December 16, 2019

This was the election that changed everything. Or was it?

I don’t mean to be gratuitously contrarian here — Boris’s big victory will change a lot of things. But in one very fundamental respect, British politics is the same today as it was before 10pm, 12 December 2019.

In every election since 1922, the Conservative and Labour Parties have either come first and second — or second and first. Furthermore, some incarnation of the Liberal Party has always come third in terms of vote share (with the sole exception of 2015, when it was UKIP). So assuming a full parliament this time round, that’ll mean more than a hundred years of the same party system.

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This year did not break the pattern. Nor did other era-defining elections like 1945, 1979 and 1997.

Ever since Labour became a major party, a century ago, many other parties have tried to fight their way into the system. Only one has succeeded in achieving significant representation (i.e. 20 or more MPs) across three or more elections, while maintaining its independence from other parties — and that is the SNP. However, as a Scotland-only party, it can’t challenge for 1st or 2nd place in Westminster (or even 3rd place by number of votes).

So, even when the Conservatives or Labour suffer a devastating defeat, they eventually bounce back, because there’s no one who can replace either party as the main opposition to the other.

Not many other nations can match Britain for the stability of its party system. (Not least because depressingly few countries have been democracies over the whole of the last hundred years.)

But is having the same electoral menu to choose from for so long actually good for us? In many contexts, institutional continuity is wonderful thing; but it can really mess up party politics. Here are three reasons why:

Firstly, ideological inertia. After the First World War, Labour ousted the Liberals as main ‘progressive’ party. In doing so, it served an emergent and necessary purpose — to represent the fully enfranchised working class and to champion an idea whose time had come (i.e. socialism). To put it in very unsocialist terms, there was a gap in the market — and Labour filled it. But are we really saying that this was the last gap that needed to be filled? That there hasn’t been a single one since?

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There have been several points at which the popular appetite for a new force in politics has been demonstrated — for instance, the brief surge in support for the SDP in the 1980s and more recently the growth of the environmental and Eurosceptic movements. However, they’ve never been able to take root in Westminster as independent election-fighting organisations. That’s not just because of our electoral system, but because of our stubborn attachments to the traditional first, second and third parties of British politics.

Ah, but do we really need dedicated parties to represent the rise and fall of important ideas and interests? Can’t this battle take place within the established parties? Indeed, if you look back over the decades, haven’t we’ve seen both the blues and the reds undergo dramatic changes in ideological orientation? Thatcherism in the Conservative Party, for instance. Or Blairism and then Corbynism in Labour. But that brings me to the second downside of our static party system, which is that ideological realignments only happen as accidents of history.

Thatcherism, Blairism, Corbynism: All named after unexpected leaders who happened to be in the right place at the right time — Margaret Thatcher because she alone had the guts to challenge Edward Heath for the Conservative Party leadership after he’d lost his third general election; Tony Blair because of his deal with Gordon Brown — and the tragic loss of John Smith; Jeremy Corbyn because of an ill-considered change to the membership rules and because he just squeaked onto the ballot thanks to well-meaning moderate Labour MPs. In each case, they were surrounded by a small band of supporters who, though pretty unrepresentative of their party, proceeded to seize control of it.

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It’s not that these new ideas shouldn’t have been heard. Take Corbynism, for instance. Following the global financial crisis of 2008 and its gruelling aftermath, it was entirely reasonable that voters had the opportunity to consider alternatives to the neoliberal order. In other countries, radical Left parties emerged like Syriza, Podemos and La France Insoumise. The voters of Greece, Spain and France were able to assess the anti-capitalist case — or to opt for a different kind of radicalism in the form of Europe’s various Green parties.

But in Britain, the radical option was put before the electorate by means of the institutional capture of a party meant to represent the whole of the democratic Left and centre-Left. A lot of people were rendered politically homeless as a result.

For exiled Remainers, the attempt to find a new home with Change UK collapsed in on itself. Meanwhile the obvious solution — to move-in with the Liberal Democrats — also went awry. All the unimpeachable logic of a centrist Remain alliance couldn’t overcome those stubborn attachments to the Labour name (nor the lack of forgiveness for the Lib Dem dalliance with the Tories). Again, this can’t all be blamed on the electoral system. In seats across the south and especially London, a true Remain alliance could have broken through.

What about the Leave alliance in the shape of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party? In this case, there was a breakthrough, which turned the ‘Red Wall’ blue. Isn’t this proof that we don’t need a fluid party system, in which major political parties can easily appear and disappear, to achieve political realignment? An experiment, like the Corbynite Labour Party, was given a chance and then given the heave-ho when found wanting. In other words, if the party system won’t realign, then the voters will do so instead. No matter how long the history, the established parties cannot take their traditional supporters for granted.

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But this reveals the third big problem with our indestructible parties: the only way that voters can dump an established party is to embrace another established party. Not only does this present psychological barriers that delay necessary voter realignments, it also results in strange situations like the fact that much of the ex-industrial North is now represented by a party whose heartland is the Tory shires.

It remains to be seen how well this new partnership develops, but at least the North had a choice, albeit a reluctant one. In much of the South West there’s now effectively no choice at all. It’s a region where Labour never replaced the Liberals as the main opposition to the Tories. That’s for deep historical reasons, but with the rise of Europe as a defining issue, the Europhile Lib Dems became the wrong alternative for one of the most Eurosceptic parts of the country. A look at the electoral map of the South West now reveals one small patch of yellow (Bath) and, in Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth, a few small patches of red. The rest is an endless sea of blue.

How can we fix this? Proportional representation may seem to be the obvious answer, but electoral reform was heavily rejected in the AV referendum — especially by non-metropolitan Britain. Besides, the experience of other countries shows that it opens the door to national populist parties of the hard Right.

The real answer (as is so often the case) is the devolution of power from Westminster to every part of the United Kingdom. Scotland shows that this creates conditions under which challenger parties can grow in response to local needs without having to defer to London-based political establishments. Distinctive political cultures will only flourish in places far from London when they become masters of their own fate.

This, of course, presents Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government with major moral test. Having gained an unexpected degree of power last week, does he have the courage and foresight to give it away?

Will he trust the communities who placed their trust in him?

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