The reaction to Thursday’s leadership debate was far more entertaining than the programme itself, as politicians and the commentariat struggled to come to terms with the sight of seven party leaders slugging it out on TV. Frustratingly, no-one could work out who had won so everyone claimed victory.
The trouble is, our political system has been built on the assumption that one of two major parties will get a working majority. The anxiety of the week between the 2010 election and the emergence of the Coalition showed that the UK had no idea how to do multi party politics. Judging by this week’s reaction to the TV debate and the desperate search to declare a winner, it still doesn’t. During the AV referendum, a friend of mine insisted that changing the electoral system would be stupid as there has the be a winner in every race. I tried to point out that politics isn’t actually a race. But some metaphors are so powerful and long standing that people find it hard to accept they are metaphors. If we must understand elections as races, in the next one, all the contestants will collapse wheezing before reaching the finishing line.
For some last week’s debate was a game changer for others a mess. Some commentators seemed to be in denial, so they wrote the same two party stuff that they have been writing for decades. Others warned of chaos and worse. Five years ago, Britain was ‘going bankrupt’. Now, apparently, it’s becoming ungovernable.
In fact, British politics has been changing for years it’s just that, in this election, the changes have now become too big to ignore. All that happened on Thursday night was that a lot more people noticed.
Shortly after the 2010 election, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) published a report on the slow death of the First Past the Post (FPTP) system. In 1951, the Conservative and Labour parties between them got 97 percent of the votes cast. By the last election, their share was down to 65 percent.
For many years, though, this didn’t matter. The features of the electoral system meant that, even as their share of the vote fell, the two main parties could still win comfortable working majorities and the occasional landslide. British governments still looked like they did in the 1950s, even though the underlying numbers were changing.
This went on until the last election when the decline in two party support became so severe that neither could get a majority of seats. Under FPTP, a minority of voters can give a party a healthy majority, provided those voters are in the right places. But even under FPTP there comes a point when that is no longer possible. Once your vote sinks to around a third, the maths start to work against you. That is where our two main parties now find themselves stuck. The old tribal identities which delivered big majorities have weakened and the once powerful vote-harvesting party machines have withered. I’m reminded of Charles Handy’s frog that doesn’t notice the water heating up and eventually allows itself to be boiled to death.
There are a couple of interesting sub-plots to all of this. One is the halving of the number of of straight Tory-Labour marginals since the 1950s, which means that a swing away from one party is less likely to deliver seats to the other.
The second is the strange death of Conservative Scotland. In 1950, Scotland was more Tory than the rest of the UK. Nowadays, the Scottish Tory is on the verge of extinction.
Source: Nick Pearce, IPPR
As the IPPR’s Nick Pearce explains, there are a number of reasons for this and it’s not all Margaret Thatcher’s fault. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to be reversed in the near future. It might soon be followed by the strange death of Labour Scotland, although it’s still a bit early to read the last rites.
All of which means that neither main party is likely to get a majority on 7 May and, even if one of them does, it will be wafer thin and will probably be destroyed by by-elections before the five years is up.
But talk of Britain becoming ungovernable is pure hyperbole. Lots of countries have multi party systems and take such things in their stride. As anyone who has watched Borgen or The Killing will know, coalitions are just part of everyday politics in some parts of the world.
The UK is a stable, well governed society with a high level of political legitimacy and a general acceptance of the rule of law. That’s the main reason why it has some of the lowest borrowing costs in the world. Other countries have cultural, regional, religious and linguistic divisions which are far more bitter than anything we have, yet they manage them within their political system. Just because the British seem no longer inclined to elect a majority government, even under a system that rigs the contest in favour of such an outcome, it doesn’t mean that the country is falling apart. Most other countries in Europe have had coalitions for decades. If Britain is becoming ungovernable then so are Sweden and Switzerland.
We need to evolve new systems and processes to manage what looks like it will become a regular feature. We’ve had hung councils for some years now. We’ll have to learn to live with hung parliaments too. The fragmentation of party politics won’t make Britain ungovernable. Politicians will just have to find different ways of governing.