Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Blog

Could a New Negotiation Process Give Smaller Parties Policy Leverage and Bring Proportional Representation?

Paul Alexander


Artur Tumasjan

| 20 mins read

The May local election results support predictions that Labour will win the next general election. Labour is still cautious, trying to be ‘policy bombproof’ and focus voters on their disillusionment with the Tories. Whilst having some ambitious policies, they are so far not trumpeting them.

They have also reversed their high profile £28bn clean energy pledge. The Green Party is seething at this and, unusually, plan to stand in all seats against Labour in the general election. This is despite Labour’s clean energy policies including a big promise to decarbonise the grid by 2030.

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage says he can’t sleep deciding what to do. Reform polls at 10 per cent, making some Tories fear ‘extinction’, but such events are rare. Even Canadian Reform’s 1993 wipe out of Conservatives just gave the Liberals decades in power. Farage fears that Reform might just ensure a ‘Starmergeddon’ decade.


In 2015, (pre-Reform) UKIP got almost 4 million votes, yet saw MPs reduce from two to one. In 2019, the Green Party got 865,000 votes for one seat. The Liberal Democrats got 3.7 million votes for eleven seats. The Tories, meanwhile, got 365 seats for 14 million votes and Labour 202 seats for 10.3 million.

The system gives the two main parties a natural duopoly. A rare hung parliament, in 2010, gave the Lib Dems leverage to negotiate a Proportional Representation (PR) referendum. They blew it by agreeing a weak AV version, not even rated by their leader, and the poll was lost two to one.

Such are the dilemmas for smaller parties in our First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. Their votes effectively count for less than the two main parties. The system gives them power typically just to hurt the main party closest to them. A lose-lose deal, as long as those votes stay low value.


Is the real problem just the system, or also smaller parties’ processes? Could another strategy turn their low value votes into high value leverage? Outlined below is a two-stage process to use those votes to create the conditions both to influence policy and to negotiate a real PR vote.

Key to this new process are negotiations before an election. These are usually private, with the smaller party standing down in certain seats to help their closest main party to win it. What if, instead, they made these negotiations public, as part of a structured process that brought control and, with it, power?

The centrepiece of this public, structured, negotiation would be an endorsement event. There they can choose to endorse, or not to endorse, their closest main party. This endorsement is focussed on one key policy, in exchange for standing down their ‘lower half’ seats based on the last election.

Why only lower half? To maximise their negotiating position. Why narrow to one policy? A main party isn’t going to accept publicly that many policies have been influenced by a smaller party. That will make them look too weak. However, they might for one high value policy earning crucial votes.


This public endorsement, weeks before an election, creates value by not only standing aside in seats for a main party. It also exhorts their voters to switch to that party. That combination, in just the lower half of 650 seats, could tilt many marginals. A process publicly to trade low value votes for key policy influence.

As a public process, smaller party voters can see what standing down in their seat earned, helping to persuade them to switch to the endorsed party. It’s important many do then switch to show an endorsement’s value. The smaller party can still run in half their seats, and campaign hard with a full manifesto.

The smaller parties’ suggested policy addition must naturally ‘stick on’ to the main party’s policies. It should be compelling, material and practical. If it’s too radical, no deal can be done. This policy formulation, and negotiation with the main party, will be key to its success.

A non-endorsement can also create value for the small party. They can use the pre-election media event to lay out their reasons for no deal. They can gain credibility and authority through a forensic, informed and coruscating critique of the main party’s policy just ahead of election voting.

The invitation to negotiate, the public process, and (non-)endorsement event could all suddenly put pressure on a main party. The smaller party can control both the agenda and process with a new form of power: judgement. They smartly capture this power, and create value as both sides trade low value items for high value ones.


It’s good timing for such a process, as both main parties feel insecure. The Tories are desperate, while Labour’s poll lead won’t assuage fear of a 1992 election result. Even a 1997 result will only deliver a narrow win. Both leaders are risk-averse, and neither can plausibly make big economic pledges.

Single issues have made voting more fluid: Labour’s red wall suddenly became a blue wall in 2019, owing largely to Brexit. A damning, or praising, verdict on a key policy can swing core, floating and ‘hero’ voters. Of course, praise from the Greens/Reform might put off some voters too. However, it becomes hard to assess the benefits and risks.

