Westminster bubble

Why grand coalitions are a death sentence for political parties

Never the twain should meet. Chris Radburn/PA

With eight weeks to go until the general election, nerves seem to be frazzled in Westminster. And some of the people caught in the eye of the storm are trying to manage the uncertainty of this year’s election by coming up with wacky ideas.

This week, the Labour MP Gisela Stuart has suggested the formation of a grand coalition government uniting Labour and the Conservative parties. Earlier this year, the commentator and former Conservative speech-writer Ian Birrell made a similar proposal.

The idea is simple. In a grand and magnanimous political gesture, the two main political parties would set aside their tribalism and nobly unite the increasingly diverse, restless and grumpy family of British voters. In the meantime, the noble parties would be able to sideline the unreasonable voices in their respective rooms. Everyone would benefit from this centrist arrangement, the argument goes.

The problem is, a grand coalition would look more like a Gothic horror story than a Disney fairy tale. Grand coalitions tend to be the last resort in desperate times. Voters dislike this type of government because it defeats the purpose of electoral choice. If two rival parties from opposite sides of the political spectrum decide to join forces in a grand coalition, what was the point of voting in the first place?

Only desperate circumstances, such as a clear and present threat to national security (as Britain experienced during World War I and II) or an unprecedented economic depression (as in the 1930s) can justify a grand coalition government. Even in countries with established traditions of consensual-style government, grand coalitions are seen as a desperate measure.

In 2015, Britain faces no such threat. The economy is growing, the kingdom is still united, and Britain does not face the threat of a foreign invasion. The fragmentation of the party system suggests that British voters are in no mood for the centrist politics advocated by Birrell and Stuart. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives seem to be in the mood for a politics of consensus either.

In most instances, a grand coalition is a death sentence to viable political parties. It is particularly dangerous for those on the centre-left. Only terminally ill political parties contemplate the prospect of grand coalitions as a last shot at survival. Labour is in a weak position, but it is not facing doom just yet.

Get me out of this. Anthony Devlin/PA

Two recent European examples illustrate the problem. The grand coalition that governed Greece until last January led to the collapse of the centre-left party PASOK. It can be argued that in Greece’s case, the desperate state of the economy justified a grand coalition, but voters thought otherwise. At the January election the radical left party Syriza replaced PASOK as the main party of the left.

Stuart could argue that Britain is not Greece but the experiences of the German SPD (which she invoked) are no example to follow either. In 2013, the SPD decided to join a grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU, rejecting the prospect of leading a government jointly with the Green Party and the Left Party. They had taken a similar decision in 2005 and the aim was clear. The SPD wanted to neutralise the electoral appeal of the Left Party.

The tactic backfired. The Left Party became the third largest in the Bundestag following the 2013 elections, and the SPD’s share of the vote has been in decline ever since. Ultimately, the SPD has little influence over government policy, either. It has had a moderating influence but so far it is Angela Merkel’s CDU that has benefited from the coalition in terms of power and popular support. Like other European social democratic parties, the party is in steady decline. Joining grand coalitions has only contributed to its demise.

So while the UK election looks uncertain, a grand coalition is not the solution to opposition anxiety. Morale in the Labour benches is low but not so low that it should contemplate political suicide of this kind.

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