The slow suicide of Britain’s two party system. Only AV might have saved it

Two-party politics used to be the norm for developed democracies. Most countries’ politics were divided between tribal blocks based on the urban working class and on the aspirant middle classes. But the dominance of these two blocks has faded in most countries. There are two interesting exceptions: the USA and Australia. Here in Britain two-party politics looked as if it would triumph with the demise of the Liberal Democrat,s and the No vote in the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) in 2011. But now the system is its death throes.

It is worth considering the architecture of two party politics for a moment. Electoral politics is dominated by two political parties, each of which may govern on its own, without the need for support from smaller parties in coalitions or pacts. Each of these parties has a tribal character, defining themselves as much in opposition to the other as by their own core values. But there is an undeniable class base two. This divides the country into heartlands, where one or other of the parties dominates to the exclusion of all others, and marginal territory, contested by both parties, where elections are won and loss. Many, if not most, politicians build their own careers in the heartlands, where advancement depends on internal party politics, rather than winning over marginal voters. This leads to the system’s major flaw – the political classes are more worried about their own backyard and internal politics than in appealing to the electorate at large. Or they worry about marginal voters to the exclusion of the heartlands. Distance between voters and politicians grows.

The breakdown of this system follows the weakening of class loyalties from the 1960s onwards. New parties have emerged, from the liberal centre, from populist anti-political movements, from environmentalists, and from parties based on regional identity. In much of Europe coalitions became commonplace. Electoral systems played an important role. Those with proportional representation (PR) were the first to find that one party could not govern on its own. But in countries with single member constituencies one party could still aspire to win on its own. France’s two-round system promoted pacts and alliances between parties, and the major blocks split into separate parties – before the whole system started to be challenged by the populist Front National. Countries with First Past the Post (FPTP) systems have placed a greater role on party solidarity. But in New Zealand disillusion with two-party politics led to the introduction of PR; in Canada each of the two party blocks suffered existential crises that allowed more modern alternatives to replace them, at least in part. Australia’s AV system seems to have entrenched the two party system there, however. I will come back to that.

In the biggest and oldest developed-world democracy of them all, however, the two party system remains completely dominant. In the USA there is no alternative to the Republicans or Democrats, although the occasional challenge comes and goes – even as more and more voters self-describe as Independent. But the US system of democracy is unique. Apart from the widespread use of FPTP (some states use a two round system – which is why the Louisiana Senate race is not yet over after this month’s nationwide election), I think there are three, inter-related factors: primary elections, decentralised  power, and direct executive elections. Each party’s candidates are selected using primary elections which include much more than official party members. Such elections are part of the formal, state electoral process. Voters may register as Democrat or Republican. This allows them to take part in publicly-run primaries; in some states primaries are open – any voter can take part. That makes heartland elections competitive – and not a matter of manipulating small groups of insiders to secure your party’s nomination. It helps that each party’s national leadership is weak – so wheeler-dealing in Washington will not help a political career by much. This is a function of a system where much of the power is wielded at state level. One of the factors that keeps party functionaries weak is the prominence of direct executive elections, notably for President and state governors. In these cases personality often matters more than tribal allegiance.

It is an interesting paradox – for the two party system to be robust, the party leaderships must not be too strong. This allows the primary system to flourish, and gives outsiders a chance to break into politics. But party solidarity is important enough for those in power to rig the system to provide incumbent politicians with electorally safe seats through the gerrymandering of boundaries. A diminishing proportion of seats in the House of Representatives are competitive between the two blocks. A large proportion of the important politics is now in the tribal heartlands, and not in marginal territory. As a result of this, it would not be right to describe the state of politics in the USA as healthy. There is increasing polarisation, which is causing deadlock and the prospect of extremist policies. Most Americans seem fed up with the state of politics in their country, though not necessarily with the system itself.

