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Could Brexit fix our broken politics?

Credit: Lukas Schulze/Getty

January 18, 2019   4 mins

Both Labour and the Conservatives are extended conurbations decades past their usefulness. They are fat, bloated and unwieldy. They encompass too broad a bandwidth of political opinion. And it is high time this ancient duopoly was broken up. If Brexit manages to achieve this on its own – and it very well may – that will be another cheer in its favour.

But even the forces of creative destruction unleashed by Brexit may not be enough to overcome the strict logic of Durverger’s law. This states that electoral systems like ours – in which voters have a single vote, cast for a single candidate, in a district where only one legislative seat is available – inevitably favour the overwhelming dominance of two parties. There are, within this set-up, no prizes for coming second. We’re left with the two fatbergs of the Labour and Conservative parties clogging up the Parliamentary plumbing. The only solvent that could possibly dissolve these bloated beasts is a form of Proportional Representation (PR).

I have never had much time for PR. The logic of FPTP works best with small constituencies, and PR – depending upon which version, of course – requires much larger ones. I like small constituencies because they preserve the romantic idea I have of an intimate link between a member of Parliament and the people who vote for them.

An MP should be responsive to the ordinary people who employ them, their constituents, and the idea of a MP tootling around their constituency, drinking in the pub, being seen on the bus etc – a bit like a vicar in his or her parish – preserves the directness of the connection between people and power. Indeed, one of the major reasons I am an enthusiastic Brexiter is because I hold that, as Tony Benn rightly insisted, constituents are an MP’s employers, and it is not for MPs to give away powers that have been lent to them at an election.

Power must be returned to the people undiluted when a new election is called. The gap between people and power must be as small as is practicable; power must not be ceded to some geographically distant body, like Brussels.

But I’m changing my mind about PR. As Brexit is showing, the two party system, as maintained by first past the post, is unable to capture the complexity of our political situation. The Conservative party is at least two parties – a pro-business, free market one and a one nation party that seeks to preserve traditional forms of community life. These parties face in very different directions not least because capitalism – the core ideology of the pro-business wing – is the greatest change agent the world has ever known. And thus frequently at odds with conserving traditional forms of life. I explored this tension in my UnHerd Confessions podcast with Roger Scruton.

The Labour party is similarly divided, between (broadly) a socialist/communitarian wing and a liberal wing that prioritises individual freedom, identity politics, human rights etc. Listen to my Confessions episode with Maurice Glasman, to hear him speaking out of that first tradition, in tension with the second.

The breadth of the bandwidth of opinion that the two major parties have to cover is such that the party leaders are forced to appeal to hugely different, even contradictory, views. How does Jeremy Corbyn speak to the Remain voters of north London and the Leave voters of Sunderland at the same time? Answer: he is forced to engage in what Henry Kissenger dubbed as “constructive ambiguity”, speaking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. If this is not exactly lying, then it is certainly a long way from being frank with voters.

Similarly, with Teresa May. She is forced to appeal, at the same time, to the Little Englander ‘family, faith and flag’ instincts of the Edward Leigh wing of the party and also the free trade, big business, GDP priority sympathies of someone like George Osborne. She hasn’t the luxury of constructive ambiguity, because she has to acheive practical results. And when she makes a turn, this way or that, one side screams betrayal.

And the first past the post system squeezes all these considerable differences into two uneasy coalitions. We are a four-party system – broadly, left and right liberals and left and right communitarians – cohabiting as a two-party system because they cannot afford to do otherwise.

Brexit, meanwhile, is making everything worse. Cameron’s referendum failed to heal the running divisions within the Tory party over Europe. The Labour party is split too, with a leadership that is way more Eurosceptic than its membership and young Momentum activists trying their best to unseat those traditional Labour stalwarts like Frank Field who don’t pass their narrow ideological tests. Because of these aggressive tensions, party management has to be put before the country.

The benefit of a Parliament of smaller parties would be that the differences that exist within society could be played out publicly, within the chamber, rather than privately, behind closed doors – as exercises in party management. There would be no need to for party whips to be so nervous of internal division if parties were smaller and more homogeneous. All politics requires coalitions, of course. Within the present system coalitions exist within parties, under PR they would be between parties.

PR could also revivify a political set up that has lost many of us. The great thing about the Brexit referendum was that every vote mattered. That’s partly why the turnout was so high. But if there were a general election tomorrow, I do not know who I would vote for. I instinctively vote Labour, and would want to do so again. But the Labour MP here is a staunch Remainer and supporter of a second referendum. And I would never do anything to enable that. So, I have no one to vote for. And there are millions like me, stuck in a constituency where their vote will never make a difference.

The two big parties have a death grip on British politics. And they prefer to act out of their own interest rather than that of the nation as a whole. The traditional wisdom on first past the post is that it delivers stability. But Brexit has revealed that this is no longer the case.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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