Coalition lessons

Published : Oct 19, 2012 00:00 IST

India can draw lessons from the solidarity of the Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition in Britain based on the knowledge that too much open division would threaten cohesion and even survival.

THIS book deserves to be read widely in India. It records the travails of Britains first coalition government for over 60 years and the many issues it raises. The Constitution Unit in the School of Public Policy at the University College London has done excellent work. Robert Hazell is professor of Government and the Constitution at the college and Director of the Constitution Unit, where Ben Yong is a research associate.

With the authorisation of Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, and the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus ODonnell, the Constitution Unit interviewed over 140 personsMinisters, Members of Parliament, lords, civil servants, party officials and interest groupsabout the coalition and its impact on Parliament and the civil service.

It is a mere two years since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition assumed office in 2010. A leading constitutional lawyer, Vernon Bogdanor, produced The Coalition and the Constitution in 2011 (vide the writers review Coalition mechanism, Frontline; July 15, 2011). We now have this book of incisive essays on its political impact, including the impact on the media. Under Sir Gus ODonnell, the Cabinet Office produced a Cabinet Manual on the laws and conventions of Cabinet government, including a chapter on the procedure to be followed in the event of the electorate returning a hung Parliament.

India can profit a lot by these studies. It has a parliamentary system. In 1967, coalition governments were formed by non-Congress parties in the States in the north following the Congress electoral debacle in the general elections that year. These ramshackle Samyukta Vidhayak Dal coalitions did not last. The Janata Party government was a coalition masquerading as a single-party government. The defectors regime headed by Charan Singh, with Y.B. Chavans Congress faction as partner, was supported by Indira Gandhi from outside. It fell within a few weeks when she withdrew her support in July 1979. The National Front headed by V.P. Singh (1989-90) survived on support from the outside on conditions set by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties. Advanis rath yatra in 1990 ended the experience.

No words need be wasted on Chandra Shekhars regime of defectors, in which Yashwant Sinha was Finance Minister. Installed by Rajiv Gandhi, it collapsed when he withdrew support in 1991. Not long thereafter, Yashwant Sinha deserted his mentor and joined the BJP, where he prospered politically.

P.V. Narasimha Rao survived by buying off allies (1991-96). The H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral governments (1996-1998) were based on the Congress support from the outside. Since 1998, we have had coalitions proper at the Centrethe BJP-dominated National Democratic Alliance (1998-2004) and the United Progressive Alliance, with the Congress as the senior partner, since 2004. They reflect the reality in the Statescoalitions work if there is a single anchor; one large party, which draws allies into a coalition.

The device used in the Statesa Samyukta Vidhayak Dal coalition based on a Minimum Common Programmewas used by both the coalitions at the Centre. Amazingly, there has been little study on the subject.

In 1967, a study, entitled Comparative Study of Coalitions, was prepared by the Research and Policy Planning Division of the Union Home Ministry. It was prepared in the context of the Congress debacle in the fourth general elections in 1967. It noted that there were then as many as 24 political parties recognised by the Election Commission; eight as national or multi-State parties and 16 as regional parties. While the divergence between the votes polled and the seats won, which the electoral system brought about, had worked for the Congress in the past, in 1967 it went against it. If this trend continued, the study observed, it was clear that the greater the extent to which the other parties combined, pooled their votes and presented as few candidates against the Congress as possible, the greater will be the loss of seats by the Congress in all constituencies where it held a marginal lead over the parties due to the scattering of the votes.

Before 1967, there were only a few coalitions. There were two coalitions in the period 1952-57 in PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union) and Andhra Pradesh and one each in Orissa (now Odisha) (1957-62) and Kerala (1960-64). After the 1967 general elections, the figure rose to eight. Coalitions were formed in Kerala, West Bengal, Odisha, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

The study was unrealistically optimistic. As parties increasingly aim at compatibility in entering into alliance, the ugly in-coalitional stresses and conflicts, mainly due to ideological and programmatic incompatibility of the partners witnessed after 1967, may prove to be a passing phase.Few party bosses had the talents of S.K. Patil, for long the Bombay Congress boss. He urged the Congress to give up its high and mighty attitude and take the lead in forging coalitions. He advised the Congress in March 1969: Now, it is obvious that the process of coalitions must start and coalitions must be formed not only after but also during and before the elections. If well-planned coalitions are formed before the election, they will develop a capacity of lasting longer and becoming more effective in actual functioning. Coalitions have become a political necessity in India today. It will take a long time, not less than 25 years, to develop a two-party system in India. In many other democratic countries, two-party system has even now not made any demonstrative impact. In most of the European countries, which are democratic, coalitions are accepted as a matter of fact.

