With no single party likely to win an overall majority in next week’s general election, they are all finding ways of answering, or not answering, the questions about what they will do in hypothetical post-election scenarios. So we are learning to live with the politics of ‘red-lines’ and various degrees of passionate deal-denialism from ‘over my dead body’ to ‘let’s wait until the electorate give their verdict’.
For the two major parties, it seems to be an act of faith not to countenance anything but outright victory, anything else is regarded as a terrible sign of weakness. But would they not gain more respect from all sides if they could at least acknowledge the possibility that a coalition or deal may be necessary and should be openly discussed? Given that no party will command a majority of votes cast, let alone of the electorate, is this not simply a better response to the diversity of public opinion?
We seem to be stuck with tribalism just when we need pluralism. Tribalism in politics holds parties together and generates loyalty and cohesion. That sense of internal solidarity between its core supporters can be a strength. However, it is less useful when trying to build coalitions with other ‘tribes’ who share some of our beliefs but come from a different tradition. Our sense of moral superiority, exclusive access to truth and hatred of all other parties become obstacles. The stronger the intra-party tribalism the harder it is to build any solidarity across parties and establish common ground. Instead, options are closed down instead of being explored.
A general election is a good example of a complex system operating at different levels. At one level it is about millions of individuals each making a separate decision about who to vote for, shaped by a complex interplay of influences. We all understand that, on its own, our ‘little’ vote makes little difference to the result. At the next level up, the composition of the House of Commons is determined by the first past the post outcomes in each constituency, some MPs being elected with large majorities and others very narrowly and with a minority of the vote. A government with a Commons majority is not put together simply by aggregating the popular vote.
So when commentators try to explain the meta-politics of Westminster in terms of our individual political choices they ask questions like ‘what do voters want?’ or ‘what is Britain thinking?’ and try to construct typical voter archetypes like ‘Mondeo man’, ‘Essex woman’, the ‘grey vote’, the ‘youth vote’ or ‘swing voters’ none of which can do justice to the complexity of the electorate or explain the relationship between our votes and the actual outcome.
Clearly, it is the actual votes cast on polling day which will generate the result, but the arithmetic of the House of Commons operates at a different level. It is at one remove from the popular vote; an unpredictable emergent property affected by the way our votes feed through our electoral system. Differential turnouts and very small geographical or demographic shifts can lead to very different overall results in terms of the number of MPs each party will have.
In our current system we vote for one candidate and therefore one party only. This is often a compromise, given that we probably don’t agree with every one of their policies and in some cases we may be voting tactically. We can’t choose a coalition and we can’t easily tell ‘our’ party who to work with. But once the votes have been counted and the MPs have been elected, we expect them to produce some kind of decent government.
So why not just recognise that single party government is unlikely and make a virtue of being prepared to work with others? Doing some of the advance work, in public, this side of the election would help to give voters a sense of what different coalitions might look like and maybe even to influence their party’s negotiating stance. A party which has a clear set of values and beliefs and can express them confidently should be in a good position to negotiate with others about policies without sacrificing what really matters.
Most parties are themselves coalitions, held together by the glue of common values, and so they are familiar with the process of resolving differences internally. If we allow our tribalism to blind us to the real benefits of working with others we could miss out on those benefits altogether.
See also: Young people and the election
I agree entirely with this, but I’m pessimistic about achieving it. Our system seems irredeemably adversarial – you attack the parties closest to you in policies and values more strongly than those with widely differing platforms, as in The Life of Brian: ‘We hate the Judean Popular Peoples Front more than the Romans’. Connected with this is the problem that when the last Coalition published their agreed policy plan, two weeks or so after the election in 2010, none of it was mandated by the votes at that election. The same problem will very likely arise this time around. You call for the possibility of voting positively for a coalition – if this could be achieved, then at least its policies would have some sort of electoral legitimacy, unlike anything agreed last time between the Tories and the Lib Dems. I agree that we need to move towards a system that recognises a much wider range of shades of political opinion, not all of them on a simplistic left-right spectrum. Some system of increased proportional representation and a mechanism for achieving electoral legitimacy for alliances and coalitions, as well as a less adversarial political culture, would be a wonderful thing in my view, but I personally can’t see a practical strategy for achieving it, sadly.
Jay, thanks for the comment. I understand your pessimism and I agree that PR would be a big step forward in our representative democracy. I’m not against adversarial politics or in favour of coalitions per se, just in favour of clarity about what our parties stand for and honesty about the alliances which they might need to make in order to form a government. If there is a progressive majority in the UK, let’s hope it can be reflected in the outcome of next Thursday’s general election!