Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Coalition Building

The Lawrence Susskind article that I posted on TWEN recently contains some valuable advice for anybody about to enter into multiparty negotiations. From my standpoint, the Susskind article lends weight to my point that the Balance of Power exercise is helpful preparation for the real world of legal practice (not that I crave validation, of course).

To leverage the article's value I would like you to think about some of the connections between it, The Deal, the article on the Lib-Lab Pact that I'll hand out in class, and the Balance of Power exercise. I end this post, as usual, with some questions, but before we get to the questions let's tease out some initial lessons.

Our Balance of Power exercise does not give you as much face-to-face negotiating time as you would have in the real world, but even within our time constraints you may be able to adopt some of the proposals Susskind spells out in the section headed "managing group interactions." Breaking into smaller working groups might be feasible, for example.

Susskind states that "[c]larity about the group's decision rules is crucial," to which I would add that clarity about the decisions themselves is equally crucial. When I decided to introduce you to The Deal (which is a teacher's way of saying "when I decided to force you to sit through it") I had several goals in mind. One goal was to prompt you to think about whether Brown and Blair did, in fact, have a deal. So in the focus-and-feedback form I asked you two direct questions about this:

  • When Blair and Brown meet at the Granita Restaurant, they discuss the leadership of the Labor Party. Brown agrees to stand aside. What else, if anything, do Blair and Brown decide?
  • Think back to your Contracts class last semester. For a contract, you need offer, acceptance, and consideration. Are these present in the Granita conversation? Are they present when Blair and Brown are talking about the “big job” back in 1987-88?
Some of you wrote that in the Granita conversation Blair agreed to step down after one-and-a-half terms as Prime Minister and support Brown as his successor, and that the Granita conversation had all the elements of a contract. I disagree. I don't think Blair committed himself in a way that would satisfy the "acceptance" element of a contract. But -- having watched the film a half-dozen times -- I can see why some viewers would. And the intentional ambiguity that the writer, directors, and actors manage to construct is one of the reasons I consider the film such a valuable teaching tool.

By showing The Deal and asking questions about the putative existence of an agreement, I want you to focus on the uncertainty, the lack of clarity, and the possibility that Blair wanted to create "plausible deniability." I also want you to ask yourself what a politician -- or an attorney representing a client -- could stand to gain from an almost-but-not-quite agreement or a blurry agreement. This, in turn, should encourage you to be on the lookout for such ploys when you are negotiating with your classmates and, in future, your fellow attorneys.

Although I only put the finishing touches to the syllabus in December, I have been thinking about this aspect of our course, i.e. intentional blurriness in negotiations, for quite some time; about 30 years, in fact. The image that accompanies this post shows two British politicians, David Steel (left) and James Callaghan (right). Why is it there? Because the article I am distributing in class describes the negotiations that led to the 1977-78 agreement between Steel's Liberal Party and Callaghan's Labour Party, an agreement called the Lib-Lab Pact.

To orient you chronologically, let me put the Lib-Lab Pact in the context of The Deal. You will remember that the archive news footage near the beginning of The Deal starts with the Falklands War of 1982 and the general election the following year. We see Margaret Thatcher in a tank and hear her calling the Labour manifesto (i.e. platform) "the most extreme... ever put before the British electorate" By that point (1983) Thatcher's Conservative Party had been in power for four years, having won the 1979 general election. The Lib-Lab Pact came shortly before the 1979 election. Both parties to the pact, Liberal and Labour, saw their popularity decline considerably after the pact and lost votes to the Conservatives in the subsequent election.

