Why anyone suggesting a possible Grand Coalition in the UK needs their head examined

There has been a lot of very silly speculation in the media and across the internet about possible post-election political wrangling in the UK, much of it predicated on the assumption that as no party can possibly win a majority, another coalition will have to be formed. This assumption is dubious* but my focus is elsewhere. Because an especially silly suggestion has been floating around, and it is one that needs to be shown as the absurdity that it actually is. That suggestion is that Labour and the Tories may decide, in the interests of stability and preserving the Union, to form a coalition. Unless World War Three breaks out between now and May, this idea is complete trash for the following reasons:

1. Both parties loathe and detest each other. Loathe and detest. Maybe not at an individual level, you understand (although even then…), but collectively. As organisations. As institutions. As subcultures. Deep down the Tories believe that Labour are a disgusting rabble of unpatrotic state worshipers, while deep down Labour know that the Tories are the objective class enemy. Labour’s rank and file in particular would regard a grand coalition as nothing other than treason; any Labour leader foolish enough to propose such an arrangement would be immediately castigated as the second coming of Ramsay MacDonald and would likely suffer the political equivalent of a public stoning.

2. And with all of this in mind, note that the Labour Party is nothing if not bureaucratic. It was founded by Trade Unions and operates accordingly. The Rules matter. And on this matter, The Rules are not silent. I will not bore you with the details, other than to suggest that the words ‘Special Conference’ are not unimportant and that Labour’s ordinary members, the backbench of the PLP and also its affiliated Unions would not be irrelevant to proceedings.

3. It must also be noted that even were all of the above not the case, that a grand coalition would not be in the electoral  best interest of either party. Why present to the SNP, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid, and Lord knows who else such a yawningly open goal? Why allow the LibDems such a felicitous opportunity to recover?

4. It would be a bugger to run anyway. Given that Labour and the Tories represent such fundamentally different interest groups, matters would quickly turn into the stuff of nightmares. Even setting a budget would be difficult. There would also be an epidemic of splinter groups and defections. The monstrously high government majority (we would likely be dealing with a government with around 80% of seats in the House of Commons) would be a positive invitation for rebellion, and it is likely that party discipline would crumble within a few years.

5. Finally, it is hard not to notice that much of the justification for this absurd suggestion is based on pointing abroad (particularly to Germany) and observing that grand coalitions seem to work out alright there,** thus surely they would in Britain. Given that different countries have different political cultures this ‘justification’ is entirely ridiculous. As a general rule, grand coalitions are only seen in political cultures with a marked bias towards consensus (this is why they are the norm in Austria and not uncommon in Germany), or in political cultures that are notably fractured (and this is why they are quite common in Israel and the Netherlands). As you might expect given the first observation, they are essentially non-existent wherever the Westminster system has been adopted. Note, for instance, that between the 1996 and 2014 elections India had a long series of extremely fragmented parliaments, yet a coalition between the BJP and Congress was never seriously entertained. It may also be useful to observe that the idea of a grand coalition tends (I must stress that word) to be less toxic when questions of class are not absolutely paramount to political competition between the two parties in question.

*Not only because minority governments not exactly uncommon in British political history (some have even managed to be comparatively functional), but also as there is no reason to assume that the Commons will not have a single party majority after the election. People forget, for instance, that in England alone Labour won a majority of seats in 2005 despite polling fewer votes than the Conservatives. There is also the cautionary tale of the last General Election in India to consider: no party had won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha for thirty years, and so it was widely (and quite understandably) assumed that the fragmentation of Indian political life since then made a single party majority impossible. Things did not work out that way.

**There are Germans who would disagree with this, but I digress.


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