The kaleidoscope of British politics is in a state of flux post-Brexit. By dividing Britain between pro and anti-globalisation forces, the EU referendum revealed old political dividing lines to be redundant. This should be viewed against the trend of a growing diversity in Britons’ political preferences. Taken in conjunction with each other, these two developments point to the need for a realignment of Britain’s party system.
The system we have in place at the moment has, to draw upon the parlance of social science, been ‘frozen’ for decades. Its main characteristics are dual-partyism, and first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral rules. Between 1945-2010, the Conservatives spent 35 years in power to Labour’s 30. Even in 2015, the general election in which we were allegedly going to see the smashing of this system, the two parties’ combined vote-share was 67%. However, that is not to say political preferences haven’t diversified: they have. Given that in 1970 some 89% of Britons voted either Conservative or Labour, it is evident an increasing proportion of the population are identifying with smaller parties. Politics is therefore operating in the same structural parameters our grandparents would have known, but the range of British political thought has deepened.
How, then, do we translate the trend outlined above into a new, more representative party system? The answer is via proportional representation (PR). Britain’s current FPTP electoral rules effectively discount some votes, since only one candidate can win. So despite 75% of Alasdair McDonnell’s South Belfast constituents voting against him, the nature of FPTP meant that he was re-elected as an MP because he won 900 votes more than his rival. Such outcomes have a psychological effect as well, leading people to tactically vote – thanks in part to the perception that there are only two parties in a seat who realistically stand a chance of winning. PR, in contrast, is far less problematic. By ensuring each party’s legislative representation is directly proportional to votes received, the psychological barrier to citizens voting for a broader range of parties is consequently removed.
Indeed, it is very difficult to see how the status quo of FPTP dual-partyism can feasibly be maintained in light of the fissures within the main two parties that the aftermath of Brexit has thrown into sharp relief. The governing Conservatives are split between shire Tories and their more Europhile, socially liberal urban ‘Cameroon’ counterparts.
As for Labour, the internal warfare that erupted over Jeremy Corbyn’s lacklustre referendum campaign belies bigger, more existential divisions in a party now formed of three distinct groups. On the one side, there are the hard left Corbynistas; on the other, centrist moderates such as Ben Bradshaw and Chukka Umunna. In the middle, the pragmatic soft left. At the heart of these divisions is debate over what it means to be ‘left’ and ‘right’. Yet such discourse ignores two things: firstly, that voters think less in these terms than do politicians; secondly, that the political groupings formed early during the twentieth century cannot hold for much longer. Again though, it is worth emphasising that until we have PR, moves towards realignment will remain tentative.
The problem is finding politicians to be brave and speak out for this; too many, it seems, would prefer to muddle on with the present status quo. But if anything is to be taken from Brexit, it is that clinging to twentieth-century assumptions regarding politics is dangerous. Leave could never win because people never vote against their own economic self-interest – so said the political commentators. Similarly, if politicians do not appreciate that the need for a more representative political system has become more pronounced than ever, the effect upon Britons’ respect for politics – already shaky, could well be devastating.