This is an unusual General Election by any standards.  With no party looking likely to be able to secure an easy overall majority, we are likely to see another coalition government of two or more parties having to work together. There have even been signs that we may end up with groups having to form on every individual issue.

In contrast to the situation that arose in 2010 post the election (as identified previously by James South in his blog where talks of coalition emerged mainly post-election) in 2015 the situation is different.  At this election, with awareness from all parties that a Coalition government is likely to occur, there has been an unusual (for an election) focus on keeping a quiet, low profile and consolidating ranks of current supporters rather than reaching out to a wide range of voters.

What can be seen to be at play here is an interesting effect known as “groupthink” whereby in attempting to avoid conflict (actually discussing and getting through an issue), the parties are ignoring their own best interests and stifling exploratory debate.  Groupthink can be defined as the “phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome”.  Components of it include an attempt by the group to minimise conflict (both internal and with external parties) by reaching consensus without a critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints.

In the political context there can be seen to be a series of groupthink events going on.  Clearly each political party seems to have gone through its own internal groupthink; this isn’t just characterised by putting out a united message but by the fact that the majority of the parties are putting out messages which suggest that there is no discussion to be had.  When discussing other parties’ policies, many of the political parties can be seen to be avoiding in-depth discussion of any issue and opposing viewpoints in favour of dismissing them outright and then praising or repeating one’s own strategy.  Whilst there are obvious reasons that politicians favour this model – being based on the traditional parliamentary duologue of opposing arguments rather than a dialogue – given the current likely result of any election, such a stance is likely to be ultimately unsuccessful.  When the parties are placed in a position of having to work together in a coalition, it will not be possible to ignore others’ views.

Arguably, the political parties are not engaging either with the majority of the electorate – those who do not live in swing seat constituencies.  By targeting only a select few voters in swing seats, the political parties ignore the intricacies of the wider populus’s opinion and leave themselves open for surprises later on.  There is little attempt to widen a support base or understand views in detail, rather there is a focus on ensuring those who are already members continue to support the group’s position.  As can be seen both positions and members are static.

Finally, in forming a coalition, there seems to be a “future groupthink” in that when parties do talk about working together, they do it by excluding others openly and concentrating on their own propositions.  Therefore, we hear messages such as “we will never work with x”; “if they have that point, there will be no deal”; “we will not compromise on this issue”.  Again, there is little attempt to bring in those with opposing views and offer to consider them; rather potential talks are centred around protecting each group’s key principles.  The parties can be seen to be acting in a defensive way with deals likely to be reached which are protective rather than visionary or potentially creative.  This is likely to result in coalition policies which are more of a compromise than a real collaboration.

So what should parties (in the Election or more widely) do when faced with this sort of scenario?  Firstly they should try and expand the group who they are appealing to and from whom they receive messages.  Active listening to others’ views is as important here as it is in a commercial context.  It will help them understand how best to make a deal.  Secondly, they need to think about positively presenting a collaborative approach – any agreement which is overly protective is likely to be at best limiting on change.  Finally, they need to recognise the benefit of conflict, not shy away from it.  The situation post-election will be difficult for all – those who recognise this difficulty and embrace real dialogue are likely to do better and create a more sustainable outcome.

All in all, it should be an extremely interesting election….

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By Karl Mackie

TAGGED: * Articles, Politics

Dr. Karl Mackie a mediator and Chief Executive for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).