Saturday 22 May 2010

Israeli-Style Democracy for the UK

The long- awaited elections in the United Kingdom (UK) have taken place, and the electorate has spoken - or not. While politicians on both sides of the political divide have tried to convince us that the nation decided that it does not want any party to dominate the political scene for the next parliament, I find this explanation difficult to swallow. I am not sure how voters, when casting their votes, can have in mind that they do not wish one party or another to come out as a clear winner. Indeed, when I have cast my vote in the past, it has always been my hope that my chosen party will come out the clear winner, and I am sure that most other voters feel the same way. The more logical explanation to the outcome of the election is that none of the parties were able to convince sufficient numbers of voters to vote for them in order to gain the required majority. And so it is that the UK will have to live with the consequences of indecision for the life of the next parliament.

A coalition government is usually the territory of countries like Germany, Italy and Israel, and not the UK. In fact, it is quite seldom that a country with a first-past-the-post constituency electoral system has a coalition government. The countries who have become accustomed to operating with coalition governments on a regular basis are mostly those with proportional representation (PR) electoral systems. Living in a country whose elections over 60 years have never resulted in overall control being given to any party, I have found the confusion in the UK to be somewhat amusing. What is most amusing is that opinion polls have long predicted that an election would deliver no overall control, yet the public and the politicians seemed so unprepared for it when the result was delivered.

For a country which last had a situation of no overall control in 1974, and its last coalition government in 1945, the UK is into new political territory. As soon as the coalition discussions were initiated, we started to see the shuk-style negotiations that are only too familiar to Israelis. Nick Clegg and his Liberal-Democrats realised that they hold more power than their 62 seats or 22% of the national vote justify. He had no problem negotiating simultaneously with both the Tories and Labour to see where he could do better. Ultimately, it was the Tory leader David Cameron who seems to have come up with the goods for the Lib-Dems. So it is the leader of the party with 62 seats out of a total of 650 who is the UK's new Deputy Prime Minister. More than this, he has succeeded in ensuring that a number of policy issues, which are far from the Tory priorities, will be included in those matters to be addressed during the upcoming parliament. It feels so much like the minority religious parties in Israel who succeed in commanding way more than their support justifies, and have no qualms about going into a coalition with anybody who is prepared to pay a higher price.

It is perhaps ironic that the current electoral system will be one of the issues that will be up for discussion at the behest of the Lib-Dems. Had a PR electoral system been in place for the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats would have gained closer to 145 seats rather than their current haul of 62. It is clear why they wish to reform the electoral system and implement PR as a matter of the highest priority. The implementation of this electoral system is, however, likely to create less stability rather than greater stability in future governments, as the prospect of no overall control under a PR system is far greater than under a constituency system.

For now, it appears to be "happy families" between the Tories and Lib-Dems. Smiling faces and presentation of agreements on coalition and government policies are the order of the day. I feel sure that this will all change when the first real test arises, and members of government are called upon to vote against their instinct and underlying beliefs in the interests of supporting the coalition agreement. I have a feeling that the issue of budget cuts will be the first one to rear the ugly head of the bad side of coalition agreements. Time will tell.

Despite the current positive appearance of the coalition government, it is my view that this coalition will go the way of many others before it. By this, I mean that it will not see out the full term of the parliament, or even near to the full term of the parliament. I predict that UK voters will be called to another general election before the end of 2011. If the Lib-Dems succeed in pushing through the adoption of a PR electoral system without special checks and balances by then, this will spell disaster for the stability of the UK electoral system.

The lesson is clear for the UK that can be passed on by other countries which have had years of coalition governments due to no overall control being achieved by one party or another. Be cautious not to allow small, niche-interest parties to extract more than their fair share in exchange for propping up a coalition government. These compromises have cost Israel dear in political and economic terms. The same is true of other countries, and there is the threat that the UK could also pay a heavy price if the government is forced to give in to its own niche-interest groups.

The UK is already reeling from the outfall of the expenses scandal which revealed the extent to which parliamentarians were abusing the expenses system. Perhaps a short parliament is what the UK needs right now to limit the damage that the coalition can cause. In this way, a new election can be called which will deliver the overall control needed to get back into the traditional style of Westminster governments.

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