Another case study in the survival of two-party politics is Australia. Politics is divided between two long-standing political blocks: Labor and the Liberal party, though the latter is a coalition of state parties (some of which refer to themselves as National or Country). There have been challenges to this duopoly over the years, but these have not made headway. No doubt there a number of factors that have contributed to this – but I think one factor is critical. And this is the AV electoral system. The legislature comprises single-member constituencies, and there is a single election day. Voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate does not achieve more than 50% of the votes casts, the lower ranking candidates are eliminated and their votes redistributed. This is a bit like the French two round run-off system, except that with a single election day there is little scope for political deal making over second preferences. It is so important for candidates to maximise first preferences that it best not to talk too much about second preferences.

This makes it very hard for challengers to win seats. First their first preferences have to overhaul one or other of the two main parties. But to do so they cannot say “vote for me to keep the other guy out”, because that is an argument for second preference votes, not first. Second preference votes are useless without sufficient first preferences. And then, of course, you must have sufficient first and second preference votes to get a majority. In marginal seats challengers will be beaten by the lack of first preferences; in heartland seats there will be lack of second preference votes. As a result almost all seats go to one or other of the blocks. In 2013 in order to turn out a lacklustre Labor government, voters opted for a Liberal one that is now pushing forward a series of extremist policies on the environment and immigration.

So what of Britain? For a long time the main challenge to the two party system came from the Liberal Democrats, based in the liberal centre. It was skilful in winning seats under FPTP by establishing a local base, and then winning tactical votes from the weaker of the two blocks. This allowed it to win a substantial block of parliamentary seats in 1997, but not the balance of power until 2010. It then entered coalition with the Conservatives. And then disaster struck – the transition from a protest party to one of government was too much for the voters, and its poll ratings collapsed. Labour and Tory politicians breathed a sigh of relief – normal two-party politics could be resumed.

Ironically, in view of the Australian experience, the Lib Dems placed some hope by proposing to change Britain’s FPTP system to AV. This would have helped the party in the short term, where it had built up a sufficient local base to win second place in first preference votes. Both major parties agreed with the Lib Dem analysis, and for that reason opposed the change (Labour through faint praise rather than explicit opposition). In a referendum on the change in 2011 an overwhelming majority opposed AV. This seemed to secure the future of two-party politics.

But unlike the US, Britain’s politics is highly centralised. Party managers in Westminster like to keep a tight grip on their parties. And, again unlike the US, executives are elected indirectly, and candidates must master the internal politics of their own party in order to progress to high office. The idea of primary elections has not been allowed to gain traction. The Tories have moved small steps towards it, but without being able to harness state resources. The public has no way to channel its disillusion with politics than to vote for insurgent parties – since they are denied a role in the main party elections. And this they have been doing by supporting the populist Ukip in England and the SNP in Scotland.

Unlike the Lib Dem challenge, these insurgencies have affected the main parties’ heartland voters. They are creating unbearable pressures with both party blocks. The Conservative and Labour leaders try both to fend off the insurgent challenge, and to retain the political centre – and as a result both appear weak, driven by events rather than leading them. This is creating unbearable strains and it seems likely both will fracture, especially if they have to endure the pressures of being in government. Labour face calamity in Scotland, as the SNP overturn their heartlands. In England Labour are a fragile coalition of public sector unions, liberal centrists and heartland machine politicians; each’s expectations of the party seems completely incompatible. The Tories look likely to fracture over Europe.

Ironically, if both parties had embraced AV, they would have been in a stronger position to fend off the insurgents and maintain party solidarity. And yet this is just another face of a bigger problem that both party’s face. their obsession with winning the next election has meant a loss of strategic focus. The demise of the two party system looks alarming, as fringe parties gain prominence. But in the long term it is to be welcomed. As the USA and Australia shows, a two-party system is too easily captured by political extremes.

 

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The Emily Thornberry resignation is political correctness gone mad

Last night the Labour MP Emily Thornberry was forced to resign Strood 2from her role as a front-bench spokesman for her party. It is difficult to have any sympathy for her as a person – leading Labour politicians are utterly ruthless with their political rivals. But I still find the episode shocking.