The endorsement mechanism can naturally inject policy innovation into manifestos. The event can become a pre-election institution, with policies dissected and verdicts theatrically passed. A deal, or even a no deal, may push the main parties to be bolder with their policies.


Let’s examine the process in practice, starting with Reform and the Tories. Immigration could be their policy choice, although they could choose something else, too. They say this election is a referendum on migration. Then influence Tory policy, and get credit publicly, instead of aiding Labour.

They can offer a policy separate, yet supplemental to, the controversial Rwanda policy. A Reform endorsement can quieten discontent over immigration and put more focus on Labour’s policy. That might swing right-wing, centre and red-wall votes towards the Tories.

What’s that boost worth across all seats? It’s hard to estimate, and so to discount. Sunak might be open to it, for just lower half seats. It deals with a big policy headache and puts seats back in play to reduce risk of wipeout. Reform can, ironically, help to signal Tory unity.

Many Tory MPs may support such a deal, to keep their seats and careers. They can also argue that, if not existential, a Labour landslide could lead not just to a decade out of power: their many factions might spark a Tory civil war. The endorsement deal minimises electoral damage and helps stave that off too.


Why would Reform offer it? The reason Farage and Tice jump from wanting to defeat the Tories, to being the next Tories, to leading the Tories is that all are so low probability under our system. They most want another PR vote and hope that public pressure will force it to happen.

How? The last thing a Labour government—after an election landslide—will allow is a PR vote. Reform would have to become very realistic, very quickly and accept its interests don’t rest in a Tory rout. Think about explaining to their many anti-Tory voters that authoring a major Tory immigration policy is a good deal.

That alone might not be enough to sway Reform members and voters. However, the process also increases the chances of a hung parliament, or razor-thin Tory majority. In either event, the Tories may need any newly acquired Reform seats to govern. A coalition, or ‘supply’ agreement, deal with Reform in return for the real prize: a genuine PR vote.

Of course, the Reform deal might instead engineer a very slim Labour majority or narrow minority government. It would then be the Lib Dems’ turn to get it right: negotiate a real PR vote in return for a coalition or supply agreement. Reform wins either way, and every vote can count equally.

Not a bad deal for low value, lower half seats and a policy endorsement. The endorsement process also potentially offers another way, before the election, to get main parties to commit to a PR vote. That is a reason for, initially at least, offering only lower half seats for the endorsement.


The Greens want PR, too, but even with a successful endorsement process are unlikely to win enough seats for leverage in a hung parliament. So, a Labour majority works but with bolder policies. Climate could still be their endorsement policy as it covers such a wide field from energy to insulation and rewilding.

The Greens get public credit for their grown-up policy influence on a climate-bolder Labour. It may help them win a few seats, whilst still running a full manifesto in their top half seats. If Labour don’t bite for a ‘lower half’ offer only, the Greens can offer most of those top half seats too.

Why do this, beyond the policy influence? The US Greens plan to run a candidate in the 2024 presidential election. Greens votes may have lost the Democrats both the 2000 and 2016 elections. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) pledges over $780bn of clean energy investment. Trump has pledged to bin it. Do they really want to trade the IRA for Trump? UK Greens can show their US cousins a process to convert low value votes, publicly, into policy leverage. One that still gets their (much) preferred party into power. The stakes don’t get much higher for them.


If they announce a climate policy endorsement process, would Labour refuse to meet? That would be risky. Labour and the many floating climate voters would be further unimpressed. Labour might get a ‘no’ endorsement, and their green policies comprehensively torn apart just before the poll.

So Labour might meet, informally at first. Unlike Reform, a Green ‘lower half’ seats deal looks much thinner, reaching only to a thousand votes per seat. Unimpressive until they say Uxbridge. The by-election Labour lost there by 495 votes was blamed on ULEZ and ‘anti net-zero’.

If the Greens had told their 893 Uxbridge voters to vote Labour, and 55 per cent did, they’d have won. How many Uxbridge-like razor-thin marginals might there be? Labour might see a glowing Green endorsement, and the lower half votes gained, as enough incentive for a deal. Or they might push the Greens to stand aside in most of their upper half seats too.

The Greens, and Reform, should wait before giving up most of those upper half seats, though. The lower/upper half gap naturally enables sophisticated bargaining. These upper half seats can sweeten a deal, creating internal pressure within main parties as MPs and prospective candidates vie to be included. Powerful in itself and for a second stage.


