Coalition advice from Europe

Weber Shandwick’s Brussels team draws on the continental experience of coalition politics

Image: Angela Merkel of the German Christian Democrats (CDU), Horst Seehofer of the Bavarian Christian Democrats (CSU) and Sigmar Gabriel of the German Social Democrats (SPD) sign the coalition agreement on 16 December 2013 in Berlin.

With the prospect of a hung parliament after the UK general election looming, thoughts are turning to another coalition. What lessons can the UK draw from coalition politics across Europe?

Many in Europe look with curiosity at the opposing benches of the House of Commons, which contrast so sharply with the hemicycles of parliaments in most European capitals. The strong single party majority government model that the UK ‘first past the post’ system fosters is alien to many Europeans, for whom coalition politics is the norm.

In Belgium, it’s worth noting that six party coalitions are common, so our team has first-hand coalition experience!

Top tips

  •  Parties who break up a coalition tend to be punished by voters.

If you jump into a coalition, you’d better be in it for the long haul! As in marriage, the survival of coalition government depends on the commitment of parties to one other.

  • Coalitions are often hard on the junior partner.

Just as the Liberal Democrats suffered in government, so too have junior coalition partners in other countries like Germany. In two previous coalitions, the junior FDP and SPD partners each saw their share of the vote fall, with the FDP losing all their seats in September 2013!

  • Voters punish parties who do not stand up for their principles or deliver key policies.

In the German examples above, the FDP failed to deliver promised tax cuts. Some may see a parallel with the Liberal Democrats falling short on education and university tuition fees.

  • Acknowledge the role of the partner party in successes.

An obvious one perhaps; but avoiding squabbling and putting party interest above government stability is key. But when parties shift into election mode, all bets are off.

  • Even if the current coalition continues after the election, it will not be the same.

On current projections, a Conservative / Liberal Democrat alliance would fall short of a majority. However, if the two parties are part of the next coalition, the relationship would surely change in line with shifting electoral support.

Other options – not for the faint-hearted

Leaders of UK parties may want to think about these interesting but unlikely options:

  • Absorb your coalition partner’s key policies

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a reputation for absorbing key policies from her coalition partner and winning over some of their electoral support. The next UK Prime Minister may want to think about this!

  • A Conservative / Labour ‘grand coalition’

‘Grand coalitions’ of the two largest parties are relatively rare, as large parties prefer smaller partners, for both ideological and practical reasons. But if neither Labour nor the Conservatives can form their preferred coalitions, perhaps they should consider joining forces, like Mrs. Merkel did in Germany in 2005 and again in 2013.

  • We just work better together!

From 2006 to 2014, Sweden worked with a four-party centre-right coalition and the general consensus was that it was greater than the sum of its parts and parties. While each party had positions, they recognised that together they had wider appeal. Cross-party campaigning anyone?

  • Compromise vote by vote – à la European Parliament

Why not take a leaf out of the Parliament’s book? The supranational assembly is made up of directly elected Members from 28 Member States and a range of national parties, who organise themselves into ideological groups; seven at present. With the two major Centre-Right and Left parties holding 221 and 191 seats respectively, of a total of 751, it’s all about ‘compromise’ and ‘consensus based politics’; often on a vote-by-vote basis.

And that begs the question; if the UK were to adopt a more consensus-based approach to politics, seeking to accommodate opposing views, what impact would this have on a possible in/out referendum on the EU and ‘re-negotiation’ with the EU?