Saturday, 25 April 2015

The end of the two-party state in the UK?

There has been a lot of debate these last days about the future of the two-party system which has dominated Westminster.

Here in East Devon, the question is how far what was considered a 'safe seat' still is quite so 'safe':
Futures Forum: East Devon Parliamentary election >>> all the candidates
Has your constituency already been won in the 2015 general election? Find out here - Telegraph

This 'open letter' from East Devon's sitting MP has provoked considerable comment:
A letter from Hugo Swire: East Devon is a safe seat not marginal | Exeter Express and Echo
Hugo says East Devon is a safe seat for him | East Devon Watch

However things swing in East Devon on 7th May, it seems the dominance of the two parties is over.

This is from a New Statesman blog from a couple of months ago:

The one-two punch that could hand Ukip (and the Greens) dozens of seats in 2020

23rd February 2015

So, despite all the sound and fury about the fragmentation of British politics, and the extraordinary surge for the SNP in Scotland, the two great monoliths of red and blue look set to return to the next Parliament with their near-monopoly on seats unbroken.

Most current projections have them holding a combined 560 or so seats next time, which would hand them 90 per cent of the 632 seats across Great Britain: unchanged on 2010 (neither is realistically in the running for Northern Ireland’s 18 seats).

Yet look below the surface, and the cracks in the monolith of two party politics are clear to see. The 2015 results may well provide the newcomers with the opening they need to accomplish a truly dramatic political realignment in 2020. The key to this is the crucial role of the silver medal in our ‘first past the post’ electoral system.

Under our disproportional electoral system there is only one winner in each constituency. A party which comes second everywhere wins nothing.

But while second place delivers no immediate political prize, the silver medal can be very helpful in a future election. Second-place parties can market themselves as the de facto local opposition, and soak up support going to lower ranked parties in the area. A simple message can be hammered home in countless leaflets and on the doorsteps: “If you don’t like the local MP, we are the only viable alternative”.

A party which comes second everywhere wins nothing. But it could win many seats in the future.

The Liberal Democrats provide compelling evidence of just how powerful this message can be. Since the mid 1990s, the party have steadily expanded their representation in Parliament by convincing voters in seat after seat that they are the only party capable of “winning here”.

A large haul of second place finishes will put Ukip and the Greens in a position to make a similar pitch. But would it work? Being viable locally is only half the battle – to turn the silver medal into a gold one you also need to be a more attractive option than the incumbent, and an acceptable substitute for the parties below you.

We don’t yet know whether Ukip and the Greens can pull this off in the same way as the Liberal Democrats did, but there are several reasons to suspect they might.

The one-two punch that could hand Ukip (and the Greens) dozens of seats in 2020 | May2015: 2015 General Election Guide

This is from Armando Iannucci earlier this week:

The idea that one party can represent all we believe in just doesn’t apply any more

ARMANDO IANNUCCI Tuesday 21 April 2015

It’s as if the mere act of talking about a majority government will make it happen

These more conventional figures are effectively saying, my party is the only one who’ll get you out of this mess and you’d be an idiot not to vote for it.

We don’t buy into this all-or-nothing politics any more. The single thing that alienates young people from politics is the party system. The idea that only one party can speak for them, or represent all their views across a spectrum of issues as diverse as housing and defence, is nonsense.

If you don’t shop in one supermarket any more (as Tesco is finding to its cost), if you don’t watch one TV channel all the time, if you don’t even have to buy a whole album but can compile your own playlist from everything that’s available, then why in God’s name should you be expected to sign up to one and only one political body to express or represent all your views? That may work in a system where only one party is expected to govern, but those days are gone. The system’s bust. Single party governance is history.

So why do party leaders talk as if it still exists? They talk of majority government as if the mere act of talking about it will make it happen. But to us they just look like men in suits stuck way behind in mud.

So, consider how different it would sound if the leader of a major party said the following: “I know we won’t win a majority. I can see that. That’s what the public mood is, and who am I to denounce it? So here’s where I agree with SNP, and here’s where I disagree. And here’s where I agree with the Green and Lib Dems, and Plaid Cymry, and the DUP and the SDLP. Here’s even where I could get some Ukip members on board. And here’s where I profoundly disagree with them, and with those other parties. Somewhere, somehow, if I get the most votes or members in the election, I will commit myself to working out a proper vote-by-vote consensus that commands a majority on each vote.’

But that leader would have to go further. If we truly want to bring an end to the tired one-size-fits-all party politics, that leader would have to say, “And here’s where Conservative and Labour agree, and where we don’t agree. Again, if I lead the largest block of MP’s in the next Parliament, I will commit to finding as much common ground with as many MP’s from the other side of the House as I can.”

If we’re to take a truly fresh look at how our constitution works, then this boldest move of all becomes a necessity. No party leader will dare mention it, because it threatens that leader’s control of their party. But if the electorate is prepared to vote for a grand coalition of ideas, then the true leader is the one who offers a grand coalition transcending party.

