The psychology of coalitions and commitments


8:16 pm - May 13th 2010

by Chris Dillow    


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Several on the Left are predicting that the Libservative coalition will break up nastily. Maybe.

But I think Andrew makes a good point – there are powerful psychological mechanisms which might keep it together.

One of these is our desire to be consistent. Once we have embarked upon a course of action, however daft, we tend to stick with it. This could be because of an endowment effect; things become valuable once we have them. Or it might be because of the confirmation bias; having taken a decision, we look for evidence to suggest we were right.

But it’s also because we like to think well of ourselves, and this leads us to want to be consistent. It’s for this reason that people are often loath to sell badly performing shares; doing so is an admission of failure, and folk hating making such admissions, even to themselves let alone the wider public.

In his book, Influence (which is far better than the cover suggests) Robert Cialdini gives several examples of this. People who have just bet on a horse become more confident about its prospects than they were before they placed the bet.

In the Korean war, the Chinese got American PoWs to volunteer very mildly anti-American remarks (“the US isn’t perfect”) and found that those who made them were more likely to collaborate later. Home-owners who agreed to put up a small poster urging folk to drive safely subsequently agreed to put huge unsightly bill-boards in their garden. Students who have undergone painful or embarrassing initiation rituals to get into societies value membership highly. Salesmen are desperate to win small orders because these lead to larger ones.

These are all examples of a common habit, says Cialdini:

Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressure to behave consistently with that commitment.

This has a natural implication. Having decided to ally with the Tories, Lib Dems will be loath to break up their partnership. And they will look more favourably upon future Tory actions than they would had they not allied with them, simply out of a desire to stay consistent with their initial decision.

And here’s the thing. Cameron knows this. Cialdini’s book was on the reading list he gave to MPs in 2008.
So, here’s his tactic, assuming he wants to keep the coalition together. Whenever he needs Lib Dem support, he’ll try and show that such support is consistent with the terms of their initial agreement to govern together.

The Lib Dems will only withdraw from the coalition if they can claim credibly that doing so is consistent with their original decision to join. The deal-breaker will come if they can say: “This is not what we signed up for.”

Insofar as Cameron wants to keep the coalition together, he’ll try to avoid giving them such opportunities. I'd expect the phrase "you did sign up to cut the deficit" to be wielded.

All this suggests that an acrimonious split is only one possible ending. There’s another possibility, famously written by George Orwell:

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments


Agree with the conclusion, at least…

2. lolwhites

One important factor is that the Lib Dems have more to lose if the coalition falls. If they pull the rug out from under the Government, the Tories will argue that coalitions are inherently unstable and the case for PR will be fatally undermined.

3. Gaf the Horse

Could the Lib Dems not be thinking the same thing?

Interesting analysis and broadly I agree with the psychological reasoning behind it. However, it does negate the fact that there are always those people who refuse to follow the norm and who will rebel against thing they feel are wrong or unfair. Those will be the people who it will be interesting to watch out for as they are likely to be the ones who lead any kind of internal split within the Lib Dems. Part of me wonders if those people may in fact be those Lib Dem PPCs who either didn’t win the seat they were going for or lost a seat they previously held – such as Dr Evan Harris, for example.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

I suppose we all have our own spin on things. But that Orwell quote perfectly describes Labour’s transformation into the Tories, and why their attacks on the Lib Dems smack of hypocrisy.

The end of Animal Farm you quote is preceded by:

But they had not gone twenty yards when they stopped short. An uproar of
voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through
the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were
shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious
denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and
Mr. Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously.

Their similarity is revealed only when they begin to fight.

5 Totally agree.

I think the claims that it will break up are because there will inevitably be conflict, tension within. But there is always tension within an organisation, this has to do with durability of the person, so the “psychology” is correct. But actually where I might agree that the coalition is a bad thing is that it will proactively hold back the political will of sound politicians, almost exclusively LibDems politicians as well.

@5 blanco

I don’t know why you keep going on like a broken record about New Labour and hypocrisy. Very few people are going to argue with the fact that, at best, 13 years of New Labour in power were a huge let down. I, for instance, have never been a supporter of NL. I voted LibDem both in 2005 and last week. Right? Is that clear? Can we move on now?

To keep going on about New Labour is not going to make up for the fact that Nick Clegg deceived the voters. I’m sorry, but if this? isn’t misleading advertising then I dont know what is.

