What happened to the United Kingdom? The answer is “a lot”, and not much of it very good. What can be done to get the SS United Kingdom back on an even keel? Here’s an idea: opposition parties collaborating.
“Hasn’t that already failed?” I hear you ask. “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Persistence is often the difference between success and failure.
Here’s the problem: UK politics has stagnated. Stagnation favours the status quo, and so the UK is saddled with “The Mother of All Parliaments” (though that phrase was originally meant as an insult about lack of progressiveness). An older, ‘first’ thing isn’t necessarily a better thing (otherwise we’d all still be using single-drum top-loader washing machines with a manually operated mangle). Combine this with the fact that First Past the Post (FPTP) voting is how the UK’s electoral system still operates and the problem becomes clearer: the UK elects governments that do not have majority support (or even plurality support, in the case of hung parliaments and coalitions) within the electorate.
But it’s even worse. FPTP may sort-of work with two parties; but it sure doesn’t produce mass electoral representation when there’s more than two – and that’s what we have now. The original two parties were essentially the Conservative Party and the Not-Conservative Party. However, over time, that Not-Conservative Party has fragmented into multiple Not-Conservative parties.
The opposition to the Conservative Party has fragmented – there are several Not-Conservative parties now, including the Official Opposition plus all of its competitors, ‘the other Opposition parties’. Fine – except that we still have a voting system left over from when there were only two parties.
In effect, we now have the Conservative Party plus a fragmented set of opposition parties, which, in part, explains why the UK ends up with near-constant Conservative Party governments, elected by less-than-majorities of the electorate.
Obviously the Conservative Party will be 100% in favour of this situation being ‘conserved’.
The problem is that it conserves itself, because all of those who would like to replace FPTP with some form of Proportional Representation (PR) system can’t get into power to replace FPTP – because (now they’re fragmented) FPTP won’t let them! FPTP: (1) elects mainly Conservative governments; and (2) protects itself against ever being replaced by PR. Or, to put it another way, our self- protecting FPTP electoral system virtually guarantees that it can’t be replaced, and delivers mainly government by one party – the party that doesn’t want it to be replaced. Is it any wonder that the Conservative Party wants to ‘conserve’ that state of affairs?
Can this cycle ever be broken?
Yes, of course, it can – but it will take some planning and thought. Here’s one idea: all of the opposition parties should give up.
I don’t mean literally pack up and go home, obviously. I mean temporarily give up pushing their own ‘brands’ and issues and, instead, focus on one issue: replacing FPTP with PR.
One way that this could be approached would be for all opposition parties to put “replace FPTP with PR” into their manifestos. That wouldn’t work on its own, as votes would still be distributed according to FPTP, so greater collaboration by opposition parties would be required.
At the other end of the collaboration spectrum is the “Mythical PR Party”.
This would involve all opposition parties putting aside their various differences for (at least) one electoral cycle and forming a pact in the form of a ‘supra- party’ which only need to have two agreed manifesto promises/policies:
1. Replace FPTP with PR.
2. Call another election (which would then be held under the newly-installed PR system).
It might be the shortest parliament ever, but it would break the FPTP grip on UK politics.
Problems? Oh, there are always problems.
The first problem would be getting all of the opposition parties to sign up to the arrangement – you know how they have a tendency to bicker!
The second, and possibly greater, problem would be that some might argue for more than two manifesto items: “Oh, it has to be PR, an election and…
- · …the environmental crisis.
- · …austerity.
- · …poverty.
- · …homelessness.
- · …the NHS.
- · …chlorinated chicken.
- · …whatever.
This misses the point entirely. All of those issues are incredibly important, yes; but none of them will properly be addressed until FPTP is replaced by PR – so replacing FPTP with PR has to come first. And it has to be the first step on its own, without confusion and cross-over/interference from any other issues.
The point here is that the Mythical PR Party’s existence would be intended to be short – it only need exist until…FPTP is replaced by PR. In theory all of this could happen in a matter of week or months.
The third problem, however, is perhaps the biggest: parties would have to agree on what format of PR to adopt in order to be able to be clear on that in the Mythical PR Party’s manifesto.
Types of PR system and their specific pros- and cons- is quite a large subject in itself and too large for appropriate treatment in an article like this, but fortunately, there’s plenty of information already available. A great source for further reading is the Electoral Reform Society’s website, here:
Q: But we had a referendum on PR already and it was rejected!
A: One form of PR was offered, maybe not the best, in peoples’ opinion. Also, as we saw in 2016, referendums are probably not the best way to resolve deeply complex issues, and referendums can easily be swayed by negative (un- progressive) forces and vested interests.
If opposition parties are serious about wanting to resolve issues that are important to them (rather than to continue, by default, to accidentally promote the ideas of the Conservative Party, by losing to them) then they really have no credible option but to support PR; and that means doing whatever’s necessary to install a form of PR to replace FPTP.
Until opposition parties get behind this they’ll continue to be out of power, largely in parliaments where their votes can be ignored.
As is often said, it’s better to have a slice of the pie rather than to keep on trying to have all of the pie – but ending up with none of the pie. How many times do opposition parties hope that “finally, our day will come!” – and then find that they’re still irrelevant opposition parties – before realising that something bigger has to change before their important issues will ever be addressed?
The Mythical PR Party may seem like a ridiculous fantasy to many; but when compared with all of the ridiculous fantasies that have actually happened in UK politics recently it actually isn’t so fantastical at all.