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Negotiating Advice for Politicians

Stephen White
© Niyazz |

On the day this blog is published the population of the UK vote in elections for their next government. Opinion polls put the two main parties neck and neck, with neither commanding a strong enough following to win an outright majority. So the result is likely to be a minority government which will have to form a coalition or make deals with the handful of minor parties in order to be able to govern. Even if there is an outright majority for one party the margin will be so small that alliances will need to be forged for effective government to survive.

Do we have a cadre of politicians who can rise to the challenge of creating these deals through effective and inspired negotiating? Based on the debacle when they tried to do the same thing in 2010 the answer is likely to be ‘No’. Most self-confessed negotiating experts in business talk a better game than they play, and politicians are no different. Look at the sparkling performances in negotiations between the EU and Greece, between the P5+1 and Iran, between the Quartet, Israel and the Palestinians, between Indonesia and Australia. (For those readers who don’t recognise irony, this is irony.) The list is shamefully long.

So, with suitable humility and an expectation that it will all be ignored, I offer some advice to the politicians who find themselves over the next few weeks trying to do what we mere mortals do every day of our working lives – turning situational problems into workable solutions using simple and effective negotiating techniques.

  1. Wait a few days before you start. If you are already meeting other parties within 48 hours of the end of polling you are being premature. Let the dust settle, the final result be known and analysed, and give yourself some time for negotiation preparation. The country will not descend into anarchy for the want of a weekend, nor will the global bankers drive the currency into oblivion during that time.
  2. Get over yourselves. The people have spoken, and if nothing else their common message is that they do not like nor trust any of you. If you approach the negotiations with an objective of getting your own way on behalf of the 30% or so who voted for you then you have failed to see the bigger picture. Voters are telling you to stop being prima donnas and start to be effective managers of the country, dogma or no dogma.
  3. Enough with the Red Lines and Tablets of Stone already. All they do is box you into a negotiating corner, which isn’t helpful at all.  Voters have as much belief in their long-term validity as they have in you, which based on the result of the election is not very much. We all know there will have to be negotiated compromise; what you need to be able to do is look for nuances in the way that issues which are important to you are treated so that you can allow them to be included in the negotiated settlement. And if your counterparty continues to bang on about a policy you simply can’t live with, insist that either they change their team, or you change your prospective partners.
  4. Don’t grandstand. The public want to be kept informed of progress, not dazzled by bombast or harangued by derogatory comments about everyone else. The real constituency who needs to be convinced is your fellow Members of the House of Commons – elected by the millions to represent them in just this type of situation. So save your consultations and explanations for them, and involve them regularly.
  5. Don’t believe the rumours. In 2010 one of the two main parties was suckered into making concessions to the Lib Dems on proportional voting because they believed rumours that the other main party had already offered it. Negotiators sometimes misspeak, politicians frequently misspeak, so I expect that negotiating politicians do little else but misspeak.
  6. Be Constructive. An indecisive election result does not mean that the electorate are dithering wastrels. It means they don’t like all of any of the manifestos, or that they are so divided in their views that any mandate you think you have to impose your manifesto will not represent a sensible form of democracy. Which means that you have to construct something new out of the ashes – a set of implementable ideas which have broad appeal, a realistic degree of achievability, and the creativity which comes from an analysis of the problems to be dealt with, not the power which is wielded.

Good luck.

Stephen White

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