One of the accepted laws of political science is that first past the post electoral systems lead inevitably to two party systems. If either the progressive or conservative ends of the political spectrum present the electorate with multiple choices, then votes are split between them, allowing the other end of the spectrum to romp to victory. Creating ‘broad church’ parties that encompass different shades of progressive or conservative opinion, but which give voters only a single option, is the rational and common response to this situation.
In such a two party system, voters with out-and-out progressive or conservative views can be, and often are, taken for granted. The battleground is then for those voters with mixed or undecided views; and parties’ political platforms may be formed to appeal to those voters, at the expense of orthodox progressive or conservative policies.
All of these accepted norms of political life now, though, look in doubt in England today. There were two non-progressive parties (Conservatives and UKIP) each picking up millions of votes in 2015, and yet the Conservative Party was able to form a majority government. Since then, the Labour Party has been formulating policies that represent the traditional views of the most hard-core Labour (or even to the left of Labour) supporter; with little or no concern as to how attractive such policies would be to other sections of the electorate. Why have these shifts in behaviour and outcome occurred? Contributory factors would appear to be:
- A loss of willingness on the part of core supporters to see their dearest held convictions being ignored for electoral reasons. Thus the creation of UKIP and the capture of the Labour Party by the far left.
- A more fragmented electorate with concerns that transcend normal right/left divisions e.g. that combine a dislike of immigration with resentment of the rich.
- The growing importance of personality rather than party in politics, causing considerable fluctuations in voting depending upon the relative attractiveness of party leaders.
- The rise of Scottish nationalism and an antipathy on the part of English voters to allowing Scottish nationalists to have any say in the government of England.
- The loss of trust in the political establishment arising from a deep and lengthy recession that originated in the financial sphere.
In this changed environment, the ability to form (or even the benefit of forming) the coalitions of differing interests and views that were the Labour and Conservative parties of old may have been fatally undermined. The Conservatives are managing to hang together for the time being, but could yet fall aoart due to disagreements over the nature of Brexit. While the Labour Party faces either a split or the total defeat of one wing of the party.
Pursuing progressive politics therefore requires a different approach. Compromising progressive views to form a party with those of a more orthodox, socialistic left-wing persuasion no longer looks feasible nor desirable. Creating a competitor for progressive votes to a left-wing Labour Party is not, though, necessarily a recipe for electoral defeat. The fragmentation of the electorate and the other developments listed above create a situation in which a social-democratic, progressive party (particularly one encompassing the Liberal Democrats) can realistically hope to gain power or to hold the balance of the power. Better that than being tied to a probably unelectable Labour Party espousing policies that are largely irrelevant, or downright harmful, to the interests of the English nation.
Another accepted wisdom of first past the post systems is that they bring stability and certainty to government, compared to the shifting coalitions and dodgy dealing engendered by proportional representation. The history of Britain since 2010 makes this argument difficult to sustain. Instead, it is PR that could restore some semblance of order in our political life, by allowing the different sections of the electorate to be represented properly within the House of Commons and so return the centre of gravity of democracy to Parliament and away from referenda and Momentum.