The real test

Coalitions with a dominant party and smaller parties with pronounced instincts for blackmailingespecially if they represent regional forcesare not durable. They run like ramshackle vehicles; none too well but the wonder is that they run at all. The real test comes when you have two or more powerful parties within a coalition with a will to make it worklike the Great Coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in Germany.

In three important respects, the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition in Britain holds lessons for us in India first. No coalition was set up after such elaborate paperwork as was the Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition. On May 13, 2010, the parties concluded an Initial Coalition Agreement of some 3,000 words and 90 pledges. Some days later came their Programme for Government of 16,000 words and 400 pledges. On May 21, there was a Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform comprising, mercifully, of six paragraphs, albeit with many sub-paragraphs. (Its text is appended to the book.)

Secondly, despite all the paperwork, problems cropped up as they are bound to in any relationship; political, professional or personal. Last July, Prime Minister David Cameron was forced, by a major rebellion by 91 back-benchers of his party, to drop the vote on a Bill to reform the House of Lords. He announced on August 6 that the coalition had abandoned plans for its reform. The same day, Deputy Prime Minister and Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg declared: The Conservative Party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken. In retaliation, he would oppose another reformredrawing of constituency boundaries.

Their accord ruled out a midterm election, virtually. They agreed that the next general election will be held on May 7, 2015, to be followed by legislation for fixed-term parliaments of five years. Accordingly, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was enacted in September 2011 after prolonged debate. There are only two conditions under which a midterm dissolution of the House of Commons will be possible: following a no-confidence motion if no alternative government can be formed within 14 days or following a two-thirds vote of the House. This implies concurrence of the Labour opposition. In other words, the coalition partners were careful not to do the Labour opposition down.

Lastly, the coalition partners are resolved to work the experiment though on both sides there were some who were against the coalition, especially among the Lib-Dems. Business Secretary Vince Cable, a Lib-Dem, was found early in September communicating with Labour leader Ed Miliband. Coalition pacts must be realistically drawn up with full awareness of the reality that problems are certain to arise and with a determination at the top that they must be overcome. As Sir Gus ODonnell said last September, Prepare for all outcomes but dont assume the future is a reflection of the past.

Among the essays in the volume, Robert Hazells on Lessons for the Future is the most important. How does a government renew itself midterm, and refresh its appeal to the voters? Traditionally through new policies, and new faces. The coalition will need new policies as it exhausts it original agenda: in May 2011 it reported that it was well on the way to completing two-thirds of the commitments in the original Programme for Government (PfG). The difficulty is that with no new money, there is very little room for policy initiatives of the traditional kind, involving increased spending. The Conservatives may seek to redouble public service reforms; but as they found with the NHS [National Health Service] reforms, the Lib-Dems may react strongly against creeping privatisation.

In spring 2011 there was talk of developing a midterm review, a revised and updated PfG with a new set of policies to carry the coalition through the second half of the Parliament. Conservative Minister [Oliver] Letwin and Lib-Dem Cabinet Minister [Danny] Alexander were asked to think about how this might be worked up. The original idea of a new programme, Coalition 2.0 was soon shelved. The Liberal Democrats felt uncomfortable about getting even deeper into bed with the Conservatives, at a time when they wanted to start emphasising their policy distinctiveness. And senior Lib-Dems were not confident that they could get a revised coalition agreement through the partys triple lock procedure. But the plan was still to produce a midterm review showing how the existing programme would be fulfilled. This illustrates another difficulty regarding midterm coalition agreements: that in the second half of a Parliament, coalition partners do not want the other party to start borrowing their ideas.

The other way to refresh a government is by introducing new faces. The Deputy Prime Minister provides a further constraint, because he must be consulted and he nominates all the Lib-Dem Ministers. Cleggs dilemma is the opposite of Camerons. He has drawn down most of his limited pool of ministerial talent in the Commons. When they come to the first reshuffle, the Lib-Dems might consider appointing more Ministers from the Lords, where they have much more experience and depth of talent on their backbench than in the Commons. The Lib-Dems might also like to consider appointing some bridging Ministers, so that they can cover more than one department.

