Democracy and Political Compromise

On Thursday 10th May, Richard Bellamy, Director of the European Institute at University College London, gave a lecture entitled “Democracy, Compromise and the Representation Paradox” at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance.

Richard Bellamy’s lecture dealt with the very real and relevant topic of compromise in coalition governments. Indeed, Professor Bellamy began by offering a reminder that, whilst coalition governments are the norm in Germany and other parts of Europe, the UK’s current Conservative-Liberal Democrat government quite rightly forced academics like himself to re-examine the moral consequences of such coalitions.

His talk, Mr. Bellamy announced, would concern questions such as whether, “compromises in politics are moral,” and whether, in fact, they are, “even democratic.” Many, he said, believe that the very need for compromise exposes a moral vacuum, for it shows a willingness to forgo principles in favour of securing popularity and power.

Professor Bellamy then offered a topography of compromise. A “shallow compromise,” he said, was the kind of agreement reached between a bartering customer and shop owner in which a hat that the former believes to be worth £10 and the latter believes to be worth £20 is finally sold at £15. This kind of shallow compromise in politics, it was suggested, alienates voters: if parties are just to agree on the easy middle road, the voters will feel as if their individual preferences have not been recognised.

Professor Bellamy went on to argue, however, that compromise can be both moral and democratic—so long as that compromise is a “deep compromise”. Democracy, he claimed, “involves the realisation that everyone has different views.”

The most ethical way to deal with this, he said, is not to polarise opinions in order to establish a strong majority—as both the presidential election system and the UK’s ‘first-past-the-post’ election system do—but rather to make “deep compromises.” For indeed fairness in a pluralistic society entails compromise.

In practice, Bellamy said, this could best be achieved if political parties, rather than running election campaigns based on ‘policy pledges’ that often end up being shallowly-compromised, were to run elections with a pledge of “thinking as their voters do”, even when compromises must later be made.

This, of course, sounded very appealing. Guest commentator Christopher Gohl, however, thought it unrealistic. As head of the German Free Democrat Party‘s political planning unit, he was able to give a more practical insight into compromise in politics, pointing out that elections are games of competition in which parties have to sell themselves.

For this reason, as in business, parties have no incentive to unite or associate in pledges to deeply compromise. Rather, they have to establish for themselves a position in the market based on concrete policy points. Smaller parties, then, are even keener to sell themselves on particular issues—hence the rise of ‘single-issue parties’ such as the Greens—for fear of otherwise getting lost in the political background.

Mr. Bellamy replied that this approach to politics simply was not working. He claimed that current voting trends revealed that voters are, “turned-off” by the empty, “policy-package promises” of governments who are later seen to, “shallowly compromise” the preferences of their supporters.

In the future, he argued, parties should sell themselves on their values, and the promise that—even when compromise is the only option—they will think as their supporters do, rather than succumbing to an easy mid-way compromise or surrendering policy promises.

The most practical promise that parties can make, Bellamy believes, in a time in which compromise is not only practical but democratic, is that, “Liberal Democrats will reason like Liberal Democrats and Conservatives will reason like Conservatives.” This is the only way, he claimed, that voters will still feel represented.

Professor Bellamy’s lecture was an interesting look at the moral implications of political compromise, and appeared to be in line with Hertie’s aim of focusing on the “ethical and moral basis of leadership, public trust and social responsibility”. With this lecture and the school’s broader values in mind, it seems that Hertie’s future events are worth looking out for.

by Zac Barnett (1st Year BA, UK)

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