Why political realignment will fail — and what it says about the UK’s voting system
While MPs were voting on amendments to the Government’s trade bill as it passed through Parliament last week, Sir Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, was attending a dinner where he was discussing the prospect of a new pro-European centrist party. With both parties in the current duopoly in UK politics split hugely, one wonders whether realignment of parties is necessary to ensure the stability of governments and the choice that the electorate wishes to have. While the prospect of a party consisting entirely of sane, moderate politicians is an enticing one, there are plenty of issues with the process, and it could potentially cause a shift to the extremes in the Conservative and Labour parties, with poisonous far left and far right politics the consequence of any such shift.
The potential shift of the Conservatives and Labour to the extremes is by far the most daunting of all the consequences of a new centre ground party. In 1981, the so-called “Gang of Four” split from the Labour Party to form the moderate Social Democratic Party, which later merged with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems. However, the First Past the Post electoral system in the UK ensures that smaller parties struggle to break through and achieve any sort of success, and as such, the only consequence of this break-away was that Labour shifted further left due to the exodus of moderates such as the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Roy Jenkins. This could be the case once more, unless almost all moderate MPs choose to abandon their parties to form a broad coalition party, a prospect which seems highly unlikely.
To illustrate this, take the examples of Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke, and Keir Starmer. These three have two things in common. Firstly, they are all pro-EU moderates. Secondly, they have all ruled out leaving their respective political parties to join a centre-ground party, largely due to fears of the Conservatives and Labour becoming more extreme. It seems that, at least for now, the general feeling among moderates is that we must stop British politics becoming more extreme and irrational, and that the job is one of damage limitation, as opposed to setting up a centrist movement.
Another stumbling block for any potential centre ground party attempting to snatch power from the Tories and Labour is that they would have to do a lot of work to get the public on their side. It is very likely that the party would take a pro-EU stance, and would either wish to reverse the 2016 referendum result or maintain very close ties with Europe (this may also put off Eurosceptic centre-ground politicians such as Michael Gove from offering their support to the party). As the 37% of the public voted Leave in 2016 (with 52% of those who turned out), more than half of the votes (as a minimum) in a general election would likely go against the party to Labour and the Conservatives, both of whom by this point would likely be dominated by Eurosceptics.
Even if a centrist, anti-Brexit party was able to get good levels of support from both MPs and the public alike, there would still be some huge issues for the party. Firstly, the UK voting system isn’t proportional, and as such, the party could still be defeated in a general election due to the First Past the Post local representation system. However, even after any such party has won an election and formed a government, the broad range of opinion within the party would cause divisions and splits over policy, which could lead to that party’s demise in 30 or 40 years time. At first, there would likely be a sense of unity in striving for the common goal of close ties to Europe and sensible policy-making, but soon enough the political divergence between the centre-right and the centre-left would be exposed, potentially creating yet another divided party and another divided government.
This should be reason enough to believe that British politics is broken. The electoral system is fundamentally flawed, as it: creates duopolies (and, occasionally, monopolies); stops smaller fringe parties from achieving success; creates parties of a wide range of opinion that are very divided. We can only hope that any successful centre-ground party would legislate for reform in the political system so that we could finally move to a German-style system. In Germany, the voter has two votes to cast: one for a direct representative of their constituency, and the more important one for a party to lead the country. Parties have lists of members who will occupy seats, and are given a number of seats proportional to the percentage of the popular vote that they received, and the parties go down the lists until they have filled all of their seats. This means that it is relatively difficult to win a majority, but also ensures that parties are united and all of very similar opinions. Therefore, the system is far less volatile and leaders aren’t constantly fighting their own parties, instead of working to make policy.
Realignment will never provide a permanent fix to the issue in the UK, and neither will Sir Vince Cable. The Lib Dems want him out, the Conservatives want him out, and Labour want him out. So while he has his sights fixed on leading a new political revolution, perhaps tune in to some saner and more realistic voices, and block out empty promises from a man who doesn’t even bother to turn up to crucial votes that decide the fate of our country.