Monday, 6 October 2014

A Strong Liberal Voice Is Needed Now, by Ben Myring

The United Kingdom has long had a deep-rooted majoritarian political culture.  Two-party politics has been the norm since the formation of modern political parties.

There have occasionally been splits and recombinations, and even less-frequent cases of parties collapsing and being replaced by new contenders.

But, by-and-large, the adversarial two-party system has remained dominant.

This dominance, so different from most of our continental neighbours, is partly cultural and partly due to an electoral system which has continued to reward the party with the plurality of votes with a majority of Commons seats at most elections.

However, psephologists and other observers have long observed that this would be hard to sustain.

Underlying the two-party system is an increasingly diverse and pluralist population who no longer cleanly divide their votes between two parties.

From a peak of 96.8% of the combined vote at the 1951 election, by 2005 this figure had fallen to 67.6%.

Tony Blair’s clear majority, acquired that year, rested on the support of only 35.2% of voters. By that same year, the third-place Liberal Democrats had reached 22%.

In 2010, the Conservatives under David Cameron achieved – with 36.1% - a higher vote share than Blair had five years earlier.

Yet the first-past-the-post electoral system, combined with a further rise in support for the Liberal Democrats, left the Commons well and truly hung.

The unfortunate Liberal Democrats, compelled by the electoral math to enter a coalition with the party most despised by their activist base, have subsequently taken a serious battering in the polls, often lurking in the high single-digits.

Yet in those same polls Labour and the Conservatives are still only able to muster less than 70% between them.

Instead of returning to a two-party system, the electorate appears to be gaining an appetite for more pluralism.

Smaller parties, most especially UKIP, the Greens, and the parties of the Celtic Fringe, are growing rapidly in support.

While the electorate continue to claim that they prefer single-party rule, they do not appear to be planning to vote in a way that is likely to deliver this.

Current polling rarely puts Labour much higher than 35%.  History suggests that this lead will erode as the election campaign gets underway.

If the Liberal Democrats hold more than 30 seats (as seems likely) and the SNP make the gains that are being predicted (let alone gains by UKIP and others) Labour may well be denied a majority.

The possible outcomes of the May 2015 election are more febrile than ever before.

Sooner or later, the electorate may have to come to terms with the reality of a political pluralism of their own making – coalitions are likely to become a fixture of British politics as much as on the Continent.

Add to this the narrow result of the Scottish independence referendum. It seems certain to result in much greater devolution of power to Scotland, further unbalancing the constitution.

The apparent willingness of all parties to address this creates perhaps the greatest opportunity for radical constitutional reform in British history.

Assuming that the Conservatives do not win then next election outright and implement an ‘English votes’ fix, it seems likely that some sort of constitutional convention – formal or otherwise - may soon be upon us.

The possible outcomes of this are not limited to devolution or even ‘home rule’. Federalism – perhaps with a proportionally elected second chamber – and electoral reform of local government are both on the table.

The party that is most interested in – and has given most studied consideration to – such constitutional reform is of course the Liberal Democrats. 

It may be a case of cometh the moment – an ironic case given the party’s current weakness.

Yet should Ed Miliband find himself with the largest party but short of a majority in May, he might well be tempted to partly delegate responsibility for constitutional reform to the Liberal Democrats in exchange for their support – perhaps thereby avoiding having Lib Dem ministers in every department as per the current arrangement.

Any significant reform is likely to result in a much more pluralist political system than the one we have now, and that may provide the basis for a restoration of Liberal Democrat fortunes.

Certainly a strong liberal voice is needed now, when both Labour and Conservatives are tempted to implement authoritarian schemes in the name of security, and the Conservatives threaten to undermine the hard-won system of human rights and wider international law.

Regardless of the outcome of 2015, there are few signs that a two-party system will be restored. The underlying sociological foundation has changed.

It’s time our political culture and institutions caught up.

No comments:

Post a Comment