The deficiencies in our political system are in plain view… again

This election is a presidential one, in which the discourse has centred around two profoundly weak leaders, to the detriment of minor parties. The solution to this political malaise is clear: wholesale electoral reform.

Theresa May’s Team.

Strong and stable leadership with Theresa May in the national interest.

References to the Conservative Party are few and far between in this election. The message has been focussed on Theresa May herself, and the carefully-cultivated image of a strong, determined, capable leader – in spite of all evidence pointing to the contrary. Almost all campaign literature produced by the Tories has been centred around the prime minister, rather than the local candidate. Jeremy Corbyn, too, has run a much better campaign than his party, turning this election into a straight fight between the party leaders. We are being asked to choose between two personalities: this is the first United Kingdom presidential election.

This turn of events is especially unwelcome given the the weakness of the two leaders in question, and the negativity with which the campaign is being carried out. Theresa May, far from being strong and stable, has been inept, cynical, and inconsistent, while Jeremy Corbyn, though principled and idealistic, has questionable ethics, relies too much on an old-school brand of socialism, and presides over a difficult and divided party that has been largely unwilling to act as an effective check on the Tory government. This seems like a natural election for third parties like the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and – in Scotland and Wales respectively – the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru to emerge as strong contenders across the country.

Why is it, then, that the opposite has happened? It is the weakness of those parties that has crystallised support for the Conservatives and Labour. Polling has been so low, particularly for the Lib Dems, that the voting public is unable to see third parties as legitimate choices to stop a much-maligned Tory government. Tim Farron and his co-belligerents have even been unable to position themselves as an effective anti-Brexit protest party, so weak is their polling. We now face a situation in which both the Lib Dems and the Greens could lose seats, and in which the political pluralism that is so celebrated in continental Europe is under threat in the UK.

It shouldn’t come as a terrible surprise that we have found ourselves in this situation. After all, our political system actively encourages a two-party system, and in the modern age, these two parties need a strong figurehead to front their message online and in broadcast media. To solve this problem, we need wholesale electoral reform, something I have long argued in favour of. It should come as no surprise that the aforementioned third parties – in addition, to their credit, to UKIP – have all fought for a change to the voting system in the past. It should come as even less of a surprise that both Labour and the Conservatives reject the need for reform: the current system only serves to entrench their power.

Without 40 Scottish seats to rely on, Labour face the challenge of overturning Tory hegemony over England.

For Labour, this is a terrible mistake. It is difficult – though not impossible – for Corbyn’s party to win a majority now or in the future, thanks to the terminal decline of Scottish Labour, which has been replaced by the SNP. Without the 40 or so seats that Labour could rely on in the past, they face the insurmountable challenge of overturning Tory hegemony over England in order to have their man in Downing Street once again. Though a proportional system would necessitate coalition government by design, it would make it far easier for Labour to win a strong majority. Imagine a Labour-SNP-Green alliance, for instance; the Tories, alone on the political right, would have no way to resist it.

So it comes as a disappointment that Labour are unwilling both to commit to electoral reform, and to embrace political pluralism by allying with the SNP to form an anti-Conservative coalition. The coalition government of 2010-15 has shown that such a government is workable. But an establishment resistant to change, as well as cooperation, has left our parliament unrepresentative and many diverse ideologies sidelined. Across Europe, this is not the case – even in France, where the parliament is elected by first-past-the-post, does the presidential majority invariably involve two or more parties working together.

I will concede that my opposition to this ‘presidential’ election and our bankrupt electoral system is coloured by my own support for the Liberal Democrats. My party of choice has suffered more than most from the dominance of the Big Two; this was felt particularly keenly during the 1983 election, during which the Liberal-SDP Alliance came within a whisker of overtaking Labour, but returned with only a fraction of the seats. The Cameron-Clegg coalition proved that the Lib Dems could act as a party of government, but our unwillingness to compromise meant voters could only see an act of betrayal that required an electoral punishment verging on absurdity.

The case for some sort of proportional voting system (my favourite is STV) is clear. But when parliament returns after the election, with a huge and unearned Tory majority sitting on the government benches, most voters will still see this as nothing else but business as usual. Perhaps, if Labour find themselves still unable to make any meaningful progress, they may finally wake up to the necessity of electoral reform. Only then would a Tory landslide be worth the damage it will likely facilitate. Until that day, I will never give my vote to a party that does not support wholesale changes to our voting system.

EDIT 30/05/2017: Since publication, the Conservative Party has relaunched its campaign with a shift away from presidential politics, having finally realised the personal weakness and wavering popularity of their leader.

Picture credit: Exactly. – Image by Sam Rodgers via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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