Her offence was to send out the tweet illustrated here. It was a picture from the streets of Rochester and Strood (Strood, in fact), where there was a by-election yesterday – won for Ukip by Conservative defector Mark Reckless. There was no comment – but because it combined two icons of white working class chauvinism – the St George Cross flag and a white van – it was judged to be snobbish – a chuckle at the expense of Britain’s white working class voters. Britain’s “raucous”  (as its sinister political motivation is euphemised) press was certainly taking that view, as it suits their agenda to make trouble for the Labour party. Rather than contest this, Ms Thornberry  resigned, apparently at the instigation of the Labour Leader Ed Miliband who was supposed to be “angry”.  Sadly, this was almost certainly a wise decision. It was the quickest way of killing a story that could have gone on for weeks with the same end result and much more damage to the party. And this meek surrender can even be portrayed as firm leadership by Mr Miliband – as one Labour MP was claiming on the radio this morning. A more abject demonstration of his weakness cannot be imagined.

There’s an irony here. One of the main complaints of tabloid commentators and  the Ukip insurgency is that “political correctness” has crimped freedom of expression. By this they mean the expression of views that might be construed as racist, misogynist or offensive to people with disabilities. But what is this episode if it is is an acute outbreak of political correctness? Pity Labour campaigners! The old norms of political correctness remain as firm as ever, but the list of people they are not supposed to offend, even tangentially, grows ever longer.

This presents a dark picture of our society indeed. People are quick to claim offence, and we are not supposed to have a quiet chuckle at any of our fellow citizens, unless they are rich, aristocratic, a politician or a “celebrity” – in which case we can be as offensive as we like, regardless of any sense of fairness. A society at ease with itself can laugh at itself. What we have is a society of victims and wonton verbal cruelty.

It also shows how Britain’s tabloid press remain in control of the news agenda. Readership may be falling, and people may rely on other media for information, but they still set the tone. Television and radio, including the BBC, meekly follow where they lead. Social media simply promote instant outrage rather than any sense of proportion or justice. A depressing picture indeed.

 

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Why liberals should not vote Labour

Labour’s Ed Miliband is under fire. This is not surprising, given his miserabilist message and the incompetence with which the party has handled Scottish politics. But not all criticism of Mr Miliband is fair. He has held firm on core liberal policy areas, such as Europe, immigration and human rights. Given that the Conservatives are abandoning liberal values in their pursuit of Ukip voters, shouldn’t liberals reward this grit under pressure, and vote for the party that Mr Miliband leads? But that would be as grave a mistake as liberals and greens would have made if they had voted for David Cameron’s party in 2010.

Ed Miliband’s Labour party has not lurched to the left, contrary to many claims in the press. It is in firm grasp of the political centre. His criticism of capitalism is aimed at is directed at rigged markets, as in energy. He does not plan to be reckless with the state’s finances – though he is guilty of not explaining this very clearly to more left-wing supporters. Many of his more radical policies, like devolution within England, look very similar to policies promoted by the Liberal Democrats. This liberalism and centrism has brought rewards. In a recent survey commissioned by the Fabian Society, pollsters showed that voters who had switched to the party from the Liberal Democrats remain loyal to Labour, even as it leaks support from people who had voted for it in 2010, a supposed rock bottom. The Liberal Democrats are not being offered any chink of light to aim at, with only six months to go before the election – except in a few geographically limited strongholds. The signs are that Labour intends to maintain this grip. Even as Ukip nibbles away at its traditional supporters, the Labour leadership shows no sign of panicking.

And most liberals seem to be sick of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The Conservatives are back to banging on about Europe, and Mr Cameron is happy to gamble the country’s future membership of the European Union in order to deliver some sound-bites to voters worried about excessive immigration. The Tory commitment on environmental issues, especially the reduction of carbon emissions, has been shown to be skin deep. In education they have set ideology ahead of effectiveness. Their promise of future tax cuts will have devastating implications for public services. The future of the NHS is of particular worry to voters – though it is far from clear that any other party has a better answer to the challenges it faces. The Lib Dems have limited the damage the Tories would otherwise have inflicted. They can claim more tax on the rich, and less on those with lower incomes, advances on renewable energy, forestalling the reintroduction of grammar schools, among many other achievements – but for each liberal win there seems to be more than one in the opposite direction. The tone of the government is Tory and liberals are fed up with it.

