On September 26, Germans went to the polls to elect the members of the 20th Bundestag. The election is a key turning point in German history, given the absence of the incumbent Chancellor Angela Markel (who has been in power since 2005), as well as the emphasis on post-Pandemic economic rebuilding and the urgent need for action on climate change. However, despite the importance of the policy decisions of the next German government for Europe and the world, much of the British press have focused on one word: coalition.


Coalitions in Europe

‘Coalition’ is a word that still strikes fear into the hearts of many Britons. For those on the Left, it brings back painful memories of the Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition of 2010. For those on the Right, it creates images of the terrifying ‘Coalition of Chaos’ between Labour and the SNP which every Tory election pamphlet seems to warn of. Yet, in much of Europe, coalitions are the political norm. In fact, only once has post-war, federal Germany been ruled by a single party with a parliamentary majority.

Experts predict that the negotiations between parties to form a new German government could take months. In Britain, where a coalition was formed in 2010 after just four days of talks, this seems bizarre. However, as Toby Luckhurst writes for the BBC: ‘where Brits see a crisis, Germans find unity’. This is because there is no formal process for forming a government in Germany. Unlike in Britain, where the Queen asks the leader of the largest party to form a government in her name, the Germans really have a free-for-all. All parties talk to each other, compare manifestos, make compromises and deals, and consult their own party members. The result of this process seems to be a surprising degree of stability and success. The question, then, for us Brits is: are we missing out?

The UK: Confrontation and Conflict

In the UK we have a proud tradition of adversarial politics. This can be seen in the very architecture of our Parliament. Whereas the Germans, Dutch, French, Italians and the EU have parliaments arranged in a circle, with all members facing inwards towards the country’s leader, our House of Commons is very different. Even the devolved nations, right on our doorstep, have adopted the modern circular system. But not the British central government. Here, the government and opposition benches still face each other down; literally a sword’s length apart. It is a style of politics that is built on confrontation and conflict. It perpetuates the petulant name-calling, booing and jeers, and creates an atmosphere of highly partisan division. There is very little space for compromise, for constructive communication between parties or for mutual respect. Instead, we get party political point-scoring and dog-whistle politics.

The culture born out of this political pit-bull-fighting hardly helps the decision-making process. Perhaps most worryingly, this culture inevitably spills out into wider society. It creates further political divisions across the country and contributes to the unacceptable levels of abuse that MPs face. In 2019 the BBC surveyed MPs. It found that more than 60 per cent of respondents had been in contact with the police about abuse in the past twelve months.

It seems clear that we urgently need to take the sting out of our politics. By taking away some of the built-in confrontation and conflict, we could effectively change our governmental style for the better. Perhaps the Germans, with their system that relies on open communication, compromise and calm, could help us achieve this. As the leader of the German Green party said after the election: ‘This is a sign of adult politics’. So, is it time the Brits grew up?

Sticking Points

There are, of course, problems in countries that have coalition governments. The so-called consensus model is not a fix-all solution to all of our issues. Many people point out the time it can take for parties to reach a compromise and form a government. The most extreme example of this is Belgium, which holds the current World Record for the longest time a nation was without a government during peacetime. It took the European country 541 days to form a coalition after elections on June 13, 2010. However, Britain is not the same as Belgium. As Françoise Boucek, a Teaching Fellow in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London, writes:

‘In Belgium, parties are first divided along ideological lines and then further divided along regional/linguistic lines; furthermore, the Belgian Parliament is less than a quarter of the size of the British House of Commons but 13 different parties are represented in it’.

In fact, the UK as a nation, with its fairly small number of political parties and a relatively homogenous society in terms of language and culture, is arguably particularly well placed to have successful coalition governments. We can learn from the mistakes made in Belgium and elsewhere and take inspiration from those who have done it well. In Germany, for example, Angela Merkel will stay on as Chancellor until the new government is formed. She will be unable to introduce new laws, to prevent abuse of her position, but she can still be a leader and represent Germany on the world stage. Sensible, common-sense processes such as these create stability and help to smooth over the transition.

What Should Britain Do?

The answer is that it must change. Currently, the UK has a system that is unfair, divisive and largely undemocratic. We have effectively created a system of dictatorship by democratic vote. A party can, like the Conservatives in 2019, win 43.6 per cent of the vote, but hold a majority of 80 seats. With such a majority the party leader can basically do anything they like. Even if a few morally conscious MPs from the winning party oppose it, enough will support it (even if just to stay in their jobs) and policies will be waved through.

The last sixteen months have shown that there is remarkably little scrutiny or oversight, or constructive debate. The role of the so-called ‘opposition party’ has been reduced to hurling insults from the sidelines, which achieves very little. A much more effective system for making good decisions would be to have the opposition party in government too. In 2013, this happened in Germany, with the creation of a ‘Grand Coalition’ between the Christian Democratic Union and their main opposition, the Social Democrats. A coalition of parties across the political spectrum like this means parties can hold each other to account, challenge ideas and crucially create a culture of compromise. It seems clear that when it comes to tackling the big issues, from climate change to economic recovery, Britain’s outdated approach simply isn’t good enough.

Britain needs more coalitions, and the best way to achieve this is proportional representation. This is a system used by 40 of the 43 countries in Europe, and it allocates seats based on the proportion of votes won. Evidence from the Electoral Reform Society shows just how much fairer this system would be in Britain compared to first past the post. In 2019, the Tory Party won 43.6 per cent of the vote but gained 57.8 per cent of seats. Under PR, it would have been 45.6 per cent, much closer to their share of the vote. The Greens, who polled at 2.7 per cent, would get 12 seats rather than 1. It is much fairer, much more democratic, and much more likely to result in coalitions.

Proportional representation gives a fairer share to smaller parties, who would gain more of a say if part of a coalition. In 2019 there were more votes cast for progressive parties (Labour, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru), yet Britain got a Conservative government. Under PR, we could have had a progressive coalition, which would have been more reflective of the country’s views.

Since we’re on the subject of change, Britain should also think about converting the current Houses of Parliament to a museum and build a new Parliament fit for the modern age. The Green benches will be perfect for tourist selfies, and the government can make plenty of cash selling tickets for tours. Then, we can move our elected officials somewhere that will truly foster a healthy political climate. It should look something like the German parliament, with politicians sitting around in a circle and working together constructively, like grown-ups.