Beware ‘Confidence and Supply’

As the prospect of a hung Parliament awaits, the phrase ‘confidence and supply’ commands more column inches. If a coalition is going to prove too hard to forge, this is being touted as the alternative way forward.

Essentially it means the junior party or parties lending support to the minority government do so on the basis of not opposing the government’s budgets and of supporting it in any confidence vote. In other words, freedom to disagree almost everywhere, except where disagreement really counts.

But could it work?

We have just one experience to draw on from recent history.

The 1977/8 Lib-Lab Pact

Prime Minister Callaghan’s Labour government lost its overall majority in 1977 as a result of by-election losses.  The Conservatives tabled a no confidence motion in a bid to end his government. In the space of one week, Callaghan negotiated his ‘pact’ with Liberal leader David Steel. The Liberals 13 MPs agreed to support the government.

Most of the opening demands from the Liberals, in return for this support, fell by the wayside. Callaghan conceded very little on policy. Liberal demands for no more nationalisation were rebuffed, as was a demand for proportional representation for European Assembly elections, and a call for faster progress on devolution. He gave them involvement in process instead: fortnightly consultative meetings with Labour ministers; a variety of policy consultations (backed only by private undertakings from Callaghan – nothing in writing); and a ‘final appeal’ court for any disagreements, namely Callaghan and Steel themselves.

Importantly, the Liberals were not to be given any civil service support.

Steel promptly tested his power by trying to veto a petrol tax rise in the budget. He failed, quickly demonstrating his weakness in the relationship.

The Liberals began to suffer in local and Parliamentary by-elections, and grass root support for this first whiff of power began to evaporate.

Steel concluded that for his party’s sake he could not sustain the Pact until the end of the Parliament and it was wound up in the autumn of 1978. The Liberals published a Pact Achievements documents: It was gossamer thin from their point of view. From Callaghan’s point of view, his government has survived: From being far behind in the polls when the pact was agreed, he was ahead when it ended – a fact that, in itself, undermined the arrangement.

It was born out of expediency, and when the expedient circumstances no longer applied, it died.

Lessons for 2015

Voters may not distinguish between pacts and Coalitions: The inevitability of a loss of electoral support for ‘propping up’ a government doing unpopular things (especially at the start of the Parliamentary cycle) will probably happen whatever the basis of the arrangement. The steady stockpiling of adversity will start from day one.

Process is no substitute for policy:  Any minor party seeking to negotiate such an arrangement would be advised to extract policy agreements up front. Involvement in deliberation within government is unlikely to yield much.

Secure access to the machine: It will be a completely unbalanced relationship unless the junior partner has some access to civil support. This could be the hardest thing to agree at the formation stage.

The junior partner’s influence will evaporate if the lead partner thinks they have strong prospects in an election: Whatever the balance of power between the partners at the outset, it will shift, probably on a monthly basis; hence deferment of the hard bits when negotiating probably means they are not revisited later.

The grassroots will give up before the politicians do: Punishment from the voters is felt at the local activist level first, but from there it filters through the party organisation and into Parliament. This will impose a shelf-life on any deal.

Machismo doesn’t work: Trying to demonstrate your influence by pushing beyond the core agreement will almost certainly fail. The lead partner will tolerate what is expedient; but not what is opportunistic.

It won’t work unless the leader chemistry works: Callaghan and Steel got on well personally.  They were able to resolve conflicts that erupted between the lower orders. If the leader chemistry is bad, there will be no lightening rod in the arrangement, and conflicts will escalate rather than defuse.

Hindsight

After winding up the Pact, David Steel privately conceded that it would have been far better from his party’s point of view to have gone for a full coalition arrangement. He concluded that the Liberals came away with nothing to show for the Pact and nothing to compensate for their loss of voter support.

Interesting, therefore, now to hear the same Lord Steel suggesting recently that the Liberal Democrats should not go into a second coalition after May 2015.

The Pact cost his Liberal Party votes. The Coalition has cost the Liberal Democrats votes.  The 1979 seat loss may be repeated, with knobs in, this May.

So ‘confidence and supply’ probably isn’t the easier Coalition-lite option many think it may be. And if that realisation eventually weighs on the minds of party leaders after May 7, the subsequent weeks could be even more challenging.