As German voters gear up for federal elections this weekend, there is a distinct possibility that we will see a repeat of 2005 which brought no clear winner, and resulted in a so-called ‘Grand Coalition’ of the centre-right CDU and centre-left SPD. While coalition is the normal state of government affairs for German politicians, the fact that once again the two main protagonists may be forced together must feel like an exercise in political sadism visited upon them by a disgruntled and disenchanted electorate.
Across the North Sea to Glasgow, and today we have Nick Clegg’s pronouncement that it would be far better for Britain if neither of the two main parties won an outright victory in 2015 – and, by extension, that the Lib Dems should therefore continue in office as the junior coalition partner, there to temper the baser instincts of its larger partner.
My question, though, is whether British voters might inflict the same political pain on the Conservatives and Labour? Is it inconceivable that we could see either David Cameron or Ed Miliband go to the Queen in two years’ time saying he is forming a government with his arch rival? As a political earthquake, such an outcome would certainly dwarf the result of May 2010.
The likelihood is remote, of course.
If there is to be a coalition, it remains more plausible that it will be the Lib Dems plus Labour or the Conservatives. That said, recent trends in British politics suggest a gradual but significant shift in the tectonic plates. Party membership is falling as individual voters are increasingly concerned with a smaller range of issues about which they are passionate. Indeed, some are questioning the very utility of the mass membership political party. Were it not for the current first-past-the-post system, smaller more issue or agenda-driven parties such as UKIP or the Greens would surely have broken through domestically, and not just in European Parliamentary polls.
The dominance of the two parties remains because of our voting system. The consequence, though, is growing disenchantment with the parties as political institutions. Not only do they seem increasingly unrepresentative of the broader debates and trends within our polity, crucially they seem unable to react meaningfully to the challenges we face today.
In part this reflects an underlying consensus across ‘mainstream’ politics in favour of the free market, giving the impression that we no longer have ‘big ideas’ or ‘big debates’. But increasingly civil society is finding new ways to think about, debate and address political, economic and social challenges. New movements and new forms of activism, such as 38 Degrees or Occupy, are engaging energetically in these debates, simultaneously shining a light on the old political institutions. The failings of our parties are being thrown into sharp relief: they seem unable to talk about the problems and challenges in our economy, job market, education system etc in new, meaningful and – most importantly – engaging ways.
What does all this have to do with a possible British ‘Grand Coalition’? Well, bar the outliers on the edges of their respective parties, at the moment it feels as if there is little to choose between Labour and the Conservatives. An orthodoxy has set in in which Labour is so desperate to regain its economic credibility that it shies away from any meaningful challenge to the current government’s austerity agenda. Meanwhile, for the Conservatives cutting taxes and spending has always been a central plank of their political message. If the electorate choose to punish the Lib Dems in 2015, we could end up in a situation where the two larger parties have no choice but to work together.
This may seem a flight of political fancy, but there is a serious point to be made. Our current electoral and party system has been on borrowed time for a while. We need to embrace the idea of coalition politics. And we need to have more players in the electoral system if it is to retain its legitimacy in the longer term. This is the challenge we face as a ‘mature democracy’.
The alternative, in the short term at least, could be watching the excruciating discomfort on the faces of Messrs Cameron and Miliband at PMQs as they sit next to one another, being harangued by the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition…Rt Hon Vince Cable MP.