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TOWARDS ELECTORAL COALITIONS?

Graham Williamson is an Executive member of the Third Way Party

The electoral system works heavily against smaller parties. Under a ‘First Past the Post’ system parties unable to muster at least a third of the vote and often more, are unlikely to be elected to any seat. Although there has been some loosening of the system for ‘Regional Assemblies’ such as the GLA and the Scottish Parliament, under pressure from Europe, the system still holds for most elections.

The consequence of this system is that many candidates have little or no chance of being elected and not just so-called ‘fringe’ parties (in whole swathes of the country only one party can get elected). There is a wealth of talent and ideas out there but most remain un-tapped and some of its representatives no doubt give up after a while.

Ideas, which are not catered for by the establishment parties, are in particular hardest hit; perhaps this is the intention of the system and it certainly seems to be so in the minds of its contemporary supporters. Ideas about the democratic deficit of ‘Representative’ democracy as apart from forms of ‘Direct’ democracy, the decline of local democracy in favour of centralisation or bogus ‘regionalisation’, the state of England within the Union, the social and cultural impact of mass-immigration, and even our relationship with Europe are only debated, if at all, within set frameworks in our Assemblies, Parliament or Council Chambers. Those with views outside the establishment framework are treated as pariahs and ‘extremists’. Whether however the alternative view represents a minority or majority, it should surely be represented by elected officials in order to bring even ‘unwelcome news’ to the blissfully ignorant.

We are not however going to see a change in the system of voting and the election of candidates overnight. The interest New Labour once showed in electoral reform has waned since they realised how useful the existing system was for them too. At the last General Election they commanded a sufficiently large Parliamentary majority on merely 32% of the national vote (of those that even bothered!). Until one of the ‘big two’ parties decide to adopt electoral reform it will remain a ‘dead letter’.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?
If there is little prospect of the system facilitating the election of ‘outsiders’ then can small groups engineer a ‘breakthrough’?

One of the main reasons given in opposition to electoral reform is the maintenance of ‘strong government’. The fear of coalition politics is built upon anecdotal evidence from Europe. Italy is often cited as a prime example where it is nigh impossible for any party to govern alone. The fear is that a similar system for Parliament and Councils (working Regional Assemblies are largely regarded as ‘talking shops’) would force politicians to endlessly broker deals and coalitions and result in much energy spent just maintaining a workable administration. Whilst one can cynically say that our professional politicians actually fear having to justify their existence continually, rather than every four or five years, and concern that some of them would be ‘culled’ to make way for newcomers, the argument is legitimate if not sacrosanct.

On balance however I would say that where a ‘coalition’ has had to be brokered, say at local council level, it has worked, indeed of course it must. When politicians become used to this they can find themselves quite accommodating, safe in the knowledge that they never had a mandate to do as they will. The Liberal Democrats inevitably have the greatest experience of this.

The problem however is that the system still ensures that with most constituencies the winner is often elected on a minority vote and minor parties rarely get a look in. If a group represents 5-10% of a town’s population surely they should be represented on its Council (or wherever)?

I believe the time has come to form electoral coalitions whereby the resources of the many can be utilised for mutual benefit. There are a number of different models.

The first is one between two or more parties. It may or may not have a name and is more of an electoral pact. Is often an agreement not to stand against each other but could be a precursor to a merger or even ‘acquisition’ (which is also a reason why they can fail).

A second is a loose agreement between very small groups, often geographically apart, to offer an electorate an ‘Alternative List’ to the established groups. Without any common ground or platform however it is more beneficial under a PR system which rewards national/regional etc coverage.

A refinement of the latter is one which balances the need to create a viable identity and a credible alternative whist retaining the independence of its constituent parts. There needs therefore to be a common platform of policies or ‘exhortations’ that the group would adhere to if elected.

Therefore if several small groups come together, perhaps with independents too, they could achieve the following:

Firstly, the constituent parts would no longer be seen as minor players but part of a larger grouping and if able to stand candidates for at least half the body they are seeking to become elected to, then they could potentially form an Administration. This is a vital ingredient to credibility, a factor which is often lacking for small parties/individuals.

Secondly, by pooling resources they are more likely to have more funds available, galvanise their own supporters (success – or the prospect of – breeds success) and be taken more seriously by the media.

Thirdly, if one of the groups is seen as unpopular or controversial it should not reflect too heavily upon the ‘coalition’, being only a small part of it. The fact that one could have diverse groups/individuals on the same ‘ticket’ could be seen as real democracy in action (but see below).

