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Coalition Blues

From the CMP Resolution Blog of John Crawley, Lesley Allport and Katherine Graham.

I woke up this morning – got the coalition blues!

It only took twelve months

For win/win

To become win / lose!

(After wild boy, one eye Kid Crow.)

Just about a year ago the unthinkable in British politics occurred – two opposing parties signed up to a five year coalition. They argued that this was good for the country, and good for them sharing a desperate need for power, but their history and campaign rhetoric suggested that they had little else in common.

As a UK Voter I had major doubts and felt uncomfortable that I could neither love nor hate the election victors. Despite the ruthless campaigning and relentless rounds of personal attacks and credibility positioning the election produced a decidedly non-tribal solution to government. As a mediator I swelled with hope at this innovative win/win pragmatism.

Through the eyes of a mediator I think the coalition have done well – the uncomfortable, but seemingly congruent dovetailing and double-acting of Cameron and Clegg in front of the media in the Downing St Rose Garden; the willingness to disagree in public on policy and practice; the avoidance of mini-me marginalization of key Lib Dem figures like Clegg and Cable; public examples of give and take and even the odd u-turn.

The spirit of coalition has just about held together, as much as any commitment to co-operation can given the scale of the gap between the parties, the lack of an immediate precedent to learn from and the challenge ahead.

I always worried however that what united the parties – a desire for power – could be the very thing that ultimately brought about their demise, particularly if the more senior partner chose to overpower their counterparts. Might this apparent political merger turn into more of a take-over?

The last couple of weeks have reminded me, the optimistic mediator, of the fragility of the spirit of coalition. Trusting disagreement has been replaced by a turf war, and a desire to win over the public has deteriorated into win/lose expressions of glee at successes or despair at defeats. Private ‘squirmishes[1]’ have morphed into vituperative vendettas. The surge of blue Conservatives wins obliterating yellow Lib Dem losses on election night seemed like the final nail in the coalition coffin. Where could coalition go from here? My optimism was buried under the blue flood.

Thanks to Vince Cable (a great public supporter of early dispute resolution at work) for resurrecting my unusually corpse-like hope. He is mad but his co-operative principles are not defeated, recently commenting that Conservatives had been:

‘ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal, but that does not mean to say that we can’t work with them. I think that they have always been that way, but you have to be business-like and professional and you have to work with people who aren’t your natural bedfellows and that is being very grown up in politics.’

So is there any learning here for mediators? A couple of ideas from me. What do you think?

An agreement is not a single event but a continuing sequence of decisions, behavioural choices and emotional re-alignments. Parties (in mediation and in government) need help in managing that and sustaining trust through challenging moments.
Stakeholders and surrounding cultural influences can undermine agreement and damage the spirit of coalition. Once out of the mediation room in to the real world, these cultural norms and expectations counteract the ability of opposing parties to continue any pledge to work across a divide. Like international mediators we all need to do more work on preparing for the ‘return home’ syndrome when those whose are inside a mediation are influenced by those who are not.
In the UK the public and the press are key stakeholders in government. They seem profoundly uncomfortable with attempts at consensus politics, often labeling them ‘ambitious’, ‘slow’, ‘complicated’ and ‘destined to failure.’ (Common criticisms of mediation by the way.) Our society and media is currently saturated with examples of tribal, win/lose behavior inviting us to join in, or stand by the side and become conflict voyeurs. I wobbled for a while there, but I’ve had enough of huff and puff, negative labeling, smug triumphalism and naive overselling of ‘new politics’.

Vince Cable’s approach is rare, but I prefer to be a grown up. What about you?


John Crawley

John Crawley is the Founder and Chair of CMP Resolutions and has been working in organisations who are experiencing conflict for the last 20 years. He has acquired a unique range of conflict narratives illustrating what works and what does not. John developed and utilised the model of Constructive Conflict… MORE >

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