No rabbiting on about how bad New Labour was is going to justify in the eyes of the electorate how a so-called progressive party is going to actively prop up a government whose main people are David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May, Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith. This Cabinet has got some vintage neo-cons in key posts. Especially welfare policies are scary (yeeeees I know, NL’s too, yawn…). Don’t forget that.

We didnt vote LibDem for this, and I dont care if New Labour was “also” bad, the same way it was useless when, back in the late 1990s/early2000s, New Labourite with glazed-eyes where justifying each and every about face with the words “oh but otherwise we go back to Thatcher’s days and you dont want that”.

Was this really worth it? What…for the promise of a referendum on AV? Seriously?

When I think about this coalition, I can’t help thinking of this fable:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scorpion_and_the_Frog

There’s no need to rely on psychology: there are lots of political science models which predict coalition duration. You can find some back-of-the-envelope calculations here.

@Claude

Yawn. If you can’t see why a Tory minority government was not a viable option, then you won’t ever be convinced this coalition was necessary.

The Lib Dems, at no point, ruled out a coalition with the Tories nor did they say they would only ever go into a coalition with Labour.

The election happened, the seats allocated. After Labour fucked the progressive alliance option, it was what we have now, or the Tory minority government.

When you start off with a bunch of bad options, and you remove the worst and worse ones, what you are left with is what you have to go on.

The coalition will hold. See what has been happening in Canada – it is very similar to the UK, only a couple of years ahead – Chretien/Blair outstay their welcome, Martin/Brown as long standing second pay price for their charismatic predescessor, Harper/Cameron take hung parliament and form government. No one challenges, because no party fancies its chances in another election. This way the NDP/LibDems pretend they are influencing things and in the end everyone seems to get used to it.

14. Shatterface

Agree with the general thrust of the article that the Tories and the Lib Dems will be reluctant to split but it is precisely because both parties have made a strong commitment to each other that when a split does inevitably come that it will be so acrimonious.

Compare an unmarried couple splitting with a married couple with kids and a mortgage getting divorced. The latter will be slower to accept the relationship is doomed but when it does come it will get very nasty.

“f you can’t see why a Tory minority government was not a viable option, then you won’t ever be convinced this coalition was necessary.

There. You’ve cracked it.

On the other side, the glaze-eyed mantra that “no-the-minority-government-wasnt-possible-this-was-the-only-thing-to-do-amen” and back again, amen, smacks of LibDem activists/supporters almost trying to convince themselves.

16. Nick Cohen is a Tory

I don’t think it will break up because in reality the liberals don’t have any power or nor do they want it.
Psychologically, the lib dems will never be in power for the next 50 years they might as well enjoy their time at the top table and their not going to relinquish the charade. A little like Blackpool been promoted to the premier league
The economically the government will follow the main thrust of Tory party policy.
Workfare will be introduced.
Plans for the subtle privatisation of the NHS and education will go through.
I don’t think Europe will be a problem, because the Euro project, as many from the left and right predicted in the seventies is collapsing
The areas that could break up the coalition.
1, Foreign policy. Israel, Iran and Afghanistan.
2. Prison reform and crime.
3. Civil liberties. I bet after the first terrorist outrages, the legislation created will be as bad as anything Labour has brought in. Also it will be interesting if the number of CCTV cameras go down in the next 5 years
4. Immigration rhetoric and the asylum amnesty idea

My real concern is that for all the sham rhetoric from the tory right , they know Dave is one of them, there will be no vocal opposition.
Christ, when the editor of the UK’s premier’s satircal magazine (Hislop) is going to do his best to keep the government in power.
Then you know your on slippery ground.
PS
If it makes you feel better
I doubt labour, in it’s current form will be elected for the next 50 years.
The left is dead.
I feel the next 100 years will be about the battle between social and libertarian conservatives

the glaze-eyed mantra that “no-the-minority-government-wasnt-possible-this-was-the-only-thing-to-do-amen” and back again, amen, smacks of LibDem activists/supporters almost trying to convince themselves

Sigh. Claude. 1) I don’t support the Lib Dems tribally – I didn’t vote for them last week – but the contrast in their constructive attitude and Labour’s selfishly self-destructive attitude pushed me in their direction on policy and principled grounds.

2) Please ell me, based upon the current state of popularity and finances of each of the three parties, what YOU think an early election following a Cameron minority government would have led to. I wager that it would’ve led to a Tory majority. There is no way of knowing that – which is precisely why it was better not to take a risk and for the Lib Dems to implement some of their policies, as it might be the last chance in a long time they get the chance to have any influence on the government.