Fourthly, if voters are attracted to the agreed/accepted mutual platform (and the choice is crucial) they can be ‘steered’ towards the constituent’s groups candidates. This ‘blessing’ is vital as it can overcome existing images (or prejudices) towards the constituent parts i.e. those seen as lone mavericks and ideological parties ‘obsessed'(?) with one issue.

The weaknesses or challenge will be in the process of brokering such a coalition. I believe though that there is a successful formula and it is one I am presently developing (so like coca cola’s recipe it must remain, for the present at least, a secret!).

Some of the pitfalls will be policy, ‘extremist’ groups, personalities, promotion.

Policy

Perhaps the most difficult subject with which to find consensus. It would have to be a very basic platform and relevant to the body you are trying to become elected too i.e. if council then national politics will not be as relevant. Look at the body in question and decide what its ‘Achilles Heel’ is i.e. large Council Tax increases or some recent scandal. Create a Steering Committee from amongst potential partners to flesh this out. The minimum is two, maximum at this stage probably three – they could come from parties but might also be independents, whether as individuals or non-party registered pressure groups. We are not talking about ‘bogus’ coalitions of real or fictitious ‘front’ groups that just happen to come together!

The constituent parts would still be free to promote other policies/campaigns and providing these are not contradictory or embarrassing (see extremists below) should not reflect badly on the others. Certain policies that could not obtain all round agreement due to differences or the need for brevity for the Coalition Campaigning body may help a particular constituent group elect their candidates. In most cases I believe the ‘edge’ of the smaller parts will be reflected in personality/charisma and community politics/links.

Remember that the greater the platform the greater the potential for disagreement and less the impact upon the electorate. Finding the right balance is crucial.

Extremists

Perhaps the most contentious subject. Clearly one wouldn’t want the Coalition to be hijacked by the most fanatical i.e. ‘extremist’ group or allow itself to be overshadowed by its most controversial member. Not every party will be suitable and all partners must have a sincere desire to co-operate. It should not (be allowed) to be used as a means to get elected and then for members to ‘do their own thing’. The Steering Committee’s decision is vital and must be final. There is an element of trust here so choosing the ‘right’ partners is essential. The varying strengths of partners will manifest itself within individual constituencies rather than within or through the coalition, all partners at this level are equal.

Personalities

Perhaps the most frustrating element. Anyone involved in so-called ‘Unity’ talks (thankfully I haven’t been) will know that this is often the most problematic factor that prevents agreement. This is because individuals want to control things and see position(s) as the key. Individuals, particularly independents, will not be a problem as they will see the coalition as their best chance of becoming elected and seek power largely to improve their own area (which is usually their raison d’etre). The pre-elected Coalition however has no power to exercise or give. It is purely a vehicle to promote its constituent parts. It is an electoral PR machine. The only ones that can exercise ‘power’ are those candidates that are actually elected.

The coalition will (hopefully) be mirrored in the chamber but it may not include of course all the original constituent partners i.e. not every group or individual will become elected. The electoral coalition (as apart from the one represented in the chamber) can remain in hibernation for future elections and/or as a Press Office for a working coalition (in or out of power).

Promotion

Once the Partners have been found (and this is a major promotional challenge in itself but is achievable) and a basic platform created, then the Coalition needs to be promoted (the optimum lead time of its launch before an election is still a ‘work in progress’). This should include a Press Launch and Promotional Material (leaflets/adverts and mail-outs). Who produces the material, who pays for it and distributes it (particularly in areas untouched by partners) is down to the Steering Committee. Rather than open up a bank account, an invoice can be split x ways (there are some minor regulatory implications for Parties).

The fundamental aim, at first, is to advertise for more partners and specifically candidates. Later it will be to advertise its existence, largely around policy. That should of course link the basic platform to electoral issues (that will be fought at the next election).

In the election the partners will utilise a standard Coalition leaflet which will promote the basic programme and those candidates (within the specific electoral area) signed up to it. The individual partners will of course be free to promote their own candidates with their own supplemental (and if a target ward, their best) material. It is in everyone’s interests for the Coalition to prosper so the wealthier partners may need to carry some of the others, in particular individuals standing as Independents. In this way everyone’s a winner!

Template For the Future

I believe there is some merit in co-operation. Even if there are differences between groups and individuals (and some can be quite fundamental) it can be overcome for the good of the partners and, incidentally, democracy too. Whilst this is a practical experiment in creating the next best alternative to electoral reform it can potentially transform our politics and re-energize all those who are presently ‘outsiders’.

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