Watching the UK’s general election from afar is a strange experience. Last time around, in 2010, I was working on the campaign in Westminster and followed every detail obsessively; monitoring polls and watching news feeds and helping craft endless ‘Lines To Take’ based on the day’s headlines. Five years later, watching from abroad, I’m completely ignorant of the stream of policy announcements, minor scandals, attacks and rebuttals which make up the mood music of the campaign. However, as I work to complete my book on the Netherlands, it’s been interesting to watch the UK moving towards a more Dutch way of doing politics. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that one of the main players in the current campaign, Nick Clegg, is half Dutch and speaks the language fluently.
To an outsider, the Dutch political system is a curious beast. Historically, politics in the Netherlands was dominated by a few large parties, and people’s votes were often based heavily on whether they identified with the Protestant or Catholic community. Over the last fifty years, however, the major Dutch parties have fractured into numerous smaller parties, catering to every conceivable belief. At the 2014 European elections, the ballot delivered to my house in Rotterdam listed no fewer than nineteen different parties, with a total of 345 candidates competing for just 26 seats. There’s a Dutch political party for animal-lovers, another for old people, and until recently there was even one for paedophiles.
It’s unlike that the UK will ever go quite that far, but it looks as if British politics is in the early stages of a similar evolution, with the old duopoly of Labour and the Conservatives facing increasingly stiff competition from an array of smaller rivals. Five years ago the big political story was the sudden rise to prominence of the Liberal Democrats; last year all eyes were on UKIP; and now the media are obsessing over whether the Scottish National Party will be the power brokers propping up a Labour-led government. With less than two weeks to go, the pollsters and pundits whose job it is to predict the outcome all agree on one thing: they have no idea what shape the next government will take.
Compared with five years ago, if the election does end in stalemate, the party leaders will be ready. Forewarned by months of divided polls, they will have identified possible partners, agreed red lines and decided negotiating strategies well before the polls close. Constitutionally, the country is also well-prepared for power-sharing, thanks to the introduction of fixed term parliaments which remove some of uncertainty usually associated with coalitions. Culturally, however, the UK remains deeply uncomfortable with the idea of cross-party government. Nearly two-thirds of voters say they would prefer a single party to be in charge, while politicians cannot abide the idea that the public might find them all equally unappealing. Generally, Brits seem to think of coalition governments the way they think about new Indiana Jones or Star Wars sequels: a nice enough idea in theory, but pretty awful in practice.
Looking at the Netherlands, where coalition governments are the norm, it’s clear that if Britain is to move to a permanent multi-party system, several profound shifts in political culture will be needed.
Firstly, British voters will have to become accustomed to the idea that they might not get what they vote for. In countries where coalitions are common, voters accept that the manifestos they vote for will never actually be delivered, but are instead starting points for negotiation. For a party to pledge to abolish tuition fees and then support the opposite policy when in power would not be a shocking example of duplicity, but a natural outcome of a system where rivals negotiate and no-one gets exactly what they want. This approach has some benefits – the fact that every conceivable minority has a voice in Dutch politics is one reason why the Netherlands was so quick to adopt policies like gay marriage. But for the voter, there are also disadvantages, including the fact that – as a certain shrimp-fishing Vietnam veteran might say – you never know what you’re going to get. If multi-party politics is to thrive in Britain, voters will need to get used to the fact that having chosen between manifestos A, B, C and D, they actually end up with policy Z.
Secondly, politicians themselves will have to get used to the idea that the rivals who they fight in elections might soon be their allies in government. Cameron and Clegg have done a reasonable job of pretending to get along, but in reality British politics has long been a bloodsport; a Hunger Games-style contest where only the most ruthless can survive. This can be fun to watch, but is incompatible with a situation where the leaders of two, three or four rival parties may soon end up bumping elbows around the Cabinet table. In the Netherlands, the current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte (pictured above with David Cameron), has depended on the backing of no fewer than three rival parties in as many years. As such, he’s rather less likely to attack them harshly during election campaigns, and more likely to tone down the rhetoric. In the future, British party leaders may have to start treating each other less like worst enemies and more like potential best friends.
Thirdly, political parties will have to get used to the idea that they are not the major forces they used to be. In the last fifty years support for the two main parties has plummeted, but the parties themselves remain wedded to the idea that large blocks of voters will stick with them as loyally as football fans on match day. In a multi-party system, however, voter loyalty is much lower. To many Dutch voters, Political Compass style quizzes which help people decide who to vote for aren’t just an interesting curiosity, but a serious tool for picking a party. Politicians’ affiliations are also more fluid, with rising stars regularly breaking away from established parties to form their own one-man bands. Britain may not see a Boris Johnson Party any time soon, but defections between parties may become more common, and small breakaway parties may stake out more distinctive positions. British voters may soon have to stop complaining that all the parties are the same, and start complaining that they’re all too different.
After five years of coalition government, the UK is in the curious position of having adopted some of the features of a multi-party system, but not others. Coalition governments are increasingly likely, but the political culture hasn’t yet caught up with the new reality. If voters, politicians and party bosses shift their views, multi-party politics in Britain may become permanent. If not, it’s more likely to go the way of Nick Clegg’s political career.