When there is a chance for some change, it is better than no change at all. Which is what we will get from Labour for at least the next 5 years, although I predict (again, who knows what will happen) that they will be in opposition for two parliaments.

The Tories have given the Lib Dems some influence. Labour weren’t willing to share their power and you have the gross spectacle of a “left” Labour MP like Diane Abbott, who know criticises the public school background of both Coalition party leaders when she sent her own son to one, destroying whatever little hope there was that Labour could share power with the Lib Dems.

I think there would’ve been a Tory majority government after an early general election. Perhaps this is the dividing line. Would you have liked a Tory majority government? We have no way of knowing (yet) for sure that the Lib Dems can moderate the Tories. But the signs are good – perhaps this is another dividing line.

What I hope ISN’T a dividing line is that it is far too early to tell for either, and that we on the left should stop having tantrums because the Lib Dems have made their own choices and perhaps give them a chance to prove their mettle – Labour had their chance and fucked it up.

If it makes you feel better
I doubt labour, in it’s current form will be elected for the next 50 years.
The left is dead.

Nick Cohen, I give them ten years. The real problem for Labour is that if the coalition works, and it proves you can have both left and right working together in government, why would anyone bother with the left outside of government? We are a diverse nation, just because there is a slight majority of social democratic views on some social issues (definitely not others like immigration, etc) doesn’t mean we will all be converted to left-wing thinking by a Labour government.

17 blanco

“When there is a chance for some change, it is better than no change at all.”

Not true. Nailing my colours to the mast, I’m VERY dubious about this coalition tho I accept that it was probably the most likely outcome. It was decidedly NOT inevitable however. There was (whatever the right wing media and carpet biters on both political extremes think) a great appetite for a change….. but that doesn’t mean that it should come at any price.

Many people, myself included, think this coalition is on balance too high a price to pay. It is a perfectly defensible position to take to say that, in the absence of suitable arrangements with either the Tories or Labour, Clegg should just have wished them well, and let them get on with it. He and his party would have retained some dignity, could even have offered confidence and supply support if necessary…. then watched the Tories fail.

That would have been a much better base to go into the election that would have inevitably followed within a year or two than being the political equivalent of a Stockholm syndrome hostage.

@Galen

“He and his party would have retained some dignity, could even have offered confidence and supply support if necessary…. then watched the Tories fail.”

Fail? Getting a majority because the other two parties are bankrupt and the public is sick of the Lib Dems for not just providing them with stable government, is not failing.

Had the Lib Dems not joined the coalition, just as many people in the country would be attacking them for being irresponsible.

There can’t be that many disgruntled Lib Dem voters out there – they got quite a small share of the vote!

Not a great base to go into the election at all – which is not the issue. The issue is, the voters produced a hung parliament, how do we make the best of it.

But I’m bored of arguing with people that cannot see the Tories would’ve won an outright majority in a second election had the Lib Dems not joined them.

Also, a matter of principle: you don’t spend your whole life fighting for electoral reform and hung parliaments and coalition governments, then when you get the chance, you turn down the only viable offer of a coalition.

@19 Galen10

Absolutely spot-on. I agree with each and every word you wrote.

@20 Blanco
“Had the Lib Dems not joined the coalition, just as many people in the country would be attacking them for being irresponsible.”

But this is such an arbitrary statement! Who says that? Who thinks that way? Maybe some bigwig at the Financial Times or some other newspaper or think tank, but this is not how ordinary people see things. People are gagging for a party that would show some coherence and integrity. There’s a humongouse gulf on the centre-left gasping for that.

We slated Blair for reneging promises after a few years. Clegg and Cable managed to do that days after they’d spelt them out. This is more damaging than anything else.

But I’m bored of arguing with people that cannot see the Tories would’ve won an outright majority in a second election had the Lib Dems not joined them”.

Another arbitrary statement. Just as everybody thought Cameron was gonna walk it as recent as two months ago. Simply the country has not got an appetite for a Tory government. Even if you add together the Conservative vote with UKIP as a whole it comes to 39%. Meaning that current Tory voters, plus disgruntled ones (and with the inevitable hunger produced by 13 years in opposition) are way short of a majoritarian vote. After a few months in a minority government which would inevitably fall over something unpopular, my money would have been on the Tories not getting an outright majority.

