This is a guest post from Dylan Difford who has recently completed an MA in Politics at the University of Essex, focussing on party and voting systems in Britain and Europe.
This week, people across Scandinavia celebrate the festival of midsummer (hopefully not in the same way as in the recent film of the same name). Though festivals around the summer solstice occur in many countries, it is a particularly important part of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish culture. As an electoral parallel, we thought we’d look at a unique aspect of Sweden, Norway and Denmark’s political cultures – the two-bloc system – and ask whether it really is able to combine the direct accountability of a two-party system with the pluralism of a multi-party system.
The origins of the bloc system stem from the long-time dominance of the social democrats in Scandinavian politics. From the 1920s until the 1990s, such parties were consistently the largest in all three parliaments and were typically capable of governing by themselves. For the political right to deprive them of power, all the centre-right parties had to govern together – though such governments often broke down due to differences between the parties. But declining levels of support for the social democrats in the last few decades has meant they have had to form coalitions or seek formal support agreements with other left-of-centre parties to govern effectively. At the same time, the Scandinavian centre-right parties have become much better at inter-party cooperation.
Today, Scandinavian parties are divided between a centre-left ‘red’ bloc – typically containing social democrats, socialists and greens – and a centre-right ‘blue’ bloc – containing various flavours of liberalism and conservatism.
Socialist People’s Party
Danish People’s Party
Conservative People’s Party
The New Right
Socialist Left Party
Christian Democratic Party
|Social Democratic Party
While blocs have occasionally been formalised, such as with the ‘Alliance for Sweden’ between 2004 and 2019, the bloc system ultimately exists in the realm of semi-official, unwritten rules. The parties are all fully independent and, though often producing joint manifestos in addition to their own, do disagree on certain issues. Nonetheless, the blocs effectively form two alternative governments, with the bloc system being strong enough that minority governments are the most common governing arrangement in all three Scandinavian countries – typically one or two parties form the cabinet, with the rest of the bloc supporting from outside as part of a more flexible agreement.
Other bloc systems do exist, but what differentiates the Scandinavian systems is their semi-permanence. Whereas blocs in other countries tend to be fairly fluid and rarely last more than a few electoral cycles, Scandinavian parties crossing from one bloc to another is a rarity, often with decades between changes. The most recent shift being the Swedish Centre and Liberal parties supporting a Social Democrat-led government after voting against a blue bloc government reliant on support from the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats. Whether this will lead to permanent change is yet to be seen.
The main advantage of the two-bloc system is how it transparentises and democratises government formation. Essentially, voters have the possible governments on the ballot paper. They know that if the majority of voters vote for red bloc parties there will be a left-of-centre government and if the majority of voters vote for blue bloc parties there will be a right-of-centre government. There are no surprise coalitions created by months of negotiations because the parties have effectively pre-negotiated. This not only allows for governments to be formed within days of an election, but also increases the accountability of the governments. If voters reject a red bloc government, they know that a blue bloc government will be formed without any of the component parts of the previous governments – they are able to ‘throw the rascals out’.
This contrasts with ‘consensual’ model countries such as Germany, the Netherlands or Austria. There the central impetus of coalition formation is to form a majority with the fewest parties possible and preferably only including those from the centre-left to the centre-right. This can lead to lengthy post-election negotiations between various combinations of parties, some of which may contradict assumptions made by voters on polling day. There is sometimes no knowing which parties will pair off – one only has to look at German state governments to see that virtually no combination of CDU, SPD, FDP or Green has been untried. By no means are all such coalitions a surprise, but when they are it can lead to voters feeling short-changed or even betrayed. Under a two-bloc system, parties are more upfront about which coalitions are likely, giving voters more control over the ultimate outcome of an election.
But it isn’t just ‘consensual’ multi-party systems that the two-bloc system compares favourably to. Under a two-party system, many of the different parties that exist under a two-bloc system would be squashed as factions into two big parties. Which of these factions has control of the party is then decided internally, often with unrepresentative party members having significant sway. This can create situations where a wing unpopular with the public is in charge of the party. But because of the logic of two-party systems, voters don’t really have anywhere to go and so are forced to choose between two options they don’t like.
A two-bloc system, however, hands this control to the voters – who can decide for themselves the relative strengths of each party within each bloc. If, for instance, blue bloc voters felt that the bloc was too socially conservative, they could switch to supporting a liberal party and increase its influence within the bloc. Ultimately, the two-bloc system is effectively a transparent, pluralistic and more responsive two-party system.
Two-bloc systems are that rare thing – a genuine best of both worlds. They combine the clear alternative choice in governments of a two-party system with the pluralism and party choice of a multi-party system. If Britain adopts PR, some form of multi-party system is likely to emerge. While it isn’t possible to exactly shepherd what this system would look like, the parties arranging themselves into two blocs would be the optimum arrangement. This would hand voters both a choice between two alternative governments and a genuine choice between parties.