. However, if either Tory+us or Labour+us would deliver a majority (I wouldn’t be too worried about a “secure” majority if there were parities in opposition likely to be broadly supportive, as would be the case with a Lab-us deal) it would be rotten tactics to rule out doing a deal with either as it would greatly weaken our hand in negotiation. If a deal could be reached with the second party which delivered most of what both sets of voters had voted for, and this was not true of a deal with the first party, we should go for the second.

    One interesting omission from Stephen’s table is any mention of policies the other party might insist on, but we could not accept even in turn for some of our key policies.

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