“Don’t touch politics, no-one’s interested”, was the advice for the news team at the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation’s brand new English-language radio station back in 2007. I was part of that team which arrived, fresh-faced and keen, just before the Federal Elections that definitively disproved that truism.
The hard right Swiss People’s Party (SVP in German) were the big winners but the parliament decided not to endorse their figurehead Christoph Blocher as Government Minister, preferring the more collegiate Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf. She took up the offer and was then, along with her supporters, ejected from the party (they formed a small group of their own, the Conservative Democrats). There was uproar from the SVP ranks, the sacred traditions and institutions of Swiss politics were called into question and the phrase “coup d’état” was bandied about. Boring it wasn’t.
Now I find myself looking at the current political situation in the UK and it reminds of that time, when it seems as if anything could happen. Granted, the 2015 General Election has seen a Conservative Government elected to power, which is not so exciting in itself, but the big parties have been practically wiped out in Scotland by a party which exists to bring about secession, federalism has been proposed as a solution to London’s overweening dominance and the Lib-dems are nowhere to be seen.
As for Labour, Tony Blair has been worrying the virtual annihilation of the party and the likelihood that it will be reduced to a shouty Trotskyist protest rabble if the frontrunner for the leadership, veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, wins the race. There have also been rumblings about several members of the PLP refusing to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet and sloping off to start their own rebooted Social Democrat Party. The fear is that this will lead to a thousand years of unbroken Conservative rule. This is fun for the Tories right now, but the forthcoming referendum on whether or not to remain in the EU could even bring about their own Gotterdammerung.
Well here’s a thought: maybe a Swiss-style political system could be better for everyone. The idea of consensus was Margaret Thatcher’s idea of Hell, the antithesis of the British way of doing politics. She saw it as a hideous fudge, a failure to impose a clear vision, a failure of leadership. I disagree.
The UK’s First Past The Post system leads to situations whereby a party a minority of votes nationwide is able to win the majority of seats, leaving large proportions of the population disenfranchised. Once it gets over the line, a party can form a Government and disregard the views of other groups.
A fairer system would allow voters to choose the party that most accurately represents their views, and accord that party a proportion of the seats commensurate with the votes cast. Utopic? Well, it exists in Switzerland. In addition to the party system, the people can vote directly on issues of national and regional import several times a year. And the country doesn’t collapse into chaos as a result. In Switzerland, the designation of politicians as “servants of the people” sounds less hollow than elsewhere.
Politicians from hard left to centre to extreme right, representing the full range of public opinion, are then obliged to talk, discuss and argue until they reach a common consensus, leading to the passing laws that have been agreed by all sides and, therefore, have a good chance of standing the test of time. The result is one of the mainstays of the country’s wealth and international standing: stability.
Could the UK trust its own citizens in this own way? What was refreshing about the 2015 election was the sense that voters were, to a certain extent, refusing to toe the party line or follow received opinion. Thus, the SNP overwhelmingly won Scotland in the General Election despite voters having (just) voted No to independence a few months earlier. And now thousands are joining the Labour Party in order to be able to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, despite being told by the media that he is not prime ministerial material.
Surely the UK should be cheered that by this evidence of a growing interest in the democratic process. Why not hasten the break up of big, monolithic parties, whether Labour or Conservative, and address more directly the concerns of different streams of opinion? Then, more importantly, allow these opinions to be heard at Governmental level.
Yes, I’m talking about a permanent coalition. It might be frustrating, boring and slow, but it would force the UK’s politicians to listen to opposing points of views, discuss and compromise before legislating. And isn’t that what any confident, grown-up democracy should be doing?