Can Britain Learn From Germany's Electoral System?
Within German politics, the most prevalent story has undoubtedly been the intrigue surrounding Merkel’s fate, and the subsequent decision by her party, the Christian Democratic Union, to select Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as her successor for the role of party leader. While the significance of these events shouldn’t be understated – she has occupied the position for eighteen years after all – this has served to divert attention from what I would argue is of greater relevance to the British political situation: the displacement in German politics of the Social Democrats (or SPD) by the Greens as the primary electoral force on the left.
This decline of the SPD is not a new development by any means; in the 2017 federal election, the party acquired a measly 21.9% of the vote, constituting their poorest result since the second world war. However, at that election, the right wing, anti-migrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was the main beneficiary, landing 12.6% of the vote and increasing their share by 7.9% in comparison to the previous election, rather than the Greens, who acquired a relatively average 8.9%. It is only in recent months, as the SPD has begun to seem increasingly inconsequential and redundant in the eyes of the public, that the Greens have made significant headway in the polls.
Regardless, this shift in sentiment has already manifested in a tangible fashion; in last year’s state election in Hesse, the Greens acquired 19.8% of the popular vote, placing them marginally ahead than their counterparts in the SPD and landing them an equivalent number of seats. At the national level, the narrative is equally flattering, with recent polls designating them anywhere between 18% and 21% of the popular vote, as opposed to the SPD, which is languishing behind at approximately 15%, a showing which can only be described as historically abysmal.
One might lament the stratospheric fall from grace of an institution with as much of an important legacy as the SPD, but I would rather advocate a different perspective: these events are indicative of a healthy democracy at work. Shouldn’t we praise the fact that, because of the existence of a proportional system, voters can express their discontent with the main options on the table by voting for minority parties which may present more resonant platforms, but with the knowledge that their preferences will actually be reflected in the makeup of their parliament? Stagnation should not be rewarded with continuing reluctant support, as it often is in first-past-to-post systems, but instead punished at the ballot box. What otherwise arises is an institutionalised dysfunction, in which those parties privileged by the existing electoral system have their existential decay indulged, having been made complacent by the fact that their prospects of being supplanted by a more dynamic challenger are minimal at best.
To have this illustrated, one need only glance at the state of our own Conservative and Labour parties, and public sentiment towards them. Since the 2017 general election, while both parties have undergone periods where they have consolidated marginal leads, they have for the most part been locked in an excruciating stalemate, with each meandering in the polls between 36% and 40% - levels at which they undoubtedly hold a duopolistic grip over British politics (albeit with the important exceptions of Scotland and Northern Ireland).
If the two main parties are polling so well, is this indicative of their competence and genuine appeal to the electorate? Not necessarily. On the one hand, the Conservative party is quite literally at war with itself, as illustrated by the fact that more than a hundred of their own MPs voted against their Government’s Brexit deal earlier on this week – and this is not even to speak of chronic lack of talent in the cabinet and our stagnating economy. On the other hand, we have a Labour party that has even more astoundingly failed to articulate any meaningful response to the most significant policy issue of our generation, and whose leadership encapsulates many of the old left’s most toxic tendencies. The public aren’t too enthusiastic about them either; when asked about their opinions of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, Yougov found that only 28% and 29% held favourable perceptions of them respectively. What is evident here is that the public aren’t supporting these parties because they actually like them – rather, they just perceive either as the least worst option.
With this in mind, now would be the perfect moment to cast learn lessons from German politics and rip up our existing electoral system for a more proportional one. Both of our main parties are deeply complacent, existentially incompetent and irrevocably split – which, in this age of upheaval, is a state of affairs that will rapidly become unsustainable. Let’s put the dying out of their misery.