Sunday, July 24, 2016

Political fragmentation - interesting times ahead for FPTP?

Even as little as ten years ago, the UK's (mainly) two-and-a-half party system seemed surprisingly stable. 

Taking the 2005 General Election as a baseline, you get:

Labour - 355
Conserative - 198
Liberal Democrat - 62
Democratic Unionists (DUP) - 9
Scottish Nationalists (SNP) - 6
Sinn Fein - 5
Plaid Cymru - 3
Ulster Unionists (UUP) - 3
Health Concern - 1
Respect - 1
Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP) - 1
Independent - 1 
Speaker - 1

Moving onto 2010 - again, the two-and-a-half pattern remains unchanged, as does broadly their total number of seats.

Conservative - 306
Labour -  258
Liberal Democrat - 57
DUP - 8
SNP - 6
Sinn Fein - 5
Plaid Cymru - 3
Alliance - 1
Green - 1
Independent - 1
Speaker - 1

If you take into account that four of the other parties plus the independent are all from Northern Ireland, the dominance of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the remainder of the UK (at 98% of all available seats) is even more pronounced 

But now for the first of our gamechangers - the 2015 election:

Conservative - 330
Labour -  232
SNP - 56
Liberal Democrat - 8
DUP - 8
Sinn Fein - 4
Plaid Cymru - 3
UUP - 2
Green - 1
UKIP - 1 
Independent - 1
Speaker - 1 

We all know what's happened here - the electoral collapse of the Lib Dems in the wake of their coalition experience in parallel with the Westminster breakthrough of the Scottish Nationalists following the independence referendum (which might have been a narrow defeat in the short term but so discredited the other parties north of the border as to in retrospect appear a triumph for the SNP)

But is this not just a straight swap in a stable system? Exit Clegg, enter Sturgeon? 

Possibly, but there are also other factors at work which may lead to further change, party fragmentation and political imbalance:

  • The resumption of the review of parliamentary constituencies will probably not only reduce the overall number of seats but reduce the number of safe seats for Labour in England, with the Conservative party being the prime beneficiaries.
  • Rumours of a breakway party from Labour continue - although any movement is likely to happen after the current leadership election.
  • UKIP have continued to poll solidly in the teens in the last few months, although it remains to be seen how that would translate into gains in Parliament. To date, their wins have generally come at local level or in elections with an element of proportional representation, like this year's Welsh Assembly elections.
  • With a power base in Holyrood as well as Westminster and now a strong pro-EU mandate to differentiate themselves from the rest of the country, the SNP show no signs of returning to the margins any time soon.
  • Plaid Cymru performed well at the Welsh Assembly elections this year with 20% of the vote.With an eye on the Scottish experience, they would be well placed to capitalise in key seats should Labour's internal problems continue.

And of course more generally no-one yet knows what impact Brexit will have on the country's political culture, the relative strength of any of the parties and the possible emergence of other groupings as a form of protest or otherwise.

There's nothing wrong with more political diversity, of course, and I can think of several European polities that have made cooperation and collaboration work really well over a long period of time. However, none of them use our first past the post voting (FPTP) system, preferring ones with at least a little proportionality.

For FPTP to work effectively, it requires one of two things - preferably both. It should have
a limited number of dominant political actors (that's parties to you and me, guv), all with a reasonable expectation of either winning a majority and forming a government. The system has to hold out the prospect of a swing great enough that office is realistically attainable - one dominant party is not enough.

Ideally, parties should also be ready to work together, both in the event that a majority cannot be achieved (that's coalitions or looser arrangements like the wonderfully named 'confidence and supply') as well as on an ad hoc basis where consensus can be found, to mitigate the inherently adversarial nature of FPTP.

For at least the last 30-40 years, I would argue UK has been in the interesting situation of having the former (competition) but not enough of the latter (collaboration) and has managed to get away with it, albeit at some cost to its political culture

However, future fragmentation and political imbalance would I believe threaten the stability of that first pillar and thus the electoral system as a whole, if not taken seriously.

All of this doesn't amount in itself to an argument for changing how we elect our MPs, although it certainly could be used to suggest that. It isn't even an argument against splitting the Labour Party - as an outsider that's a conversation I'm certainly not blundering my way into.

What it does at the very least point to is the likelihood that FPTP and our political culture - our way of doing political business, if you like - will have to work harder to provide good government in the future if we're to carry on in this vein

Perhaps much harder.

*While devolved and local governments have often had co-operation baked in to their electoral systems or at least had it thrust upon them, the Coalition Government of 2010-2015 arguably demonstrated how inimical politics at the highest level could be to cross-party collaboration, despite its undeniable successes and continuation for five years.

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