Before you read the article, it is worth knowing something about the impact the pact continues to have, and how perceptions of the pact influence inter-party negotiations to this day. In an article by Martin Laffin in the January-March 2007 edition of Political Quarterly that I was just reading, about the coalition government in Scotland, I highlighted the following passage:
"The Liberal Democrat negotiators in 1999 were acutely aware of how, in the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977-78, the then Liberal Party kept Labour in office yet gained very little in policy terms. Consequently, they insisted that Labour sign up to lengthy, public partnership agreements that provided a policy [program] with some quite specific commitments for the two [parties]."
So Liberal negotiators nowadays try to avoid what they perceive as the mistakes of their predecessors in the 1970s. My first question for you relates to the central alleged mistake. Why would Steel's Liberal Party have entered an agreement that offered "very little in policy terms." You can find one answer in the handout, on page 149 to be precise. My subsidiary question for you, once you have read the article, is whether the pact (devoid as it was of weighty policy commitments) makes sense in hindsight.

Finally, here are the key negotiating issues I want you to look out for in the article. I think you will find the answers helpful in the Balance of Power exercise.
  • In terms of the three models of counseling that Cochran writes about, where would David Steel's approach to his colleagues and members fit?
  • How, exactly, did Steel communicate his initial position to the other side? When Steel and Callaghan met, what was Callaghan's response to the demand?
  • How did Labour open negotiations with Steel?
  • According to the article, why was Callaghan's invitation to meet so important to Steel? I have another handout, which I'll post on TWEN soon, that casts this issue in a different light.
  • What was the "first wrangle" that Steel had with the people in Callaghan's office?
  • In their initial meeting, where did Callaghan ask Steel to sit?
  • How did Steel seek to improve his party's BATNA?
  • What were the time-related costs to Labour and Liberals respectively?
  • Why was Steel's fifth point important (see pages 148-49)?
I look forward to your comments. You should feel free to address the foregoing question, raise a different question or point, or base your post on a combination of my question(s) and yours.


  1. I think page 142 shows exctly what kind of counselor Steel was, and that was an authoritative one. It says he was known for getting what he wanted despite the wishes of others. However, despite what Cochran says, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The book states that it was unlikely that anyone else could have pulled off what Steel did in such a short time frame. While clients generally a little bit different than a political party (because they are directly paying you to represent them), a party leader has to try and juggle the interests of the entire party (and it doesn't sound easy when the liberals agendas appear to be greatly divided). Steel was elected to do a job to protect the interests of the party and he was just doing that the best way that he knew how. sometimes you have to use the authoritative approach to protect people from making very costly mistakes or not getting the absolute best deal for them; and I think that was what Steel was doing in this case.

    At the meeting Callaghan had Steel sit next to him probably in an attempt to avoid adversarial images and more of a cooperative approach (standing side by side on an issue). His proposal even was a cooperative one, but Steel made it very clear that he needed something more than just a covert way to get beyond the vote. I thought it was interesting how quickly Callaghan accepted that, but by initial guess was that he already knew it was coming and already had figured out that he needed to propose changes that would appease Steel, because he was obviously not happy with the status quo.

  2. The entire negiotiation by Steel appears to be an effort to get the Liberals a seat at the political power table. After so many years on the sidelines, he took a unique opportunity to finally give them a place back at the table. And it was more important that everyone knew that the placecard said Liberal Party, than that they helped pick out the meal. Thats why his "demands" were what they were, and why the publication of the agreement was so important. If they had spent more time haggling the details (like the PR European vote) they would have not gotten the details, nor the image of participating. Liberal negiotiators today that lament his mistakes, are possibly able to make further gains because of his initial work.

  3. In addition to the ultimate long-term goal Jen points out, Steel exemplifies a very important leadership quality that Rudy Giuliani talks about in his book Leadership - and that's relentless preparation. Almost every success Steel acheived - personally and for his party - was due to his deliberate, relentless, and calculating preparation. Page 143 gives an excellent insight into this when it talks of the "inevitable moment" when Liberal would need to decide whether to keep the Labour government in power or vote it out. Often "inevitable moments" of decision arise in politics, business, and legal proceedings. When they arive, those holding the cards are often left unable to decide what to do and how to do it and they squander the opportunity, failing to make the most of a situation. Relentless preparation put Steel in the position to have his strategy "mapped out in his mind" and negotiate without ever losing his focus or going off on a tangent.