“Also, a matter of principle: you don’t spend your whole life fighting for electoral reform and hung parliaments and coalition governments, then when you get the chance, you turn down the only viable offer of a coalition“.

The price that is being paid is absurdly high. All we’re talking about is a referendum on AV. AV, as I understand is already a massive compromise for the LibDems. Add that the Tories are not promising to implement it through parliament. They’re promising a refrendum. If the the YES vote is defeated, you can kiss goodbye to any chance of anyelectoral reform for about a century.

Galen10 @ 19,

Dunno if I really believe this but here goes. These are not normal times. It seems to me that economic stability ought to be the watchword for all politicians right now. Nick Clegg has taken an incredibly difficult decision, probably on the basis that a five year deal will allow the public finances to be rolled back into some sort of reasonable shape. If that can be allied with structural improvement to the economy then he, and we as an electorate, will have won. If that is at the expense of Liberal Democrat votes in a forthcoming General Election, which must have been a consideration for him, then he must have seen it as a price worth paying.

I don’t believe completely in altruism, but I think that he is being unfairly villified.

20

You are adept at making assumptions about what is “bound” to happen. There is no guarantee the Tories would get a majority at a second general election.

I don’t buy the oft repeated argument that only the Tories can afford another election. Some might blame the LD’s for not providing a stable coalition, some might blame others, yet others might blame the Tories if they had not given more concessions (in a scenario where Clegg had walked away).

The LD share of the vote was a disappointment, but can hardly be called small! That’s just plain wrong.

A hung parliament happened, yes. I’m not unhappy about it, and it’s a better result than a Tory majority. SOME people voted for a hung parliament, yes… but I suspect it was a minority: most probably still voted for the party/out of habit/on a whim in the last 10 minutes before entering the polling booth. Making the best of a hung parliament does not ipso facto translate into an absolute imperative to build a coalition at any cost. The ends will not always justify the means.

Whether you’re bored with your flawed argument that the Tories would inevitably have won a second election is neither here nor there. It’s a possible outcome, but not inevitable; repeating mantras doesn’t make them come true.

Your last para just re-hashes your earlier point of view, that a coalition was inevitable and the only game in town. Neither is true. The so-called commitment to AV is pretty thin in the view of lots of those who are desperate to see voting reform. If it is delivered… great; it’s better than nothing. But that’s a pretty big “if”!

It is equally possible to argue the LD’s could have benefitted from standing back for a year or two, watch the Tories make a hash of things, and hope for a better result in the next election.

The risks of going into coalition both to the LD’s (which I don’t really care about because I don’t rate them as a political force, and never have), but more importantly to the country’s interests, are greater than those which would have been posed by leaving the Tories to it.

22 douglas

I accept that there is a strong argument to be made about promoting stability, yes. I’m just not convinced that the risks of not having a stable coalition outweigh the other risks. Amongst the latter are:

1) letting the Tories near power again, when large sections of their party are still deeply unreformed and unpleasant;

2) it may fatally damage the LD’s, which is their problem as I’ve said, I don’t really care for them except as a vehicle to promote change and voting reform, BUT it may impact the introduction of progressive government and/or electoral reform, and therefore be a bad thing in the view of many on the centre/left;

3) I think Clegg and his party were bounced due to fear of the markets and the lure of power to settle for less than they should have: they have been sold a pup. None of the major cabinet positions, no cast iron guarantee about AV, swallowing most of the Tories platform in return for some tinkering round the edges. I don’t trust the Tories to deliver… they are trying to kill off the prospect of progressive progress by holding the LD’s too close, and neutralising them.

Perhaps the reason you’re not sure you believe it, is that your instincts tell you that in it’s heart, the coalition has something of the night about it?

The risks of going into coalition both to the LD’s (which I don’t really care about because I don’t rate them as a political force, and never have), but more importantly to the country’s interests, are greater than those which would have been posed by leaving the Tories to it.

Care to explain this completely unsubstantiated “mantra”?

“letting the Tories near power again”

Your alternative, allowing them to rule as a minority government, wouldn’t somehow be letting them near power again?

LOL

“swallowing most of the Tories platform in return for some tinkering round the edges”

It’s funny, Heffer and Tebbit are saying that the Tories are swallowing most of the Lib Dems platform in return for some tinkering around the edge! I love it when extremists on both sides effectively say the same thing, only with the names all switched round.

25

It’s not a mantra. As I was careful to point out, I think it’s one possible outcome, which I find more persuasive than the point you were making @20, then copping out by saying you were bored of arguing with people who couldn’t see what you regarded as the inevitable outcome of the LD’s not agreeing to a coalition.

