So, here we are, the first UK general election in 36 years to produce a hung parliament and, in its turn, cross-party talks about a new government.
People in countries with PR voting systems seem quite bemused about how the Brits have reacted to this situation. My home country, New Zealand, has used MMP at each general election since 1996. As a result, there have been various types of governing arrangement.
- Following the 1996 election, the National Party (centre-right), formed a coalition government with New Zealand First (conservative-nationalist), which was often supported by ACT (market liberal).
- Following the 1999 election, Labour (centre-left/social liberal) formed a minority coalition government with the Alliance (left-wing) and had support on matters of confidence and supply from the Greens.
- Following the 2002 election, Labour formed a minority coalition government with the Progressive Party (centre-left) and had support on matters of confidence and supply from the Greens and United Future (a centrist party).
- Following the 2005 election, Labour formed a minority coalition government with the Progressive Party, and had support on matters of confidence and supply from New Zealand First and United Future. The Greens signed an agreement to abstain on votes of confidence and supply, giving the Labour-led Government a majority. The Māori Party also abstained on confidence and supply votes but had no formal agreement with the Government.
- Following the 2008 general election, National formed a minority government and entered into confidence and supply agreements with the Māori Party, ACT and United Future.
(Under most of the confidence and supply agreements, members of the support parties became ministers.)
A common element in many of these arrangements has been United Future. That party’s leader, Peter Dunne, has been a good friend of mine for some 25 years. In a facebook comment earlier today, he set out his views on how the Liberal Democrats might approach the current situation, based on his experiences in 2002, 2005 and 2008.
I think the important thing is that the Lib Dems do not become seen as part of the problem. I agree the options are all very difficult, but the party has to be seen as able to work its way through the difficulties in a calm and measured way to get the right outcome - for the country, as well as for itself.
I do not think there is any need to move at a pace set by any other party. Without dragging the chain, your guys need to remember the strong position they are in. It is highly unlikely there could a governing arrangement that did not involve them, so they do not need to dance to anyone else's tune but their own.
Having done this sort of thing on three occasions here now, I suggest the first thing the party needs to resolve is its priorities policy-wise, and the best way of achieving them.
At the next election the key will be justifying the decision to your own voters, and the best way to do that is to have some policy wins to point to. Stable government is important, but funnily enough, people do not appreciate that when you provide it. They only notice when they do not have stable government, and then the smaller parties are to blame, even if the problem lies within the big party.
So I say concentrate on the policies that are important to your supporters and make sure you are able to achieve them - and then get the credit for them.
And make sure, it is all written down, including the procedural and agree to disagree provisions so there can be no misunderstanding at a later date.
United Future's confidence and supply agreement with National would be worth looking at, as it is the template for these types of agreements here.