It’s a drama a minute isn’t it?  I refer to the UK coalition, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats bound together in government, they hope, for five years.  The latest make-or-break, maybe, is the reform of the House of Lords.

Just after the UK general election in May 2010 I blogged a list of ten tips for a successful coalition offered by Jack (now Lord) McConnell, former First Minister of Scotland.

For those outwith Scotland, it’s helpful to know that our own devolved parliament was designed with a system of proportional representation to ensure no one political party could ever have a simple majority (the sceptics said ‘designed by the Westminster Labour government to ensure that the SNP could never have a simple majority’ – they do now, but that’s another story) and adversaries would have to compromise to make it work.

Unlike Westminster, the parliamentary chamber is semi-circular and so less adversarial – no forbidden lines at a sword’s length to stay behind and no baying like animals at each other across the divide.

And none of the archaic practices of Westminster that traditionalists love but which often seem to hinder efficient and effective government – MSPs vote by pressing a button (shock, horror) and seem to manage perfectly well without crowding into a lobby like sheep to be counted with the result announced by tellers with the cry ‘The ayes have it.’

So the Scottish experience, and McConnell’s, who led a Labour/Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood, might have something to teach a parliament struggling to govern through coalition for the first time in generations.

These are McConnell’s ten tips repeated, with my comments and outsider’s score out of ten for how they’re doing so far

  1. Leaders must have personal trust – Cameron and Clegg made a good start but seem a lot tetchier with each other now (Clegg’s body language sat next to the PM in parliament is instructive) although there’s no obvious briefing against each other, unlike the dearly departed Tony and Gordon SCORE 7/10
  2. Agree a clear policy programme and priorities and stick to it – I’d love to see a serious analysis of progress on the coalition’s programme for government (I certainly don’t have the resources to do it) but pending that the picture seems a mixed one.  Notwithstanding points 3. 5. and 6. below there seem to have been occasions (Michael Gove’s school exam reforms?) that are not only off-programme but also seem to have been a surprise to others in the coalition.  And although the coalition’s agreed programme has a very clear proposal for House of Lords reform (p.27) now push has come to shove lots of stroppy Tory backbenchers want to treat that as an optional extra to be discarded SCORE 6/10
  3. As in any successful relationship, compromise is necessary – sometimes challenging, many Conservative MPs especially don’t quite seem to have got the point SCORE 5/10
  4. Every partnership has disagreements so it is important that there is a clear dispute resolution mechanism in place, one that is understood and accepted by both sides – not sure about this.  Is this what Cameron/Clegg/Osborne and Alexander do?  Any Westminster insiders care to make a judgement? SCORE 6/10?
  5. Governments need to be flexible, to respond to new opportunities as well as unexpected events – a tricky one.  Where Labour (and others) claim lack of flexibility in economic matters the coalition seems to be holding their agreed line and lack of flexibility doesn’t seem to be an issue between the two parties SCORE 5½/10?
  6. Use the agreed programme as a guide, not a straitjacket – see 5.
  7. Sometimes coalition partners need to go their separate ways – and they have on occasion, but it needs to be without surprising your partner SCORE 6/10
  8. People leave a political party in a coalition for all sorts of reasons and a partnership must be robust enough to cope with that – not a big issue yet as no major defections to other parties UNSCORED
  9. All for one and one for all. A coalition government must have collective responsibility and ministers across the political divide must accept this discipline – they say all political animals are either herbivores or carnivores.  My impression is that the Conservatives have a few carnivore ministers who would really like to tuck into a Lib Dem or two.  Their back benchers are worse SCORE 7/10
  10. Finally, never forget the electorate.  SCORE – NOT POSSIBLE UNTIL THE NEXT GENERAL ELECTION

Looking at this I’m surprised some of my scores are as high as they are.  Perhaps thinking seriously about each of McConnell’s tips forces me to discard much of the media froth that surrounds politics and is constantly looking for failure and negativity.

After two years of coalition government I think I’d like to add another tip to Jack McConnell’s list

Ensure you have a political system that enables and supports coalition working

In this case the system is the Westminster parliamentary system and I’m afraid it has been found seriously wanting SCORE 4/10.

What do you think?

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