Caron Lindsay’s piece on Scotland in the special edition of the Journal of Liberal History to mark the 25th anniversary of the Liberal Democrats reminded me of David Laws’s seven rules for negotiations in a hung Parliament. Laws set out those seven rules in 2009, looking back on his experience of being involved in the negotiations when the Scottish Parliament was hung.
A mere few months later, he was heavily involved in negotiating in another hung Parliament following the May 2010 general election. Given how that has since turned out, and with an eye for the lessons for the party if 2015 produces another hung Parliament, it is instructive to look back on how those seven rules now look:
- There is huge pressure from the media and others which requires a deal to be struck quickly if at all.
- About 20% of colleagues will be happy with any sort of coalition, 30% will oppose any sort of coalition and the rest will decide on the details of the proposal.
- Any coalition has to address issues of policy substance.
- You have to be tough and prepared to walk away to get a good deal.
- But you can agree to postpone tackling some large complicated issues if more time is genuinely needed to work out a compromise – and if there is always the threat that the coalition will end if it isn’t reached.
- You need to get commitments in writing about the administrative details of how coalition government will work.
- Vigorous internal party debate over the proposed terms is vital for any deal to stick.
It’s the fifth that has the most pertinent lesson as it’s the one that wasn’t followed in 2010. Some issues were deferred in the coalition agreement, but when it then came to addressing them the attitude of David Laws, Nick Clegg and others (notably Richard Reeves) was that the party had to be showing coalition could produce stable, long-term government – and hence the threat of bringing down the coalition was not deployed over either tuition fees or the NHS Bill, to pick the two most obvious examples.
I’m more sympathetic than many in the party to the idea that back in the summer of 2010 we had to show coalition could work as I think many have forgotten just how widespread the assumptions were that hung Parliaments would always be unstable and the coalition wouldn’t last the Parliament.
That widespread assumption of short-term, fragile government was widely held not only in political and media circles but was also why many voters had recoiled from the idea of a hung Parliament as polling day closed in several previous general elections.
But even so, the party took that too far – and the lesson for 2015 is that those rules which served the party well in Scotland can still serve the party well in Westminster too – if they are all applied.