The Independent View: Making coalition government work – lessons for the future

In 2011 the Constitution Unit spent one year examining how the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition works. We interviewed almost 150 people about the Coalition: individuals from both parties—both in and outside Parliament—as well as civil servants, journalists, and interest groups. We have just published the result of our study in a book: The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Works

We are particularly grateful to all those Lib Dems who were so generous in giving their time to be interviewed, and for Mark Pack’s very kind review of our book. And in the same spirit, we offer some thoughts on lessons for the future. Professor John Curtice argues that the conditions that led to a hung parliament in 2010 remain; and even if the boundary reforms goes through, the possibility of a hung parliament is still quite high. Even if, as some suggest, the Liberal Democrats will lose a large number of seats in 2015, they may still be in a position to determine the shape of a new government. So what lessons are there to be learned from the last two years of the Coalition, and how might the Lib Dems approach a hung parliament in 2015?

Our project was about making coalition government work. But how coalition works depends on the observer and their point of view. So some suggestions will be in tension with others: lessons for the smaller party may be at the expense of the larger party; lessons for the backbenchers may be at the expense of the frontbench, and so on. With this caveat in mind, here are some obvious suggestions.

Write a manifesto which is not geared towards single party government

Think carefully about manifesto pledges: which ones are non-negotiable; which are bargaining chips? The party might be more careful about making firm commitments on unachievable goals. They might also think about having a more detailed manifesto. Many of the Programme for Government’s pledges are Conservative pledges because it was the Conservative manifesto which deal most with detail.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

One of the key lessons from the 2010 hung parliament was that prior contacts and preparation made all the difference. Good relationships with the leaders and senior members of the other parties should be maintained, not least because they may become members of the negotiating teams. The other parties’ manifestos should be analysed for points of agreement and disagreement. Labour failed to do much of this, and it showed. For the Lib Dems, the problem was not so much a failure of preparation for

Take your time in negotiations over government formation

Easier said than done. But arguably the five days to negotiate the formation of the 2010 Coalition was rushed: several Lib Dem interviewees regretted this. One Lib Dem minister we interviewed said:

If we’re going to be in coalition for five years, then you do want to spend a bit of time and avoid having tired people make a decision over four days . . . what I would do differently is to at least have a fortnight doing these things and getting things like support and . . . protocols. . . . and not having to backfill the whole time. And we’re still backfilling.

The 2010 negotiations focused mostly on policy, and everything else was secondary. The result was that the allocation of ministerial office was somewhat rushed, and the very important issue of party funding (Short Money and Cranborne Money) was completely forgotten. The latter in particular continues to have an impact on the capacity of the Lib Dems to act quickly and effectively.

Balance visibility and influence

The smaller the party, the more difficult it is to maintain visibility in the eyes of the public. The international experience is that the smaller partner in a coalition is often overshadowed by the larger partner, and in fact tends to do disproportionately badly at the second election.

In 2010, the Lib Dems went for breadth over depth: they sought to cover most of government by having a Lib Dem minister in all the Whitehall departments. That may have given the Liberal Democrats influence, but it may have come at the cost of visibility. A similar approach was taken to policy. In the future, an alternative for the Lib Dems might be to aim for visibility and limited influence, perhaps by taking a smaller number of high-profile departments closely connected with the party’s key policy priorities.


The decision to go for breadth over depth has a much broader impact for the Liberal Democrats. In trying to cover everything, the smaller party in the Coalition risks both overstretch, but also early exhaustion. This is not just so for the Lib Dem ministers in departments; Lib Dems in parliament have also struggled to maintain coverage.

Leaving aside whether or not one goes for depth over breadth, the Liberal Democrats need to think carefully about what is achievable. Aim high, but aim for tangible achievements. Instead of aiming for little wins across government, aim for a smaller number of high-profile, high quality policies. Indeed, there are some signs that senior Lib Dems are beginning to focus and communicate in a more integrated way their key priorities.

Again, all easier said than done. Being the smaller partner in a coalition is never easy. But recognition of one’s weaknesses might be one place to start.


The Constitution Unit’s research on coalition government was generously funded by the Nuffield Foundation

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Dr Ben Yong is a research associate at the Constitution Unit, University College London.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • Radical Centrist–good catch! My bad. That should be:
    For the Lib Dems, the problem was not so much a failure to prepare for a hung parliament, as it was a failure to prepare for government.

  • David Allen 24th Jul '12 - 1:07pm

    “nothing new to say really”

    Don’t be lulled to sleep by the polite, diplomatic tone of the article. It’s a pretty devastating critique of what has been done.

    We made promises we couldn’t keep: we rushed into a bad agreement: we put Ministers everywhere but took overall charge of almost nothing: and we have no real “tangible achievements”, only “little wins across government”.

    The generous response to this catalogue of woes is that put forward by the wonderfully diplomatic Constitution Unit themselves: that it is all a lot easier in hindsight, that being the smaller party is a difficult hand to play, and that our exhausted leadership did their best,

    A less generous response can also be put forward. Osborne offered lots of Ministerial positions as a coalition bribe, and our team were happy to accept that, rather than demanding a stronger emphasis on policies. Instead, our team happily aligned themselves with the Conservative world view on the deficit, and the opportunity it presented to roll back the State and bring the market into health, education and welfare.

  • Robert Brown 24th Jul '12 - 4:17pm

    Almost all of this should have been known from the experience of the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Coalitions from 1999 to 2007!

  • Peter Watson 24th Jul '12 - 7:05pm

    “In our target constituencies, Labour voters need to believe that a Tory – Lib Dem coalition is better than a Tory government, and Tory voters need to believe that a Labour – Lib Dem coalition is better than a Labour government.”

    I have to agree, and think that is why, despite the record in government, LD MPs might be safer than opinion polling suggests. The party might still benefit from tactical voting against Labour and Conservative.
    However, I would question where this leaves us as a party: it implies that we are simply a moderating influence, a centrist party that lacks any clear principles or independent policy.
    Furthermore, I think the party is still vulnerable to challenges from those who are not tarnished by association with this coalition government. In Wales and Scotland, PC and SNP could benefit, and throughout the UK the Greens, Respect, “Save the NHS” candidates and independents could also damage Lib Dem support, especially if Labour chooses tactically to give them a clear run in some constituencies.

  • Agree with David Allen’s last para. Clegg and co willingly aligned with ideology of austerity and privatisation. They seem to me like a privileged privately educated elite, incapable of understanding or representing people like me. I will find it very hard to remain a Lib Dem voter (let alone activist) in 2015 especially as these economic policies are not even working.

  • Obviously there is no predicting the future, but at the last election the Lib Dems had a larger share of the vote but fewer seats. It is possible that a sharp fall back in numbers voting Lib Dem could have a small impact on the seats won (I am assuming the reduction in overall MPs will not happen). If there is no overall majority and the Tories are the largest party then there will be a big problem. I do not see that the Lib Dems will feel they have the mandate for a new coalition. It Labour are the largest party then there will be other problems: many in Labour will want the Lib Dem MP votes without conceding a role in government. Electoral reform will be in the manifesto, but it will be difficult to make much headway, though I would like to see a bill to allow councils to decide on their own voting arrangements. I am sure it will be tempting to take a more back seat role (especially if the economy is still in trouble) or possibly concentrate on one or two areas of government such as education and the environment.

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