But does Labour deserve to win the liberal vote? We might remember David Cameron’s efforts to de-toxify the Conservatives before the 2010 election – which culminated in the slogan: “Vote Blue, Get Green”. But it was quickly clear that his party hadn’t changed for the better; even if Mr Cameron was a moderate liberal himself, he was not carrying his party with him. I think the same is true of Mr Miliband’s liberalism.

The Labour and Conservative parties are very similar in many ways. They are founded on the idea that they are monopolistic parties of government. In many ways they resemble old east European Communist parties (or the modern Chinese one, come to that). They concede grudgingly that the other party has to exist, and that government between the two will alternate – but on the other hand they see each other as tribal enemies. All other political parties, and people without a party allegiance, just don’t count in their world view. This is best seen in local government. There is nothing these parties like better than a Council in which only their own party is represented – which can happen with our current electoral system (except in Scotland and Northern Ireland). They run these fiefdoms through their own, opaque party machinery, so that they can display unity in public, and suppress awkward debate. Conservative Wandsworth (where I live) works in much the same way as Labour Grimsby (which I visited last week). Corruption, especially around property development, is hard to prove. But it is sort of governance where corruption can thrive – and the public suspects it, be it high-rise developments in north Wandsworth, or wind farms in Grimsby’s rural hinterland.

So when Labour talks of devolving power, it is to these opaque structures. If you want a say in how the extra powers and money are used, join the local Labour Party. And if you join the local Labour Party keep your dissent private. Most Labourites, like Chinese Communists, are so inured to this way of doing things that they can’t see a problem. To them, this is what democracy looks like.

But it is has left a rotten mess in far too many places. In Rotherham local council officials preferred to leave their opaque dealings with local ethnic community leaders intact, rather than confront allegations of sexual grooming by Kashmiri men on vulnerable young girls. Doncaster’s social services department collapsed.  And these are the tip of an iceberg. Labour hangs on to power by promoting social and ethnic tribalism. The Lib Dems had been their only challengers in their northern English heartlands – but they have now been crushed following their coalition with the hated Tories. The Lib Dems have passed the mantle to Ukip – who, for all their many faults, stand for much more open and transparent ways of government – or anyway that’s what their grassroots think their party stands for.

If this sounds a little like paranoia, just listen to how Labour activists refer to those Lib Dems. They aren’t regarded as a valid political party who are mistaken – they are traitors and vermin who must be despised and extinguished. Many Labour activists were prepared tolerate the Lib Dems where they looked better able to unseat Tories than Labour. But any such tolerance is now long gone. Some Labour activists are telling the others: “told you so” – any party that is not part of the Labour movement is not to be trusted. Consider this article by Luke Akehurst in Labour List: We must not make the same mistake with the Greens that we did with the Lib Dems.

Such tribal, monopolistic political parties are inimical to modern democracy. Not all Labour party members and activists support such attitudes – but they predominate the closer they get to political power. They are increasingly at odds with they way people want to exercise political power. Such parties are not interested in democratic engagement: they want their tribal loyalists to turn up to vote, and would rather everybody else stayed at home.

Labour and the Tories do not threaten each other in their respective heartlands – but they are subject to insurgent challenges. I have already mentioned challenges formerly from the Lib Dems and now Ukip, which apply to Tories as well as Labour.  But the immediate threat to Labour is in Scotland and from the SNP. Labour, as by far the largest unionist party north of the border, naturally  led the campaign for a No vote in the independence referendum. They did so with staggering ineptitude. They had no idea how run a political campaign based on persuasion rather than crude intimidation. They lost their critical stronghold of Glasgow to the Yes campaign. And following the referendum they rapidly tried to change the subject as if nothing had happened. Now recent polling has shown their vote to be in a state of collapse. They could lose more than 20 seats to the SNP in the General Election, dishing their chances of an overall majority in the UK as a whole.

It is too much to hope that the party will reform itself without suffering electoral disaster first. Voting for them will mean perpetuating a duopolistic system of government that will not make the country a more liberal, better governed place. For liberals it would be better to hold your nose if you have to, and to vote for the Lib Dems.

 

 

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Can the Republican tide in the US be reversed? Maybe not.

I hate to comment on the politics of other countries. I know more than most British about the US political scene, but I’m no expert. Still, wider lessons about the process of politics can be seen from the US. And they are rather worrying.

