Cross-party cooperation at times when traditional party divisions are in flux is nothing new. We have been here before, sometimes with success for liberalism and quite often without success. Especially if the electoral outcomes are also factored in.
Avoiding both disasters and damp squibs is not an easy task at times of political realignment and unusual cross-party cooperation. That makes learning the lessons from history where vital.
So here are five lessons from political history – and a new sixth wildcard thrown in by a mostly overlooked electoral law change made recently.
1. Negotiating formal candidate deals is difficult, painful and damaging
As the extended SDP-Liberal seat negotiations in the early 1980s demonstrated, even when the talks are between parties with a relatively narrow set of policy differences they are difficult, time consuming and can be so divisive that they generate the sort of widespread negative publicity which damages the public standing of participants.
Then there is the problem that just because you have made a deal, you cannot guarantee voters will transfer over obediently. Nor that you won’t shed other support. Imagine how a small l liberal Conservative who likes the Liberal Democrat stridency on Europe and is otherwise intending to vote Lib Dem might then react if the Lib Dems did a seat deal with a group of (ex) Labour MPs. [UPDATE: The experience with Unite to Remain in 2019 reinforces this point: negotiating such deals is hugely time consuming, divisive within parties and doesn’t in an way guarantee that people will switch their votes in line with the central agreements.]
Candidate deals are not the way to proceed. Especially as…
2. Voters don’t need candidate deals to vote in a cross-party way
Hello, tactical voting. Tactical voting can, and has, reworked how first past the post works in a major way, and the long-term trend has been towards a greater willingness to consider tactical voting.
Moreover, tactical voting is not some ethereal force like the weather to be harnessed when favourable. Rather it is something that can be created and encouraged. Which leads to…
3. Voters respond to a wider culture of cross-party cooperation
From agreement on specific policy areas to multiple-author publications and talking on the same platforms at meetings, it is possible to set the mood music – we’re not the same but we can work together.
All the more so if it is seen through to agreements to ease up the attacks on each other, or to coordinate attacks on the main opponent, something which Labour and the Lib Dems quietly agreed on in the 1997 and 2001 general elections.
Setting the mood music is also helpful in ensuring that any post-election steps do not feel jarring discordant to the pre-polling day messages to voters. Hence the Liberal Democrats sitting in a Cabinet committee with Labour post-1997 did not repel Lib Dem voters, because it fitted with the mood music.
4. It is easiest to get started with issues where wider political consensus is seen as desirable
As the successful Cook-Maclennan talks and the even more multi-party Scottish Constitutional Convention demonstrated, the safe ground for starting to set that wider culture are policy areas which naturally fit cross-party agreement. In fact so fit cross-party agreement that it is often sought even when no political realignment is in the air. Areas, that is, such as constitutional reform, pensions policy or even – less frequently in the UK but widely in other countries and now rather pertinent in the UK – foreign affairs.
5. The best advocates for tactical voting are those outside political parties
Piers Morgan is not your obvious standard bearer for political realignment. But as editor of the Daily Mirror in the run up to the 1997 general election he played a key role by letting his paper be a major mouthpiece for anti-Conservative tactical voting. That’s why getting the Mirror on board was an early and significant part of the pre-1997 Labour-Lib Dem talks.
It wasn’t just the direct readership his newspaper reached. It was that his newspaper offered up quotes which political parties could then use intensively in their own campaigning as independent authority for their tactical voting claims.
By editorialising and commissioning constituency opinion polls, major media outlets can feed political campaigners with powerful material to make the tactical voting case.
In the case of the Mirror, it published a list of 22 seats which the Lib Dems could take from the Tories if Labour voters switched. The Lib Dems ended up winning 20 of them.
6. The new game in town: putting endorsements on the ballot paper
Due to the long-running Labour Party – Cooperative Party alliance, the Coalition Government changed election law to allow candidates to stand as representing two different political parties, with joint candidates allowed to have a logo next to their name on ballot papers too.
But that joint candidature does not have to be between two conventional political parties. A grassroots cross-party alliance (hello, Paddy Ashdown) could register as a political party and then endorse candidates from across the conventional parties who agree with its demands (as happens in the US). There could even be more than one in any particular constituency. And – courtesy of that legal change – those endorsed cross-party candidates could display their status on the ballot paper itself.
Even if there is more than one such endorsed candidate in a constituency, the low levels of knowledge voters often have about candidates makes putting the information directly on the ballot paper very powerful.
FURTHER READING: See Duncan Brack’s excellent chapter on the lessons in cross-party cooperation from the Blair-Ashdown years.
FURTHER LISTENING: Listen to me and Duncan Brack discuss how cross-party cooperation helped defeat the Conservative in the 1990s.