Washington Seizes Up and Suddenly Coalitions Don’t Look So Bad

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On May 5, Britons are invited to vote in a referendum about voting. They will decide whether to abandon the U.K.’s current first-past-the-post elections (FPTP) in favor of an Alternative Vote (AV) system, which isn’t really much different from FPTP except that voters rank candidates in order of preference, and as candidates are eliminated, votes are redistributed. Proponents, among them Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, say AV is fairer. Opponents include Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron who urges his fellow citizens to reject the change, warning that AV “means more hung parliaments.” (By no means all psephologists agree with that analysis.) As a politician who went into last year’s elections expecting to emerge with a clear-cut victory and instead emerged as the least worst loser in a hung parliament, you can see why Cameron might view the prospect of hung parliaments with distaste. Yet as he celebrates his wife’s 40th birthday in Spain—media back home gleefully published photos of the couple slumped wearily as they waited for their austerity-era no-frills Ryanair flight to Granada yesterday—he might just contemplate the repeated failure of talks to avert a U.S. government shutdown and offer up a silent prayer of thanks for the fate that left him sharing power—and blame—with the Lib Dems.

On a personal level, coalition government has worked out well for Cameron—and badly for Clegg. The coalition itself has already chalked up a number of missteps, miscalculations and U-turns, and economists are divided as to whether its slashing cuts to public spending will return Britain to rude health or send it back into recession. But despite some fissures within the coalition—sure to widen around the issue of voting reform which divides the parties as well as their leaders—the government continues to formulate policies, pass legislation and force through budgets. Debates in the House of Commons are seldom decorous; sitting in the Press Gallery can be as wearisome as finding oneself stuck in a train carriage with a bunch of teenagers on a school outing who have managed to smuggle alcopops in their lunch boxes. Many of the important debates, however, happen in more civilized terms and smaller circles, between members of the coalition.

Some people might say that’s not democratic. It only takes a glance back at Washington to see that there are some things that serve democracy less well than back-room deals.

Another argument against coalition government is that it dilutes the identity and core principles of the parties concerned. Clegg hopes his own supporters will buy the line that by entering office with the Conservatives, he has helped to soften and liberalize their instincts.

But Britain’s ongoing political experiment isn’t the only example of enforced consensus to consider. Angela Merkel‘s finest hour may have been as leader of a Grand Coalition of her own conservative Christian Democrats, their Bavarian sister party and the left-leaning Social Democrats, a marriage of antagonists that turned out to be surprisingly effective and masked Merkel’s own weaknesses. And there’s an inspiring instance of coalition politics closer still to Cameron’s door.

May 5 for one part of the United Kingdom means not only a chance to cast a ballot on electoral reform, but in Northern Ireland signals elections for the devolved Assembly. For the first time, the power-sharing administration, spearheaded by erstwhile bitter enemies, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, has completed a full four-year term. The murder last week of a Catholic policeman served merely to highlight how little support dissidents command in the wider population. Politicians by learning to work together create a culture of responsibility. It’s a lesson many in Washington and Westminster have yet to learn.