What the academics say: How the Lib Dems won the Coalition Agreement

by Stephen Tall on August 6, 2014

clegg cameron rose garden‘The UK Coalition Agreement of 2010: Who Won?’ is a fascinating paper written by Thomas Quinn, Judith Bara and John Bartle. It was published in May 2011, but I only stumbled across it yesterday. Here’s what it aimed to set out:

a content analysis of [the Coalition Agreement] to determine which party gained (or lost) most. ‘Gained’ and ‘lost’ here both have very specific meanings since they are based on comparisons of party positions as set out in their respective manifestos with the position of the new government set out in the agreement. In global terms we find that the agreement is nearer to the Liberal Democrats’ left-right position than the Conservatives’.

This is graphically illustrated by measure the two parties’ positions along a right-left scale:

coalition agreement 2010

… the two parties were on opposite sides of the divide (with the centre denoted by a score of 0). In the coalition agreement, 25.6% of (quasi-) sentences were coded ‘right’ and 24.0% ‘left’. Thus, the agreement’s ‘rile’ score was +1.6, which is just right-of-centre but much closer to the Liberal Democrats (a difference of 4.6) than to the Conservatives (a difference of 16.0)

The academic writers are, of course, too intelligent to fall into the trap of saying the Lib Dems won. In reality it was a lot more complicated than that:

The Liberal Democrats’ office payoffs were in line with broad norms of proportionality but on policy, the overall right-left placement of the coalition agreement was closer to the Liberal Democrat manifesto than to the Conservative one, albeit to the right of centre. When individual policy areas were examined, the picture was more complicated and both parties could legitimately claim victories.

The biggest victory for the Tories was the Coalition’s greater emphasis on deficit reduction. This, in turn, had a knock-on impact on major areas of policy (most notably welfare cuts) which weren’t anticipated in the Coalition Agreement.

The article is a useful reminder of two things.

First, while it’s commonplace now to argue the Lib Dem negotiators played their hand badly, that’s unfair: what they achieved was as much in line with the party’s manifesto priorities as could be reasonably hoped.

Secondly, that the initial Coalition Agreement is only half the battle. Politics does not stand still for five years and circumstances do change: governments have to react in office to those changes. We haven’t yet worked out how to achieve that within Coalition in a way that each side’s members can sign up to without descending into horse-trading that leaves the public shaking their heads in despair.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.