UK Parliament/parliamentary copyright.
These last few weeks will go down in history as one of the most momentous and significant periods in British politics in a very long time. Brexit tensions within our two main parties are finally coming to a head. Arch-Eurosceptic Corbyn now looks likelier than ever to take up the ultra-Remain position of backing a public vote via the Kyle-Wilson amendment in order to stave off a crushing party split led by furious Europhiles.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum Nigel Farage – ex-communicated from the increasingly deranged UKIP – is threatening to poach disenfranchised frustrated Conservatives to his new Brexit Party, the first party to dedicate itself first and foremost to a clean break with the EU.
The problem inevitably faced by these two new groups – the Brexit Party and the Independent Group – is that under First Past the Post (FPTP) the two-party system is so tightly ingrained that they will struggle to become anything more than parliamentary lobby groups. The last Prime Minister not to be elected as either Labour or Conservative was David Lloyd George, over a century ago. In order to upend the electoral structure under which the Commons has worked for so long, and thereby have a tangible effect on the direction of British politics, the new groups will have to affect real change to the constitution.
Insurgencies from outside the two main parties have, of course, been attempted before. Following its resounding victory in the European Parliament elections of 2014, UKIP believed that it would be a force to be reckoned with in the general election the following year. Coming from practically nothing, it was extremely successful in winning thirteen per cent of the vote. However, thanks to the way Westminster works, that translated into just one seat in the Commons; fewer, even, than Plaid Cymru, who obtained just half a per cent of the vote.
As any political scientist will tell you, Westminster is the textbook example of the kind of majoritarian electoral system that is supposed to promote stability over representation. Systems of Proportional Representation (PR) on the other hand, favoured by many of our continental neighbours, may well produce chambers that more accurately reflect the views of their electorates, but they consistently necessitate complex, frustrating and often ultimately unproductive coalition deals in order to form any semblance of a viable government.
In Sweden, for example, the general election in September of last year returned a hung parliament, as is not unusual. As a result, it took over four months for the main parties to come to an agreement and form a government. Italy has spent a staggering proportion of the last half-century led by unelected Prime Ministers. Even Angela “Mutti” Merkel has been strugglingto hold together her incredibly tenuous three-party coalition.
The primary function of FPTP is to prevent this kind of thing from happening, but it is coming apart at the seams. Two of the last three general elections in this country have returned a hung parliament, resulting in smaller parties – the Liberal Democrats and the DUP – essentially becoming kingmakers, wielding extraordinarily disproportionate influence over the larger parties as they attempt to form a government.
There thus appears to be a clear case to consider the possibility that the introduction of PR in Britain might be beneficial for our democracy. If the government is going to be wobbly and unstable notwithstanding, it might as well be representative. The youthful vitality of Chuka’s centrists and Nigel’s Brexiteers might just be enough to steer this issue into the limelight of our political discourse.
The Independent Group’s flimsy existence is rooted in the legitimacy its members gain from having been elected as Labour or Conservative MPs. They are understandably desperate to resist calls to hold by-elections in their constituencies, because they will have to compete against representatives of their old parties. Moreover, when the next general election rears its petrifying head, simply gaining a large share of the overall vote will not be enough under FPTP (as UKIP demonstrated in 2015, when under a PR system, they would have won 83 seats, rather than just one).
The Brexit Party starts off from a similarly weak position. Nigel Farage has managed to attract just eight MEPs to the new party so far, and their MP count, of course, remains at zilch. What’s more, in the next general election, they will have to oppose both Conservative Brexiteers – many of whom (Rees-Mogg, Johnson, and so on) boast significant public profiles – as well as UKIP. Getting the party off the ground will be an uphill struggle.
The last time Britain had a national conversation about its electoral system was all the way back in 2011, which now feels like several political lifetimes ago. Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats led calls for the introduction of AV (Alternative Vote) which, while distinct from FPTP, would still have been a majoritarian system, rather than PR. In other words, the change it would have brought about would still have been much less radical than the change that is now required for the frustrated Remoaners and the Definitely Not UKIP Brexiteers to evolve into serious, competitive parties.
Crucially, every small party in the Commons – perhaps excluding the SNP – stands to gain a great deal from the overhauling of FPTP in favour of PR. The current system is designed in such a way that it unequivocally favours the incumbent two largest parties – the government and the opposition – leaving little or no chance for anyone else to get a look-in. It is therefore surely only a matter of time before the smaller parties – especially the younger, keener ones – coalesce around a universally beneficial demand for a more proportionally representative electoral system.
There might even a potential incentive for the large parties to back such a move, even though it would seem detrimental to them in the short term. Since the triggering of Article 50 nearly two years ago, even the softest of Brexiteers have been arguing that it is vital the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019. Nonetheless, last week, the House of Commons voted to delay Brexit.
The inevitable consequence of that is that already prevalent accusations of treason and the abandonment of democracy will be bandied about with a renewed vigour, as the government is accused of ignoring the will of the British people. Overhauling our entire electoral system and replacing it with one that is markedly more representative and arguably more democratic might just prove the saving grace for parliamentary moderates by offsetting concerns about a temporary neglection of democracy on Brexit.