The communists regarded the dictatorship of the proletariat as inevitable, but conviction that something will happen doesn’t make it so.

“communists”

Are we heading towards Godwin’s Law here?

You find your scenario more plausible, I find mine more plausible. Not surprising. I am bored because you’re trying to convince me yours is bigger er more plausible than mine, and that’s a boring game.

All I can say is: we shall see.

Galen 10 @ 24,

Perhaps the reason you’re not sure you believe it, is that your instincts tell you that in it’s heart, the coalition has something of the night about it?

Maybe 😉

Though if that is the scenario, then I’d like to think the darkest hours are solidly Tory. Inter party politics tends to ensure that the tribe stays on-side and that the opposition have absolutely nothing valid to say whatsoever. Coalition, or even minority government, tends to break that mould. If you want to bore yourself to tears you could listen to First Ministers Questions from Hollyrood. After the set piece questions, it usually settles down to a much more civilised debate. In fact it is quite amusing to watch politicians that present a public persona of mutual contempt agreeing with each others policies…

26

“Your alternative, allowing them to rule as a minority government, wouldn’t somehow be letting them near power again? LOL”

The question being discussed was whether it would be worse to have a minority Tory government, or a ConDem coalition. Your view was that if the LD’s had ensured the former, the Tories would inevitably have won a second general election. My point was that it wasn’t inevitable at all, and that whilst a Tory government is something I’d hate, it is at least arguable that the smarter thing for the LD’s to have done would have been to refuse a coalition.

A minority Tory administration wouldn’t have been very stable, so it’s quite possible there would have been a second general election in a reasonably short time. At that point the LD’s may well have done better without being in coalition, than being in one. There is a danger that the LD’s have traded short term stability, and the “iffy” promises of the Tories over AV, for “long term” stability and the ability to engineer real change via PR.

As for your post @28, yes of course we shall see. We are all entitled to our points of view, but that’s exactly what your hypothesis is…not an inevitability.

31. Shatterface

‘A minority Tory administration wouldn’t have been very stable, so it’s quite possible there would have been a second general election in a reasonably short time. At that point the LD’s may well have done better without being in coalition, than being in one’

Sure, having thrown away a chance of having more power than they’ve had in generations people would be lining up to vote for them.

For fuck’s sake, it’s like Labour supporters expect the Lib Dems to throw themselve’s on New Labour’s funeral pyre like some weeping widow in the hope they’ll be reunited in the afterlife.

@30 Galen
“A minority Tory administration wouldn’t have been very stable, so it’s quite possible there would have been a second general election in a reasonably short time. At that point the LD’s may well have done better without being in coalition, than being in one. There is a danger that the LD’s have traded short term stability, and the “iffy” promises of the Tories over AV, for “long term” stability and the ability to engineer real change via PR.

Again. Spot-on.

But again, the dange here is that dissent is being frowned upon. If anyone dares criticise the new coalition they are being mashed with stuff such as “cynical”, “give’em a chance”, “yeah but New Labour”.

Is disagreement still allowed in Britain or do we all have to toe the Sun’s line of a “BRIGHT NEW SUNSHINE”?

31

Again, I’m not saying it wasn’t the most likely outcome, or that it doesn’t have arguments in it’s favour. What I am trying to point out (and jeezus do some people make it hard going!!) is that it was NOT the only or inevitable outcome. There WERE alternatives, and some of them may even have been a better idea.

More people may well have lined up to vote for them 1 or 2 years from now after a failed Tory minority government, than will do 5 years from now after a ComDem love-in, particularly if AV doesn’t materialise.

It’s not rocket science.

Is what we have now REALLY that great?

34. Nick Cohen is a Tory

For fuck’s sake, it’s like Labour supporters expect the Lib Dems to throw themselve’s on New Labour’s funeral pyre like some weeping widow in the hope they’ll be reunited in the afterlife.
Your right but I love the way you Tories have all altruistic

35. Nick Cohen is a Tory

sorry
all gone altruistic

Unfortunately Chris Dillow’s conclusion also applies to himself – having made up his mind that the coalition will be made to last through thick and thin he sets out to find an argument which will support his view.

This article doesn’t offer any insight, except into Chris Dillow’s unreliable manner of reasoning.

The best he can do is hint that the deficit will be a matter of contention.

Well, d’uh.


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