The idea that one party can represent all we believe in just doesn’t apply any more - Comment - Voices - The Independent

And this is from yesterday's Independent:

General Election 2015: E-voting, PR and other ways to shake up future elections
MARY DEJEVSKY Thursday 23 April 2015

I know all the objections to such ideas, but the health of our democracy is too important for changes not to be made

For the past five years, our hidebound and risk-averse United Kingdom has been engaged in something of a constitutional experiment. A twofold experiment, in fact. The first part followed David Cameron’s surprise decision to offer the Liberal Democrats a share of power and Nick Clegg’s decision to accept. The second part resulted from Alex Salmond’s determination to hold a referendum on independence for Scotland, and Cameron’s acquiescence.

The consequence of the first decision has been the first peacetime coalition government of modern times. It was put together in a fraction of the time it takes most of our continental neighbours to form their coalitions, and – despite the foreboding of many – it proved not only stable, but in many ways more reformist than many of the majority governments that preceded it.

As for the Scottish referendum, the whole process offered more than a glimpse of how politics could be done differently. The extent of public engagement left the rest of the UK lost somewhere between amazement and envy. There was a turnout of more than 80 per cent; votes for 16-year-olds; packed public meetings; competing posters all over high streets and farmers’ fields; and fierce debates around family dinner tables. How different from the current hyper-sanitised, hyper-managed campaign.

These two experiences have demonstrated that dear old risk-averse UK is capable of accepting change, even when it affects our cherished constitutional arrangements. But now is no time to rest on our laurels. Success should embolden the next government to do more – whatever its complexion.

Out on the stump in recent weeks with candidates in safe and marginal constituencies, I have come away with the impression that, for almost the first time in my memory, there is an appetite for the electoral system to change. After the election, that appetite could be whetted further. The success of electronic registration – at a rather late stage, admittedly – should encourage the next Parliament to introduce e-voting.

I know all the objections – from security to practicality, to the risk of discouraging the elderly and poor. I also know, having covered the notorious “tied” US election of 2000, that mechanising the process can have disadvantages. But American voting machines and e-voting are quite different things. In the US, the antiquated machines actually make the process slower than pencil and paper, and – fatally – as we saw with the absurdity of the “hanging chads”, there is no reliable way to conduct a re-count.

E-voting not only avoids those flaws, but it works. If India and Estonia – two countries that could hardly be more different in terms of size and development – can do it without either catastrophic breakdown or charges of mass fraud, then so can we. Whether it would increase turnout is another matter, but it would allow the abolition of postal voting and prevent intimidation at the polling station – both of which have compromised the integrity of some votes in recent years. I am as fond as anyone of those little brown pencils on a string, but the time has surely come to say goodbye.

A second reform has to be the introduction of some form of proportional representation. There are those who will object that the Liberal Democrats had their chance – the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote system, which they comprehensively lost. But there were reasons for this, including voter-fatigue and the fact that the supposedly impossible – a coalition government – had suddenly become possible under first-past-the-post.

It could well be, however, that after this election the Lib Dems find they have company in the PR lobby. What might be the response of, say, Green or Ukip or even Scottish Labour voters, when they wake up on 8 May to discover that the seats won by their parties bear no relation to the votes cast. With all the party leaders campaigning nationally on an almost American presidential scale, there has to be recognition that support for minority parties has reached the point where they need to be represented in Parliament – either that, or part of the electorate is effectively disenfranchised.

A third electoral change has to do with funding – not necessarily of parties, but of candidates. Several would-be MPs told me, as they traipsed heroically around their constituencies, that they could not imagine how anyone with a nine-to-five job could do what they were doing. They insisted that this, rather than any deliberate bias in the selection process towards “professional” politicians, explained why so many of today’s ministers and MPs have never held a job outside politics and risked not just seeming, but being, out of touch.

Nor is it just the time. To “nurse” a constituency while not an MP is expensive if you live or work elsewhere, plus there are administrative costs before the campaign proper – and state funding – kicks in. One person estimated she had spent more than £40,000 of her own money. That leaves politics mostly to the professionals and/or the (much) better off. No wonder old-fashioned working-class MPs will soon be a thing of the past. Funding for non-incumbents will be hard to arrange, and could be abused. But if we want a wider range of people in Parliament, a way has to be found. Open primaries could help, too. But without funding for nominated candidates, the circle of those putting themselves forward will remain small.

And finally a change not to adopt. It has emerged that the Conservatives may mobilise an army of US volunteers to “get the vote out” on the day. I cannot imagine anything more likely to keep the average British voter resolutely at home. By all means invite American students to observe and even help with our election. Such exchanges broaden minds. But keep them chained to their desks as voting looms. Super-keen young Americans chivvying the Tory vote could hand Labour every marginal in the land – and vice-versa

General Election 2015: E-voting, PR and other ways to shake up future elections - Comment - Voices - The Independent

The hustings for the East Devon parliamentary constituency takes place next Tuesday:
Futures Forum: Hustings in Sidmouth: General Election: Tues 28th April

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