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Column: Sharing power is bad for the health of junior coalition partners

Sharing government can be like a bad marriage, writes Rory Costello – and it certainly looks that way for Labour.

Rory Costello

COALITION GOVERNMENTS CAN sometimes seem like abusive marriages, with the smaller partner locked into a damaging relationship that it is seemingly unable to leave.

The Fine Gael-Labour coalition has begun to look a bit like this in recent months. Labour has been hurt in recent tussles between the two, most notably the events surrounding the resignation of Róisín Shorthall. If recent opinion polls are anything to go by, Labour also seems to be taking much of the flak for unpopular decisions the government has made. This raises the question: is government always bad for the health of the junior coalition partner?

Examples of small parties faring badly in government are easy to come by. The PDs were nearly wiped-out in 2007 following a long period in government with Fianna Fáil, and later disbanded as a political party. The Greens lost all six of their representatives in the Dáil following their sole stint in government. Looking across the water, support for the Liberal Democrats plummeted when they reneged on some key election promises soon after entering into government with the Conservatives.

Little impact

A lot depends on the circumstances in which the coalition is formed, and in particular whether or not the junior coalition partner can protect itself with a strong programme for government (a kind of pre-nuptial agreement). The PDs in 2002 were in a weak bargaining position, as Fianna Fáil had other options to fall back on; so too were the Greens in 2007. In such circumstances, a small party is unlikely to be able to dictate the terms of the programme for government and can expect to have little impact once the government term gets underway. However, a small party can find itself in the position of kingmaker in the negotiations following an election, being essential to all of the alternative coalitions that could realistically form. It can then play hard-ball during the negotiations and secure key ministerial posts and important policy concessions in the ensuing deal.

A good example of this is the Fianna Fáil-PD coalition formed in 1997. The PDs were in a strong negotiating position, as Fianna Fáil had no realistic alternative partner (Labour had ruled out such a partnership before the election). Despite having only four TDs, they secured the position of Tánaiste and two junior ministries and succeeded in implementing many of their key election promises. They were rewarded in the next election with a doubling of their seats.

Indeed, the evidence internationally suggests that small parties should have nothing to fear from entering into government. Small parties in government tend to get marginally more ministerial positions than they would if it was determined by size alone. Studies also suggest that small parties often punch above their weight when it comes to getting their election pledges into the programme for government. Furthermore, while all parties tend to lose some votes following a period in office (due to the unpopular decisions they must inevitably make), it is the party of the Prime Minister that typically sees the greatest decline in its vote share.

Bargaining position

In this light, it is something of a puzzle as to why Labour has not done better this time out. On the face of it, it would seem that they were in a strong bargaining position after the last election. Fine Gael desperately wanted a coalition with Labour, as the alternatives (Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin) were unpalatable. Labour, in contrast, would have very likely benefited from a period as the largest party in opposition during a time of severe cut-backs, and so should only have been tempted to enter a coalition under their terms.

As it played out, Labour leaders did not play their hand particularly well. They seemed over-eager to enter government (perhaps with noble intentions of helping to get the country back on track) and as a result did not strike a particularly good deal. The division of ministerial posts was proportional to the size of the two parties (with Fine Gael getting 10 ministers, Labour 5) and the agreed programme for government was noticeably vague on detail.  This means that Fine Gael now have greater scope to determine government policy: they hold the majority of cabinet seats, and are not constrained by a detailed list of commitments in the programme for government.

However, Labour’s current unpopularity cannot just be attributed to a poor coalition deal. Implementing an austerity programme is politically more damaging for a left-wing party like Labour (a long-term advocate for strong social welfare and public spending) than it is for Fine Gael. More deep cuts to public spending will be announced in the upcoming budget and Labour’s poll ratings will most likely continue to slide. Whatever their reasons were for going into government, it would appear to have been the wrong decision for the long term health of the party.

Rory Costello is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick, specialising in EU politics and political representation.

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