The dust is settling on the UK 2015 election with self-congratulation for the victors and the ritual resignations of the losers. There were many factors which made this election unique, but most important, if you are interested in collaboration, is that this was an election where our first coalition government for decades was being evaluated by the people. And the result was dramatic – the largest member of the coalition were returned with a majority in parliament, whereas the Liberal Democrats lost the majority of their seats and are now left with only 8 MPs. How can it be that the two partners results were so different and what does it tell us about the benefits and dangers of collaborative partnerships in other situations?
There will of course be many different reasons for these results but I reflect on a presentation that we gave at the Institute of Government just after the Coalition launched. You might remember the rose garden broadcast when Cameron and Clegg came together and emphasised the quality of their strong relationship and trust. At the time we were sceptical that this degree of closeness was not really possible (they had been political adversaries a few days earlier) or even desirable. When small and large organisations come together, there is plenty of evidence that even though there are often good intentions, the small gets swallowed up by the large. Large organisations find it harder to share control and to accept that, in practice, they are dependent on the smaller partner. And the smaller partner is perhaps more motivated to make the partnership work, giving up a lot to get the influence and power that comes with being part of a bigger operation.
So were the seeds of the Liberal Democrats loss sown in the early Coalition Agreement and how the partnership was set up in the early days? Were they a little naïve and gave away too much (e.g. The Student fees issue), and should they have appeared a little less collaborative in the rose garden? And would that have been more effective in keeping their voters for the future? Remember that you have to take your own constituency with you.
As we said at the time, trust takes time to build and its a mistake to get too close too soon. Trust is build from the experience of the parties transacting effectively – keeping their promises. Like in business, a step by step approach to building a partnership over time is wise – but start carefully, the larger partner might not be able to keep their promise to build the relationship, especially next time!