How negotiations should work

Recently, I interviewed the man who chaired negotiations that ended apartheid.  I was struck by his advice for successful coalition-building and how markedly it differs from the path the Tories and Lib Dems are taking.

Michael Young set up negotiations between the ANC and apartheid government as a businessman seeking to solve the longstanding divide (made into the film Endgame). Here is his template:

“The secret is to take them away from the theatre where it’s all happening, where everybody is shouting the odds, where the media pick it all up and every nuance and every twist is dissected – it sets the process back hugely. You get the guys under the radar and be very careful that you’ve picked the right guys, not at the top of the tree because people at the top of the tree probably have arrived and their appetite for longevity and longer-term vision isn’t there. They will be younger, they will have enough core within their constituency, enough intellectual agility to be able to observe and absorb.”

Nick Clegg and David Cameron are doing the opposite. We know they have spoken one-to-one to try to reach a deal while Young says the secret of agreement is to reach it between the party bases rather than merely at the top. It’s no secret that the Lib Dem base is closer to the Labour party. To bring about a transition where Libs and Cons are comfortable with each other, it takes more than the agreement of two people.

David Cameron decided to publicly set out his stall in the media spotlight, where every twist is being dissected. It was striking that Alex Salmond yesterday stated he had learned not to publicly give away his position before negotiating – the SNP leader of course having experience in the Scottish Parliament. The civil service are ready to guide this transition, not the BBC.

As I write this, I see Lib Dems have briefed Jon Sopel that Gordon Brown was far ruder than David Cameron in discussions [and now conflicting reports have emerged]. Since when was this about personality, and certainly since when was this about Gordon Brown? Not even Labour see him as an obstacle to a Lib-Lab coalition, remember Mandelson yesterday said there are “a number of permutations”.

I’m not, as an inexperienced election-watcher, going to presume whether talks are a success or not¹. But surely they would be smoother if both sides spoke more to each other and less to the press (although it pains me to say it). Certainly the public has a right to know what’s happening, but anonymous briefings from ‘senior sources’ are more likely to give an impression desired by the party HQs than an accurate understanding of what’s going on.

¹But I can’t resist branding any potential coalition ‘the timebomb coalition’, because surely that’s what it would be. Imagine Business Secretary Cable going to meet with EU counterparts – whose grassroots would he listen to?