By Campaign Agent Joseph Monk
The recent parliament has witnessed significant instability; Tory splits have occurred between the moderate faction and the European Research Group (ERG), while the Labour party has seen splits between the Corbynistas and Blairites. However, where there is stability is with the rigidness of the electoral system. Many scholars have concluded that First Past the Post (FPTP) produces a ‘frozen party system’; this has certainly been visible given that it produces a two party system with constant alteration between Labour and the Conservatives. The question is whether new parties can break through the two party mould so that all views can be heard and represented. This is a topical issue, now more than ever, given the party splits that are currently occurring.
In spite of the calamities that it brings, instability within the two parties is somewhat refreshing. It can be frustrating to hear the leadership declare that they are broad churches, allowing for a wide coalition of voices to be heard. There is a fine line here and it is currently being exploited. Allowing for an array of voices to be represented in one party is, to refer to the analogy, like pulling the elastic band before it snaps. The Momentum faction in Labour dominate the workings of the leadership and therefore it is incompatible for Labour to hold together the Blairite faction of the party along with those adhering to Momentum’s values. I think one reason many have stayed in their respective parties for so long is because the electoral system favours the mainstream parties and the labels attached to it.
Take someone with values more associated with the Liberal Democrats that is standing in Merseyside. Apart from Southport, Labour control all of the seats in the county. The margin of victories for Labour candidates is emphatic, with figures such as Frank Field and Steve Rotherham (before he became Mayor of Liverpool) exceeding 70% of the vote. Honestly, there is little point in Lib-Dem candidates, or minor parties for that matter, standing in the region. They only create wasted votes, and also it impacts party funding which is affected even further as the candidates lose their deposits if they don’t reach the 5% threshold. I really sympathise with voters in these kinds of areas that associate their views with parties such as the Greens that seek to make real change to the environment, but are forced to watch a candidate win with minimal campaigning due to the existence of safe seats.
Given these disadvantages for small parties, can the Independent group really hope to make the impact it seeks to deploy? None of them want to call by-elections, and rightly so on their part. This is because they know they will lose their seats. Many voters solidly vote for the same party regardless of who is standing. The legacy of Thatcher in Liverpool makes it intolerable for them to vote Tory blue, and their support for Labour is a testament to this. Regardless of how admirable Luciana Berger is and the amount of abuse she has received, she will be extremely vulnerable at the next election. The Independent Group know that their tenure as MPs is now short, thus they are seeking to have the most impact they can to ensure Brexit is averted. In one respect, I admire what they have done; they have put their careers on the line. Nonetheless, the timing is deeply flawed.
Due to the electoral system, if they stand as Independent Group MPs at the next election, they will split the Labour vote, meaning that a Conservative victory is extremely likely. We have seen, especially in the 2017 election, how bargaining occurs- as with UKIP promising not to stand candidates in constituencies that have Tory-Brexit supporters as they knew they would split the vote and make a Labour victory more likely in that seat. This is the problem Labour now face. They will inevitably lose the moderate centrist voters who will align themselves with the Independent group, which will only incentivise the centrist MPs in the party to defect, putting the future of the party at severe risk.
Therefore, despite the implications of the electoral system creating two-party dominance, it will inadvertently put at risk the future of both parties, with further splits to arise. The perception that the parties have a wide range of views is in serious jeopardy, and with the possibility of Brexit being delayed, this will only exacerbate the issue further.
One solution to this calamitous event is to have a system of proportional representation. Currently, Britain operates under a majoritarian system whereby the winner takes all, regardless of what percentage of votes they receive. However, in a PR system, the percentage points of votes that a party receives is more closely aligned with the number of seats. The Liberal Democrats have been a victim of the current FPTP system. In the 2005 and 2010 elections, they were securing around 22-23% of the vote, putting their current 7-8% standing into perspective. However, if the percentage scores were proportionally transferred into seats, it would have been unlikely that they would have entered into a coalition with the Conservatives, thus possibly preventing their catastrophic collapse in 2015. The popular rhetoric of a PR system, however, is unlikely to provoke changes for reform. The status quo is inherently favourable to the mainstream parties and, with the fear of extreme parties breaking through in a PR system, it is, regrettably, unlikely to change in the near future.
Sources and Further Reading
Eleni Courea,`Unite and Momentum candidates dominate Labour’s selection races`, The Guardian (5 January 2019)
Patrick Barkham, `Electoral Systems`, The Guardian (23 March 2001)
Rowena Mason, `UKIP will not stand against pro-Brexit Tories in key marginal seats`, The Guardian (11 May 2017)
Image: Martin Deutsch @flickr