UK politics mimics Europe rather than the US

It may seem an absurd question to ask ourselves as the Brexit agony drags on. But is the UK’s political landscape changing to more closely resemble European countries?

The three great economic blocs of the 21st century — China, the US and the EU — have, respectively one, two and multiple party-political systems.

The UK is usually seen as being closer to the US model, with the Republican-Democrat contest mirrored in the competition between the Conservative and Labour parties. The head-to-head television debate last week pitting Boris Johnson, the prime minister, against his rival Jeremy Corbyn has reinforced this impression.

But ironically, as the UK gears up to leave the EU, our politics has been rapidly splintering to resemble the multi-party systems of other member states. The biggest obstacle to this trend is usually seen as our first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP).

“Remember what happened in 1983?” I’ve lost count of the number of times the failed breakthrough of the Social Democrat-Liberal alliance in the 1983 general election has been used as evidence that the UKs first-past-the-post elections means no third party can ever break the Conservative-Labour duopoly.

And 1983 does indeed show how hard it is. The newly formed Social Democratic party, running in alliance with the Liberals, together won 25.4 per cent of the vote. This was only 2.2 per cent behind the Labour party, but Labour won 209 MPs while the Alliance managed to secure only 23 seats in the House of Commons. See, it can’t be done?

Except it can, and even with FPTP.

In the last election before the first world war, in 1910 on a cold December night, the Liberals won 275 seats while the fledgling Labour party managed just 42. Scroll forward 12 years to 1922, though, and Labour won 142 seats, while the then-divided Liberals only won 116. A couple of years later and in 1922 the parties had almost completely reversed positions, with the Liberals winning only 40 MPs to Labour’s 151.

The mighty Liberal party, which had dominated much of the previous century, had been eclipsed in a couple of decades by the Labour party. A century later and they still haven’t ever fully recovered.

Look further afield and there are more striking examples demonstrating that, even with FPTP, dramatic changes can happen — and even more quickly. Take the federal elections in Canada: these have seen four electoral earthquakes involving party realignments in just over three decades.

The latest was in 2015 when the Canadian Liberals under Justin Trudeau bounced back: from 34 they jumped to a majority with 184 MPs.

What this shows is that political upheavals can happen even under FPTP. But Canadian federal politics is clearly much less stable than UK national politics has been — at least until now.

FPTP is a dying system — among OECD countries only Canada, the UK and US still use it. Most other advanced democracies either never used it or abandoned it long ago. But the UK has certainly tended towards a relatively stable duopoly — the Tories and Liberals in the 19th century, Conservative and Labour for most of the 20th. But nothing lasts forever.

Since its high-point in 1951, when Labour and the Tories won over 96 per cent of the votes and 616 of the available 625 seats between them, the two-party stranglehold has been in almost continuous decline.

The 2017 result, when they managed 82.4 per cent of the vote, was a bit of a fluke. Current polls put them on only 66 per cent between them, meaning a third of UK voters are favouring other parties. This is much more in line with historic trends.

Elections in our European neighbours — run mostly under various forms of proportional representation — are very much multi-party affairs. This is something that is slowly, painfully, emerging in UK politics too.

The results of such European elections have mostly been coalitions — at least in the fully parliamentary democracies (semi-presidential systems like France are different).

The argument deployed by defenders of both FPTP and the system of two so-called “broad tent” parties in the UK usually points to European coalitions as proof that the UK has a better, more stable system delivering clear majority rule by one party.

But even this is not true any more. Since 2010, there has only been one short period of a majority government — from 2015 to 2017. And the two main parties are rapidly ceasing to be broad tent coalitions. Each has become narrower, driving out moderates and replacing them with more ideologically inclined members and MPs. Whatever the result in the current general election, the two main parties in the House of Commons will be more polarised than ever. Other parties seem set to grow in the vacated space between them.

The lessons of 1983 in the UK (and recent decades in Canada) is that while FPTP is a straitjacket, it is one that can be escaped when the votes for a smaller party push it over a tipping point. It might not happen in 2019, but at some point something has to give. It has already happened in Scotland where the Scottish Nationalists have taken over from Labour as the dominant party.

The writer is professor of government (emeritus) at the University of Manchester, a research associate at the University of Cambridge and a board member of Radix, a think-tank


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