The German elections provide a contrast to the US and UK First Past the Post System – letter from Scotland October 5

The political landscape of Germany and the UK and the US offers quite a contrast at the moment. The result of the German election means that there may be a traffic light coalition with the red Social Democrats, the Greens and the amber of the Free Democratic Party.

Emilia Fester, 23, in the NYT – she is a Green member of Germany’s new Parliament and plans to skateboard to work

The four political parties who took most of the vote in Germany – including Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats – are all moderate and centrist. Will some be able to find common ground? It appears so. The two smaller ones, the FDP and the Greens are already talking and the results seem positive.

In contrast, in the UK, the Conservative Party has a huge majority in parliament, of the kind that allows them to do more or less what they will. The Labour Party is hundreds of seats adrift and seems years away from a real challenge to Tory hegemony. The Tories are busy passing voter suppression (photo id) laws and packing the House of Lords in a way that will help them to preserve their grip on power.

In the US, the Republicans and Democrats are like two dogs fighting over a bone. Biden’s narrow majority means his programme seems in the lap of the gods – there is even a risk of a Federal Government shutdown.

When one side gets in in a binary First Past the Post system, they are seen to require a majority in order to govern. When one side does win a majority, they often seem to use it to entrench power, indulge in pork barrel politics and to undo as much as they can of what the other side accomplished.

The big political parties in binary systems are themselves coalitions of course. The Conservative party in the UK is in the hands of a particular faction – the Brexit/ ERG/ anti-immigration faction. The rest of the movement rallies round. At the 2019 general election, the Labour Party seemed to be controlled by a faction of the left under Jeremy Corbyn. Because of the first past the post system, voters faced a very limited choice – voting for the Greens for example, would have been a wasted vote in almost every constituency. The leftist faction that controlled the Labour Party faced allegations of anti-Semitism; MPs who didn’t tow the faction’s lines were threatened with deselection by activists in their local party organisations. There were reasons other than widespread support for Brexit that underlay the Labour Party’s poor showing.

In the UK in the 2019 General election, the Scottish National Party won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats. But that did not persuade the UK Government to allow a referendum on independence – even though Margaret Thatcher’s response to the independence movement was to say that all Scots had to do was to elect a majority of MPs. The SNP’s MPs can do little in Westminster – we have often seen footage of the chamber emptying when an SNP member rises to speak.

This week the news that a Ministerial post in the Scottish Office has gone to one Malcolm Offord set Scottish Twitter alight. Offord failed to get elected in the last Holyrood election where he was on the ‘list’ for the proportional representation element of the Parliament. After a large donation to the Conservative Party, he was elevated to the House of Lords by the PM’s patronage and has been given a seat in the legislature.

There is no democratic way for Scotland to reject rule by Offord since he was not elected in the first place. He certainly does not take his place with any democratic support or even consent from the Scottish people. But a Conservative Party with a huge majority can do what it likes – for the moment.

Many commentators in the anglosphere seem sceptical, even hostile to the PR type of Parliament with its messier result. PR, they say, doesn’t produce strong leadership or a clear plan for Government. It won’t allow politicians to make radical change.

But in reality, it seems that as climate change becomes more pressing and a new generation which realises the importance of that reaches political maturity, it is the Parliaments with PR which are managing to bring them through into Government. In Germany we will see what they manage to accomplish. Success will reside not in the mud wrestling of oppositional politics but the muddling through of forming alliances and building consensus.

In the UK, the huge majority which allows the Conservatives to show “strong leadership” also means they will ultimately have to take responsibility for the consequences of what they do. At some point, as supply chains unravel, sterling weakens and inflation bites, the dogs of Brexit may turn on them.


Further reading/ listening


Skateboards, Climate Change and Freedom: Germany’s Next-Generation Parliament – Emilia Fester, 23, Green is the youngest member of Germany’s new Parliament and skateboards to work.

Podcast :

Jeremy Cliffe in the New Statesman: