The vast majority of Liberal Democrats support the coalition with the Conservatives, even if they have deep reservations about some of the government’s policies. But I still hear suggestions that it may have been wiser to enter an agreement to support the Conservatives on votes of confidence and supply, presumably in return for some kind of shared policy agenda. Such a deal, the argument goes, would enable the Lib Dems to preserve more of their independence and identity, avoid being held accountable for decisions with which they disagree, and gain credit for particular policy gains. This is, of course, an option for future hung parliaments. (Over the last day or so, I have seen some tweets arguing that, in light of David Cameron’s refusal to sign the new EU treaty on fiscal union, the Lib Dems should switch to a confidence and supply arrangement sooner rather than later.)
It wouldn't remove all the potential threats from working with larger parties, however. My home country, New Zealand, has used the mixed member proportional system (MMP) at each general election since 1996. No party has won a parliamentary majority on its own – though prime minister John Key’s (centre right) National Party almost managed it in the general election on 26 November. As a result, the country has seen various types of governing arrangement involving third and minor parties. But look how the minor parties have fared.
- In 1996, New Zealand First (conservative-populist) won 13.3 per cent of the party vote and went into coalition with National. New Zealand First later split and crashed to 4.3 per cent in 1999.
- Following the 1999 election, the (left-leaning) Alliance, with 7.7 percent of the party vote, formed a minority coalition government with Labour (social democrats / social liberals). The Alliance subsequently split into two parties – the Alliance (“bolsheviks”) and Progressives (“mensheviks”). The Alliance won just 1.3 per cent of the vote in 2002.
- After the 2002 election, the Progressives formed a minority coalition government with Labour. They went from 1.7 per cent in 2002 to 1.2 per cent in 2005 and 0.9 per cent in 2008.
- Having won 6.7 per cent of the party vote in 2002, United Future (centrist) pledged to support Labour on matters of confidence and supply, in return to specific policy commitments. In 2005, their vote slumped to 2.7 per cent and, after they signed another confidence and supply arrangement with Labour, 0.9 per cent and one constituency seat in 2008. Then, they entered into a confidence and supply deal with the incoming National government. At this year’s election, United Future held their one seat, because of the long-serving MP’s exemplary constituency record -- and also because of a less than subtle endorsement from Key who suspected, correctly as it turned out, that he may again need a few support partners.
- NZ First won 5.7 per cent in 2005 and entered into a confidence and supply agreement with Labour. In 2008, they won 4.1 per cent, below the 5 per cent threshold and because they won no constituency seats, ended up with no MPs.
- After the 2008 election, (market liberal) ACT’s five MPs entered into a confidence and supply agreement with National, which contained some of their policy priorities. This year, the party won just 1.07 per cent of the vote and their sole successful candidate only won his constituency seat after a controversial endorsement from Key. The party now seems to exist on life support.
- Less predictably, the Maori Party also made a confidence and supply deal with the new National government in 2008, to secure of their policy agenda. But the party split and, after campaigning on the basis of what it achieved in alliance with National, dropped from 5 seats in 2008 down to 3 this year, and lost nearly half its share of the vote.
Well, so much for the myth that PR systems enable the tail to wag the dog! As the veteran political commentator Colin James once said, the tails just keep getting smaller.
Earlier this year, Tim Bale, a political scientist at Sussex University, described what has happened to the New Zealand parties as the “black widow effect”:
The large spider, after having lured the small spider into a trap, does not kill it but lets it escape, at the price of leaving part of itself behind.
Some of the minor parties have been accomplices in their own near-destruction. During the 2008-11 parliament, ACT was racked by splits, scandals, a leadership coup and ended up with none of its sitting MPs seeking re-election. Even so, Bale’s description is all too accurate. The minor parties were all overshadowed by whichever major party they worked with, and were held responsible for the government’s perceived shortcomings. The black widow effect struck, regardless of whether minor parties had entered into a fully fledged coalition or a confidence and supply agreement complete with disputes processes and provisions for agreements to differ with the senior partner.
And, whenever realpolitik pushes and opportunity knocks, they will do deals. With 59 seats in the 121-member parliament, Key needs to assemble a durable majority. This week, ACT and United Future both concluded confidence and supply agreements with National, as well as signing up to National’s “action plan”. The two single MP parties both did well. ACT’s John Banks has scored some spectacular policy wins for his shattered party, including a legal cap on future government spending and a commitment to establish charter schools that compete with existing schools, with funding on a per child basis. He will be a minister outside cabinet. (For the full agreement, click here.)
Peter Dunne of United Future has secured Key’s agreement to progress flexible superannuation and some outdoor recreation issues. He will remain a minister outside cabinet. (For the full agreement, click here.) Both agreements are drafted so as to clearly brand the minor parties’ priorities. But then, so were the parties’ agreements with National in 2008. Once again, the support parties will need to market their policy wins and show potential voters that they have made a difference -- just as they would if their MPs were in cabinet, uner a UK-style coalition.
Key still needs more third party insurance, in case ACT implodes or his own backbenchers become rebellious. The obvious option is the Maori Party, which has unfinished policy business. But the bruised party is thinking carefully how it will work with National this time around. Over the past few days, it has been holding some 20 hui (assemblies) around the country to consider the options: memorandum of understanding (a commitment to work together on specific policy issues; confidence and supply; “relationship agreement” with confidence and supply – and opposition. Overlain with all this has been talk of a partial leadership coup. And there has been plenty of advice on hand about what sort of bargain they should strike.
We’ll soon see where the Maori Party ends up, but a new confidence and supply deal is on the cards. I’m not sure their process for deciding what to do in a hung parliament would be very helpful to the Lib Dems. Where the Maori Party holds hui to thrash out the options, the Lib Dems could use regional conferences -- if they wished. But what seems to work in New Zealand may not be so easily transposed to the UK. New Zealanders now take prolonged post-election negotiations between parties in their strides partly because, apart from what happened in 1996, it’s been clear on election night who will be the prime minister. Based on the experience of 2010, British markets, media and voters demand a much quicker settlement.
Finally, compare the fates of New Zealand’s black widowed parties with that of the Greens. In 2002 and 2005, they promised to abstain on votes of confidence and supply, and effectively gave the Labour-led government a majority. They did ok, scoring 5.3 per cent in 2005 and 6.7 per cent in 2008. In the 2008-11 parliament, the Greens had a “memorandum of understanding” with the National government, to take forward shared policy initiatives, for which the small party was able to take credit. After running a highly successful campaign, the Greens went on to break the 10 per cent barrier at this election, their best showing ever.
The Greens, having spent years on the opposition benches, courted suburban voters with a "green growth" programme and kept a narrow opening to working with National, in an attempt to gain more credibility, more seats and more leverage. They may have another “memorandum of understanding” with Key, but getting any closer to National, when they don’t really need to, would split the party and fracture its support base. The Greens will surely have their time in the sun as the indispensable junior coalition partner in the next Labour-led government. The black widow effect may well strike them too, later on. But they’ll take the chance if it comes. After all, political parties exist to gain power and make a difference.