After the UK election: Why not a grand coalition?

Mark Hallerberg proposes the unthinkable: a coalition of Tories and Labour.

A general election looms. A sitting Conservative-Liberal Democratic government is behind in the polls. The current Prime Minister remains the most popular candidate, but his Liberal Democratic partners, who did unexpectedly well in the previous election, are fighting for their very survival. The main Left party has a rather unpopular leader and it lost office in the previous election, but it is showing signs of a revival. In terms of other parties, on the Left, there is a regionally-based party that voters in the rest of the country distrust. There is also a Green party that is not catching fire in the election despite initial promise at the beginning of the campaign.  On the Right, there is an anti-Europe party that distrusts immigrants, and it is unclear whether it will get into parliament.

The description above is for Germany in the weeks leading up to the September 2013 election, but it is remarkably similar to the UK today. Sure, it was clear that Germany’s CDU would finish ahead of the SPD while the Conservatives and Labour are currently neck-and-neck in the polls. The regional party referred to above, the Left Party, has its base in East Germany and does not call for succession of that part of the country (at least not publicly). But the types of dilemmas that will face the UK party leaders in terms of coalition choices are familiar to any observer of German politics. The polls in the UK predict a hung parliament, so some sort of coalition, be it formal with a division of portfolios or informal in the form of a minority government, seems inevitable.

This then begs the question—why not a German-style Grand Coalition of the Conservative and Labour Party? I am sure that my colleagues in the UK will think I am crazy and simply don’t get British politics. There is a tradition of opposition politics where only one side can win. But think through the logic of the other coalition possibilities.

Starting with the Right, for David Cameron a UKIP alliance cannot be very appealing, and it is likely that, as was true for Germany’s “Alternative for Germany,” it won’t have the votes anyway. In terms of other options, unless there is a near-miraculous revival of Liberal Democratic fortunes, his current coalition will not continue.

For Ed Miliband, the presumption is that an SNP-Green-Labour coalition is the first choice. But the Tories understand that there is real fear of this alignment among the voters and are campaigning actively against it. The Labour leader understands this too, and he repeatedly denies he will work with Nicola Sturgeon’s party.

So come back to the idea of a grand coalition between the two largest parties in this election. On core issues where compromise is difficult or impossible, such as on Trident or on the desirability of the Union, the two parties express the same preferences. On policies like taxation and spending, there are some differences, but these are policy areas where compromises are easier to find. The main difference may be on “Europe.” But, as Wolfgang Münchau noted recently in the Financial Times (and elsewhere), the parties are not that far apart substantively (both are euroskeptic). In fact, if one believes the latest electoral rhetoric from the respective parties that Labour is fiscally responsible and that the Tories really care, one could argue that the parties are a lot closer than one would first think.

Of course, the core constituencies of the two parties would go crazy. They are used to thinking of each other as enemies. But this coalition from a policy perspective may be the one closest to the preferences of most of the voters. And—once parties learn that their enemy today could be their partner tomorrow—they may follow the German example and decide that it makes sense to be more civil toward one another.

More about the author

  • Mark Hallerberg , Dean of Research and Faculty and Professor of Public Management and Political Economy