This second stage is for main parties to commit to a PR vote before the election. How? The endorsement process is a new game, with new rules. It creates value, and uncertainty, which can both develop and shift power. This shift can build, in a fairly natural way, through various negotiation scenarios.

Labour can do a Green policy endorsement deal first, further miring the Tories. However, let’s start with a perhaps more likely Reform-Tory deal closed well ahead of the election. The Tories get a double bounce: many seats back in play and a poll lift on immigration and party unity.

Labour might see those polls dangerously narrowing and find itself on the defensive. They might then seek to do a Green endorsement deal, if they haven’t already, to get their own bounce. Even just for the ‘lower half’ offer, to shore up some more seats, if Greens negotiate hard enough.


Sunak might then see his bounce partly fall. Even before a Labour-Green deal he will have been placating all those Tory MPs whose seats weren’t included in the ‘lower half’ deal. Seeing a way to save their careers they might politely ask what might move Reform to offer most ‘top half’ seats too.

Reform’s answer: a real PR vote. They may get a short shrift. Or not. FPTP was never fair but was supposed to be stable. We had four prime ministers in under four years, the present one with a 360-vote mandate. A real PR vote could be the largest cross-party vote winner of all.

People might vote, one-off, for whomever offers it at the election. A big turnout election that swings on that one issue. Tory MPs would see a path not just to save their careers but a very unlikely victory. Accepting the PR vote might be seen to serve both personal, and party, interests. An unpredictable internal negotiation would ensue.

What would Labour do? They could face a Tory party with most Reform seats stood down, and their endorsement on a key policy such as immigration. Worse still they have a vote-grabbing PR vote policy. Labour has many internal PR advocates already. There would be pressure to pledge a PR vote either before or following the Tories.


In this scenario, one of many new possible permutations from this endorsement process, both main parties might seriously consider pledging a PR vote. This is even before the Lib Dems, carrying maybe five million votes, do anything. Yet the Lib Dems have the unique power to expand scenarios, and close deals, as they can plausibly negotiate with both main parties.

The Lib Dems could follow the two-stage process, starting with perhaps an education or NHS policy endorsement. They could plausibly do a ‘lower half’ deal with one party, and ‘upper half’ with another. The ‘upper half’ with whichever party they need to get first, or second, over the line to commit to a PR vote.

They could partner openly with the Greens to push for a PR vote in Labour’s manifesto. Or partner openly, or secretly, with Reform to get a Tory PR vote. Or go first, alone and straight to stage two: offer an endorsement and PR deal to both parties and see who bites. Effectively run an auction for it.

The smaller parties don’t necessarily need to coordinate with each other, just observe each other’s steps so as not to undermine them. Power, and pressure, must be allowed to build. They must also align on the same form of real PR—one proven to be both stable and representative at both local and party level.

The endorsement process therefore offers two potential pathways to a real PR vote: a post-election hung parliament negotiation, and a pre-election policy commitment. All at low cost for the smaller parties. Even offering most seats still allows them to run in their top 5 per cent, and the successful endorsement and negotiation process would likely raise their vote in these seats which remained.


There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ in this scenario, but starting is fairly straightforward. Pick your policy, announce the endorsement process and event, and invite your main party to talk. If Sunak comes under more pressure, he might be forced into a snap election. Everyone should be ready to initiate talks now.

Who would go first? The Greens may have UK, and US, climate policy at stake. They offer the least votes so trading both lower and upper half seats for a new Labour policy pledge is good business. Even more so if it opens a negotiation process that can lead to their real prize of a PR vote, too.

The Tories most need a deal and could quietly encourage talks with Reform. The Lib Dems might go last, or first, jointly or alone. The process can turn the current lose-lose framework into win-wins. However, parties will need to be disciplined, focussed and get effective internal alignment on their core interests and strategy. A big ask.

At stake is true democracy. All our interests can be represented and negotiated. More external party negotiations and agreements, and less internal party agendas and coups. Voices that we dislike may amplify and legitimise, including in parliament, but all votes will be equal whatever the party and constituency. More will participate, and vote with hearts and minds.

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    Paul Alexander

    Paul Alexander is the founder of the Centre for Strategic Negotiations. CSN is a consulting, training and policy practice specialising in maximising the value of high stakes negotiations.

    Articles by Paul Alexander