Britain’s nascent Green Parties took a bashing at the weekend, as the mainstream media rounded on them determined to show that they were hopelessly impractical, a bunch of hippyish dreamers.
The assault coincided with the election of Syriza in Greece, which may (or may not) prove to be a turning of the tide in Europe, a democratic challenge to the political programmes of austerity imposed through the argument that there is no economic choice. Curiously for us in Britain Syriza will be assuming power in coalition with a right wing nationalist party with whom it would seem to have nothing in common, other than a determination to renegotiate the “recovery” terms imposed by the EU’s bankers (terms which as others noted have catastrophically attended to immediate debt maintenance without considering economic recovery).
It’s too early to say much more about the Greek situation, but it sheds an interesting light on the politics of coalition as we rumble towards a very uncertain general election in the UK.
Here we have the worst of all democratic worlds, a first-past-the post electoral system, the main virtue of which is supposed to be that it delivers strong and decisive government. Even on this level it has failed, with nobody expecting any party to win an overall majority in the coming poll. There are a few obvious reasons why. The rise of the spin culture has left many people cynical about the political world. The main parties seem to offer only limited variations on the same themes, while appearing to have no real convictions of their own. With the LibDems becoming an apparently willing accessory to a conspicuously right wing government, people have had to look elsewhere for someone to carry their protest votes, and so we’ve seen a fracturing of traditional allegiances.
Which brings me back to the Green Party and its policies. Another curious aspect of the current situation, our worst of all worlds, is that while we seem to have entered a world of multi-party politics we have neither the political mechanisms nor the prevailing assumptions to cope with its reality. We are still stuck in some irrelevant ways of viewing what’s going on.
This was most glaring in Nick Clegg’s decision to join the Tories in coalition, claiming that he was honour-bound to support the single party that had won the most votes. This seems disingenuous from a man whose stated aim was to change the first past the post system (an ambition apparently foundering on the rocks of public indifference to the mechanics of an electoral system, though you could fairly put that indifference down to the pathetic campaign run by those who wanted change).
The Tories might have won the most number of votes compared to the other individual parties, but there was an apparent majority against their programme, a majority betrayed by Clegg’s decision: Clegg and his Orange Book pals might themselves have been inclined to follow the Tory view of the economy but this was not what they trumpeted before the election and it was not a view shared by most people who voted for the LibDems, whether through conviction or tactically (this betrayal thus looks likely to bring about the decimation of his party’s parliamentary presence in the coming election).
Strangely commentators are still talking about the largest party having a natural claim on government, but this isn’t the way coalition politics work. In coalitions parties are obliged to seek common ground on the issues where they can agree, and if that agreement reflects what those parties said when they stood for election then in theory that agreement should command majority support in the country.
Equally, when commentators look at the programmes presented by small parties like the Greens they should not be suggesting “this is their programme and if you vote for them you can expect all this to happen”. It’s nonsense. In our current system the Greens may win two or three seats at best, and probably not even that. In a proportional system they would do much better, but would still be a minority party.
With multi-party politics you have to start thinking about new dynamics of influence. The Greens, unlike Labour, are unafraid to think radically, and while most of that radicalism will get lost in the wash of government it does mean you have a source of fresh and potent ideas to inspire and push government beyond business as usual. So the question is not what the Green manifesto would look like if it was put into practice, but what influence might it have on a future coalition government?
You could say that the same applies to UKIP (and it might still indeed be a necessary question) though I think it would be to dignify the UKIP programme too much to suggest that it contains any ideas. Perhaps in a more sophisticated and functional political world there might be room for a more intelligent right wing party to work on the Conservatives, while marginalising the ragbag of demagogic claptrap pushed forward by Farage and his friends.
This shift to multi-party politics has already happened, and it does not sit well with our first-past-the post system. Whoever emerges in government after the next election is going to be under pressure to address the systematic problem, and we can only hope they address it more intelligently than in the terms of the last PR referendum debate.
We will have to wait and see whether Syriza’s victory has consequences outside Greece, but whatever happens it’s looking increasingly apparent that the dubious platitudes of the last five years or more are falling apart. It’s going to be an interesting few months.
Next time, why Tony Blair was the second worst thing that ever happened to modern British politics (neoliberalism just about pips him into first place.)