An intriguing and unheralded intervention in the general election campaign in the UK came last week from the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution in London. The Centre suggested that, with the prospect of a “hung” parliament, what we need is a Parliamentary Coalition Independent Mediator. Although a bit of a mouthful, the general proposition that there may be a role for an independent mediator or mediators to work with party leaders and civil servants in the event that no party gains an overall majority in seats is worth reflecting on.
More than ever before, businesses, local authorities, health trusts, families, individuals and communities are turning to mediators to help them resolve what often seem to be intractable problems. The presence and skill of an impartial “third side” can bring real benefits, helping people identify what is really important, separating out posturing from what really matters, building a bridge where communication has broken down, finding ways to help people to save face or to get out of a deadlock, with dignity preserved, and exploring possible options for going forward.
Why not try it in politics? Well, it can be argued that politicians live by the adversarial system, by attacks on opponents and their policies, by adopting party political positions, by rarely yielding or making concessions for fear of appearing weak. Or so it may seem. In reality, of course, deals are being done all the time. And the Scottish Parliament has shown how a minority administration can operate reasonably effectively on a topic by topic basis, by working with political opponents and collaborating to make progress on matters where there is sufficient mutual interest to need to find a way forward. It is arguably a sign of a maturing political process.
This idea is not without precedent elsewhere. Last week, the Belgian government tendered its resignation after its coalition broke down. The Belgian King did not accept the resignation immediately, apparently fearful of a crisis which could further damage a fragile economy. He met party leaders to seek a way out of the impasse and appointed the Finance Minister, Didier Reynders, to mediate between Dutch and French speaking parties in an effort to create conditions for the resumption of talks.
In Germany, the Mediation Committee is a body which acts as an intermediary between the Bundestag, the German Parliament, and the Bundesrat, the representative body of the regions. The Mediation Committee consists of members of each body, who are appointed according to the relative strengths of the parliamentary groups. One of its jobs is to find consensus between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat when acts adopted by the former fail to find a majority in the latter.
And just a few weeks ago, the UK government agreed a protocol for the avoidance and resolution of disputes with the devolved administrations, committing to the principles of good co-operation and communication.
The British political system may be about to face an unprecedented dilemma, brought about by the nature of its electoral system. It was Einstein who said that you cannot solve a problem using the same thinking that got you into it. The same may now be true with government here. We may need to try something different. What skilled mediation might be able to do for the three (or more?) parties after Thursday’s vote is to help them to overcome the animosity generated in the past few weeks, build working relationships, identify what is really in the interests of the British people, look seriously at the options for government, the electoral system and managing the economy, and set aside parochialism for the sake of the country.
Pie in the sky? Fantasy thinking? Well, what is the alternative? Weeks of uncertainty and rancour? Might it be worth trying something proven to work in other settings? The test is not whether we can create utopia; but whether we can find a way forward which is at least marginally better than what might otherwise occur. Will our political leaders have the courage and humility to try?