Will the partners fight the general elections in 2015 together? The Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition might last through to May 2015, but the parties will differentiate themselves electorally in the last year or so. That may make it more difficult for the parties to agree on government policy from 2014 onwards, leading to policy stasis and a thin legislative programme in the last session. The Conservatives will campaign for an overall majority next time, while the Liberal Democrats will hope for another hung Parliament, and stress the moderating influence they had, saving the country from Conservative excess.

Next comes the question of electoral pacts. For the Lib-Dems these may be a lifeline; for the Conservatives, an insurance policy. Liberal Democrats whom we interviewed were vehemently against any pre-electoral agreements, for fear of being branded permanent partners of the Conservatives. But some might change their tune if the alternative is annihilation. Electoral pacts could run the whole spectrum of cooperation, from unofficial pacts at local level to official collaboration at national level. Unofficial pacts are more likely.

In the 1918 coupon election, the Conservatives did not field any candidates against coupon Liberals, and the Liberals did not stand against coupon Conservatives. The coupon was a letter of endorsement jointly signed by the Liberal leader David Lloyd George and the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law. It was issued to candidates who supported Lloyd Georges coalition. One hundred and fifty-nine Liberal candidates received the coupon, and 127 were elected; so endorsement almost guaranteed election. But the gains from electoral pacts can be short-lived.

Do we see a repeat of all this in New Delhi? Hazell makes four recommendations for the future:

One crucial lesson from 2010 is to write a manifesto which is not just geared towards single-party majority government. Parties need to have half an eye on the possibility of negotiations following the election, whether for a coalition or minority government. Some manifesto pledges can be drafted as non-negotiable, red-line commitments which are deal-breakers; others in vaguer terms, as bargaining chips which can be traded in subsequent negotiations. The main cautionary note is to beware of making excessively firm commitments which might subsequently have to be modified, as the Lib-Dems found to their cost with their pledge to abolish tuition fees. A secondary one is to recognise the possible advantage that comes from a detailed manifesto with a lot of commitments.

A second lesson for the parties prior to the election is to maintain good relations with the leaders and senior members of other parties because they might become part of the negotiations. ...A third lesson is to select the partys negotiating team in advance and rehearse them. The team leader needs to analyse the other parties manifestoes, as the Conservatives did in 2010, so that they open the negotiations on the front foot, in full command of the issues and the agenda. A fourth lesson is to have clear procedures for reporting lines during the negotiations (to the leader; to the shadow Cabinet?), and for ratification of any agreement.

Personal relations are important. Cameron showed generosity towards his Lib-Dem colleagues. They responded in kind, with loyalty and commitment to upholding the unity of the coalition. The Conservative-Lib-Dem government showed that a coalition government need not be quarrelsome, weak and indecisive. In its first 18 months, it set a model of harmonious and unified government which may prove hard to follow.

Media policy

Any coalition to be successful must have an agreed media policyno leaks or inspired stories against partners. Brian Walker recalls in his essay on The Coalition and the Media that: In its first 18 months, the Coalition faced a basic problem that it never entirely resolved: Should it speak with a single voice, or with two voices? In unison was the obvious answer, particularly over the critical issues of financial and economic management. But how then should each party register political gains, especially if these were at the others expenses?

Political communication under a coalition was bound to be different than for single-party government. Prime ministerial spin had been viable under New Labour because what Tony wants dictated all else. Gordon Browns protestations of openness were undermined by the hostile private briefings of his communications aide Damian McBride. Cameron could not behave like either of his Labour predecessors. Everything of importance had to go through the coalition; he had to consult Nick Clegg.

Before long, the image of unity gave way to a coalition of differences. Asserting Lib-Dem distinctiveness, it encouraged the media in their instinctive hunt for splits. David Cameron was a more reluctant differentiator, but pressure from his own right wing was becoming harder to resist, surged on by the Tory press.

Nevertheless, essential coalition solidarity held, due to the overriding importance of managing the economy, some shared values, and the knowledge that too much open division would threaten cohesion and even survival.

That is a lesson for Indian coalitions to heed for their own survival.

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