Political gridlock may be coming – and it may be no bad thing - RSA

Political gridlock may be coming – and it may be no bad thing


  • Enterprise
  • Institutional reform

Looking at the various election predications in terms of seats, it is entirely possible that no party will be able secure a decent majority - even in Coalition. This has led many commentators to speculate that this may be a year of two elections. That’s all well and good but who is to say the outcome of a second election would be any more decisive? Some have even suggested that there might be a grand coalition between Labour and Conservatives. I rarely gamble large sums of money but I’d put down quite a wager against that happening. So perhaps a third outcome is far more likely – gridlock.

Yes, US style gridlock could be coming to these shores. The party with the largest number of seats may be able to form a Government through a confidence and supply arrangement or through a narrow-majority Coalition. They may calculate that they would be no better off from a second election or the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act may prevent a second election being called (given its super-majority rule for any early election to be called). They would be able to form a Government and pass a budget but little else for which there wasn’t broad consensus in Parliament. They would be hostage to their own backbenchers on some issues and to other parties for other legislative proposals. So gridlock- the inability to pass significant legislation – could be upon us.

This sounds terrifying but, actually, would it be all that bad? It is not clear that it would be. If anything, legislation is far too easy to pass in the current system when a workable majority is in place (single party or Coalition majority). Instead of reaching for majority-rich lobbies to pass legislation to ‘deal with’ every passing political concern, parties would instead have to work to develop wider consensus. This would mean that may need to start reach beyond Parliament.

It might improve public services as they are less interfered with. Instead of immediately reaching for Parliament, Secretaries of State would have to think through how to influence the systems they wanted to change. They would have to engage professionals, local leaders and even service users to a greater extent. Power, like water, follows the path of least resistance. When it’s blocked, it finds another way.

This is precisely what has happened in the US context. It is at metro and state level that we are seeing the most interesting innovations and developments. The Federal level is blocked so the attraction of local environments becomes greater for political and social entrepreneurs. Gridlock in Westminster could divert reformist attention elsewhere (apart from the daily drama we’d have to watch). Increasingly, those who wanted to make real changes could start to look for new avenues.

And in turn, this may change the model for representatives. Quite simply, they would have little to do in Parliament. They may even decide to shorten the Westminster week and spend more time locally, developing their influence and capabilities as local leaders and civic mobilisers. We could even start to see MPs in a different fashion as even those with safe seats take advantage of the power vacuum in Westminster to become more actively engaged at a local level. They might begin to experiment with new forms of local engagement.

So we’d be watching ‘chaos’ and ‘gridlock’ at Westminster but, actually, there may be more interesting and creative uses of power throughout the system. Things may become better thought through. Legislation could pass on the basis of hard-won consensus and mobilisation. Gridlock sounds bad but it might just work. It might force us to think more deeply about how the Westminster majoritarian model works. It might open up a different type of leadership- persuasive, humble, and practical. Maybe this election and its aftermath may not be such a thing to dread. Gridlocked politics could be creative politics also. That’s the optimistic view anyhow.

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