The art of political collaboration

20150408-tracyeminSome time ago I visited the Tate Britain gallery in London with my family. Finding the lift out of order, a gallery assistant kindly offered the use of the staff lift which is not usually available to the public.  She led us through the areas that were setting up for the Turner Prize.  Variously described as “a barometer for the mood of the nation” or “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit” (the latter by the British Culture Minister in 2002) the annual award for British visual artists often draws much criticism for the esoteric and unconventional nature of many entries. (‘My Bed‘, a 1999 entry by Tracy Emin purportedly showing her dishevelled bed within which she contemplated suicide, sold at auction last year for £2.5 million.)

One section we passed through was entirely empty, save for four men in identical blue coveralls advancing across the room side-by-side, sweeping the floor in near-perfect harmony. A flickering strip light lent the scene a post-apocalyptic feel.  I asked the gallery assistant if we were being treated to a private view of one of the Turner Prize entries.  She looked confused, intrigued and a little nervous, before answering no, they were just brushing the floor.  I have named this work of art (the look on her face, not the blokes sweeping the room) ‘Delusion, Confusion’ and, although only witnessed by my eye-rolling wife, am waiting for the call from the prize committee.

The assistant may not have demonstrated the ability to spot emerging British artistic talent. But by not screaming “stop being an arse you utter buffoon!” she did show she possessed the enviable qualities of tolerance, inclusion and patience. I have thought often of her good manners as the British General Election on May 7th approaches.

Any sensible analysis of voting intentions suggests a hung parliament, with no party achieving the 326 seats needed for an outright majority. But it’s not quite that straightforward. 650 seats (hence the 326 figure) with the speaker and three deputy speakers excluded brings the target to 324. However, as Sinn Fein refuse to sit in the House of Commons they are also not counted. In the 2010 election Sinn Fein won five seats.  If that were repeated in May the total for a majority would be reduced to 321. A poll for BBC’s Newsnight programme on April 7th had the state of the parties as this:

The resultant horse-trading will test to the limit the parties’ abilities to demonstrate the same qualities as the gallery assistant when negotiating potential coalitions. Conservative+Lib Dem+UKIP+DUP? Or Labour+SNP+Green+Plaid Cymru? Or a mishmash of something else? Small parties will likely hold the balance of power in the forthcoming election to an unprecedented degree. So how many single-issue solutions will be demanded by the tiny king-makers? How much ‘togetherness’ will actually be displayed? How will the demands for different types of ‘togetherness’ be reconciled?

Different types? Absolutely. Take the recent referendum on Scottish independence. The Scottish National Party (SNP – the leading voice of the failed ‘Yes’ campaign and likely dominant political force in an independent Scotland) wanted to leave the United Kingdom. But it also pledged the new country of Scotland would be an enthusiastic partner in the European Union (EU), a political club committed to “ever closer union”. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are also fans of staying in the EU, and pundits reckon David Cameron thinks likewise.  So on the one hand the SNP want to break away from the United Kingdom and on the other join a supra-national club of which the main parties of the UK are also supportive. It suggests that, unusually, togetherness could be an easier sell at regional rather than local level. Will the minor parties take such a strategic view?

But two recent political accommodations in British history give me cause for optimism that a home-grown ‘rainbow coalition’ could work.  First, the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, which seems to have made a good fist of sticking together, or at least not collapsing in acrimony as was widely predicted. Second, the power-sharing arrangement in place in Northern Ireland between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein since 2007 shows how former bitter enemies can work together when required. And in the recent Sky News/Channel 4 leader interviews, Miliband praised Cameron’s commitment to gay marriage and overseas aid spending and was complimented in return for his support of the Prime Minister’s position over Da’esh.

This acknowledgement that political opponents may, on occasion, hold virtuous views has been lacking in recent political discourse. Of course such laudable qualities, it must be noted, only got an airing when the individuals were asked directly on a nationally-televised interview in an election year. Nevertheless, it is a welcome sight and far removed from the current partisan politics practised in America, where attack adverts and polarisation are very much in vogue, as this article in the New York Times Magazine attests.

The limits of togetherness and quite how alien the political parties are to one another will be tested after May 7th.  The need to identify common ground, display mutual respect and employ political give and take was demanded of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for the current government to work. Finding areas of similarity and agreement can only be a good thing for national politics. In contrast to the tub-thumping of the election trail as the main parties fight to secure a majority, come May 8th respectful pragmatism will be required across the board as the parties get into bed together. And if ever there was a reason for the doubters to vote, the potential power the minor parties are likely to hold after the election is surely it.

Exclusive offer to addingtonWord readers

Delusion, Confusion is still available for the discerning collector.  Obviously, now it is just an abstract concept; a memory of an idea.  Hence the exorbitant asking price. I’m waiting for your call.

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