Some things are very much less than the sum of their parts. My cooking, for example. But the cooking of Delia Smith is a reminder that sometimes combining ingredients in the right way produces results which are very much more than the sum of their parts.
The workings of first past the post provides a tempting target for would-be political cooking. If we can just add this party’s vote share here to that candidate there… and a landslide can be conjured from what would otherwise be a series of losing vote shares.
But success is far from guaranteed. Indeed, I’ve often argued that cross-party arrangements which fall short of formal seat deals are often the most effective approach in British politics, especially as deals are not guaranteed to transfer voters. When parties decide to deal, voters may decide to do something else.
However, with the possibility of an autumn general election about Brexit, there’s increasing interest in the possibility of pro-Remain seat deals. When, then are deals more or less likely to work?
Here’s what makes deals more likely to work:
The deal isn’t just about party self-interest
Deals work best where they aren’t just about electoral mathematics, but rather where there is broader benefit for the parties to be seen to cooperate with each other; i.e. the public see the deal as likeminded people co-operating for the public good rather than cynical politicians stitching up deals.
The deal expresses common values which matter to voters
Deals work best when the deal isn’t based on the idea that the supporters of a party (or independent) will do what they are told. They don’t, and in fact when there’s polling evidence it often shows that there is a much more varied and even split amongst the second preferences of a party’s supporters than there is amongst the party’s leadership.
Rather, what works is when a deal is based on a common platform or over-riding issue. That way, voters are being asked to vote for someone other than their usual choice in order to support best their values, not just to game the system.
(This is also why deals are beneficial to parties even if some of those pitching in to the deal have low levels of public support. The very fact that other parties are telling people to vote for your candidate says something positive about you as a party.)
The deal has non-party backing
What best reinforces the previous two lessons is where there is non-party back for deals, such as from media outlets and lobby groups. That helps make the case that the deal is for the greater public good, not for the job prospects of politicians.
For Remainers looking to an autumn 2019 general election, there is a bonus here too. The mix of different Remain groups, alliances, organisations and umbrellas could easily produce a confusing mix of different exhortations that confuses. Having a clear set of candidate deals could provide the focus that means all these different voices end up amplifying the same message.
The public knows the deal exists
Striking a deal doesn’t mean relevant voters know about it, let alone are persuaded by it. The deal needs to be followed by intensive campaigning to get it over. All the better if that involves non-party backing to amplify the message. (The support of centre-left newspapers for anti-Conservative tactical voting in 1997 was crucial – both for the media coverage directly and for the quotes and poll findings they offered up for candidates to use in their campaign literature.)
The big prize here is to make sure that the ballot paper itself tells people the deal exists.
The deal is between parties with different self-interests
When both sides want the same thing, agreeing how to divide things up is tough. (Think of the Liberal / SDP seat negotiations in the 1980s.) Far easier is when the parties want different things. That’s why Lib Dem – Green arrangements have worked in places such as Richmond-upon-Thames and Oxfordshire as they’ve spanned both general and local elections. It’s easier to waive your role in one sort of election if you’re happy to then get a winning chance in a different sort of election.
That difference of interest can also come from a difference of scale: if for one party winning 10 seats is amazing but for another 100 seats is amazing, it is easier to deal than if both are on the same scale.
Negotiations are not seen as the end in themselves
Talks are clearly important to doing a deal. But as the other rules indicate, they can’t dominate. If they do, the other necessary steps for success will get squeezed out and the deal will fail. The talks are the preliminary step, not the end in themselves.
If all six apply, then seat deals can turn the weakness of first past the post – its inability to cope with multi-party democracy – into a massive opportunity for those making the deals. If, that is, the above six conditions are met.
Will they be in a general election this autumn? Quite possibly – but only if those talking of deals remember they need to hit all six of these conditions for success.