Don’t panic, Britain is not becoming ungovernable

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 14.19.14

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 12.44.52

Source: Guardian

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.

Scottish-Conservatism-1950-2010

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.

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12 Responses to Don’t panic, Britain is not becoming ungovernable

  1. sdbast says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

  2. Helen Amery says:

    Great post as always Rick. I’m no political expert but I was listening to something on the radio the other day and thought that, given the fact the opposition (singular or plural) will always contradict who’s in power, why not just have decent debates that account for different views and (shock horror!) collaboration to generate better ideas than one party could ever do on its own.
    Idealistic – probably.
    And yet I still hope that one day the ego-fuelled, chest-beating competition becomes something that genuinely operates with the best interests of the nation at heart.

  3. JohnM says:

    Problem solved: Labour/Conservative coalition. Those [honest] members who cannot stomach that salvation will leave their respective parties and join together to form minority parties, and the game goes on.

  4. Dave Timoney says:

    With the exception of UKIP and the Greens (both of which are forms of romantic and illogical conservatism), all the parties are offering variations on the same neoliberal theme. This is not a “decline” of any sort, but hegemony. The policy differences are ones of degree and tone.

    Earlier UK elections maximised the share of the two main parties when there was a clear and substantive difference in policy (this was most obvious in 1950 and 51 due to the changes under the first Attlee administration). The two-party system began to decline in the 1970s with the ideological triumph of neoliberalism, which redefined parties in managerialist terms and policies as consumption preferences.

    The point is not that Britain is becoming ungovernable (far from it, as the continued dominance of the City and the sterling work of GCHQ shows), but that democracy is too well governed. That Scottish teenagers should be energised to vote for a party whose economic policies would have found favour with General Pinochet tells us that our elites do not lack skill when it comes to government.

  5. jayprich says:

    The phrase “game change” is literally true even if the stats seemed inexorably edging in that direction. The popularity contest game of electioneering is ridiculous if a manifesto can be watered down later. Any tweaks to the old method to make the rules of the game more suitable for current reality do need to ensure realism.

    LibDems want to be accountable for parts of their record as a minor partner, okay maybe that’s fair, they seem to me to be avoiding making dishonestly excessive promises this time.

    But if voters are swayed by nice to hear single issue noise, the leverage of more extreme minorities than we currently see is I fear likely to grow.

    It is hard to see any rainbow coalition forming either a professional balanced opposition (too little incentive to cooperate) or an accountable executive (too easy to blame others)

  6. John says:

    There is another potential scenario. The Lib Dems could do so badly on May 7 that they will afterwards largely sink completely without trace. Many of their former supporters could support the Greens perfectly well in future – at least they have not made pledges about student tuition fees which they immeditaely jettisoned as the grubby price for a share in real political power.

  7. Phil Beesley says:

    OP: “The anxiety of the weeks between the 2010 election and the emergence of the Coalition showed that the UK had no idea how to do multi party politics.” Err, it was five days between vote counting and announcement of the coalition. I dare say that some in the Lib Dems wish that there had been longer consideration of the terms, but the electoral numbers allowed for one option: Con/Lib Dem coalition in one form or another.

    The concept of a general election race is understandable when individual constituencies vote according to first past the post. It is less rational to expect any other voting system, AV included, to perpetuate that idea, but it is hard to shrug away. As much as I prefer AV or STV, I don’t expect voters to change fundamental misconceptions about “the system” quickly. Perhaps a few unpredictable results of FPTP will awaken people.

    • Rick says:

      Thanks Phil, that was another typo. I’m getting slapdash.

      On your general point, I think you’re right. It will take a while for people to get used to the idea of no outright winner.

  8. Tst says:

    Time will tell how things work out after the next election. But many people seem to be ignoring several things:-
    – Much of the public wants “revenge” against Nick Clegg for selling out to the right wing. Counter-intuitively this is actually helping the right wing (as Libdem seats are likely to go to the Tories). More seriously it means that there is no easy coalition partner for either of the mainstream parties.
    – The SNP are not merely a left wing alternative to Labour (as some on the left want to believe). They are nationalists (with some very dodgy independence economics). They will either want goodies for their “nation” or full independence. Going into any informal arrangements with them is likely to prove problematic for any party. Given Labour are the most likely coalition partner I don’t think its inconceivable that a fudged arrangement could make Labour unelectable in both England and Scotland.
    – The parties themselves are internal coalitions. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Tory party which is a coalition of a sensible centre right pro-business party and some less sensible xenophobic anti-EU crazies. Its not yet obvious which way the Tory party will jump if the election doesn’t go well.

    Put it all together its quite conceivable that a nightmare scenario could emerge with: –
    – Labour having a completely poisoned legacy from a unsuccessful coalition with the SNP
    – Lib Dems a skeleton party unable to launch any comeback
    – Tories drifting towards a UKIP like position on EU and completely dominant in England
    – SNP dominating Scotland (trying to create a quasi petro-socialist Chavez state in Europe)

    … in which case we would be completely ungovernable….

  9. John says:

    Tst: there is another alternative possibility: If the SNP are seen to be leveraging excessive amounts of cash from UK government expenditure, English nationalist parties could rise up as an alternative for English voters. England existed perfectly well without Scotland for centuries, if not millenia. An independent England scenario could be especially true if England votes to leave the EU. Cameron says he will bring a revised EU agreement to the UK electorate in 2017 – though the European Commission says it is not possible – what if the English electorate turn it down?

    • Tst says:

      Actually I see that as the logical extension of what I described…. and (as liberal English unionist who is pro-EU) a completely terrible outcome!

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