As a liberal I root for the Democrats in the US elections – though their record on some issues, such as business regulation and education is not good. So the scale of their defeat in this year’s mid-terms was a shock: not just in the Senate, but in state gubernatorial contests too. I had subscribed to a rather optimistic theory: that where California goes, so the rest of the US follows. In California the Republicans did very well, until, one day they didn’t. And then it was all over. They were overwhelmed by demographic trends – especially the rise of the Hispanic population. They had so misused their period in power that they had damaged their brand beyond repair to those outside their diminishing band of natural supporters.

So perhaps 2014 is their high water mark, as was the Pete Wilson governorship in California , which ended in 1999? Alas I fear not: Republican strategy and tactics seem far to solid for that. These elections were revealing. Republican success was largely driven by low turnout. Younger voters, and those from minority groups, failed to turn up to vote. That seems to be the cornerstone of the Republican strategy. This is achieved through relentless negative campaigning that has poisoned the political process. Their opponents go in for negative campaigns too, but they lose more from the diminishing reputation of politicians as a whole. Republican politicians are not well regarded by the US public. They just keep winning.

The insidious thing is that the Republicans are using their short-term successes to rig the democratic process in their favour. This is conspicuous in three ways. First, Republican governors have gerrymandered Congressional districts so that they can win comfortably in the House of Representatives even if they lose the popular vote – as happened in 2012. Second, Republican sympathising justices in the Supreme Court have destroyed attempts to regulate campaign finance – in the guise of supporting free speech. This includes the ludicrous proposition that corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals. This unlocks the door to vast quantities of money from billionaires, like the Koch brothers, who want to impose their rather bizarre world view on voters, and to fund all that negative campaigning. There is already well-funded right wing news media. Third, they are trying to make it more difficult for people to vote, in the guise of limiting electoral fraud. This is aimed especially at blacks. These ratchet up a series of advantages for the right. There is no sign that they might be reversed.

Of course, the success of the right is not just because of the malign influence of shadowy billionaires corrupting the political process. They have a well-motivated core group of supporters, who hold to a strong series of myths about the American way. This core, with strong conservative religious attitudes, a hatred of central government and taxes, and a belief in American exceptionalism, make American politics a very strange place to Europeans, including us British. This core support can’t be taken for granted by political leaders, as the “Tea Party” rebellion has shown – but there is no equivalent on the left or liberal wing of US politics.

So it does not take a huge amount of paranoia to picture a Republican strategy. The rising anti-Republican demographic groups find it more difficult to vote, or find that their vote affects the outcome little. They grow frustrated, but generalise their frustration to the entire political process and political class, and this leads to political apathy. Meanwhile the right consolidates its control over the whole process.

What can go wrong? Over-reach by the right can lead to a backlash, which in turn leads to electoral upsets in areas that are less easy to rig – such as the Presidency and the Senate. This happened under the Presidency of George Bush Junior – when many Republicans thought that they had won for good, and the feeding frenzy of their corporate friends became so conspicuous that the public were motivated to vote against it. Republicans may lack the discipline to avoid that mistake again. In due course the left might reform itself into a more coherent and robust political movement that will overcome the increasingly rigged electoral system and media.

Does it matter? The irony is that the conventional wisdom on the political economy is shifting steadily leftwards. The ideology of laissez-faire and small government that took off in the 1980s has run its course. Increasingly it seems that a healthy economy needs more taxes and a bigger role for government. Republicans want to take their country in the opposite direction. This will simply feed the crisis of capitalism, not resolve it. The American economy will start to fall apart. Also the tendency of Americans to use world politics as an extension of domestic politics will only get worse. American bullying plays well at home, but is counterproductive in its actual effects. A properly engaged, constructive role for the world’s only superpower is less likely. And climate-change denial seems to be one of the core beliefs of the right – this will make global progress harder – though a failing US economy will offset this somewhat. Ultimately, this attempt by the right to reverse the tide of history is the most likely cause of its failure in the long term – but it could take a decade or more.

Are their further political lessons? The American political system is unique. Two party politics is deeply entrenched, and the electoral system promotes it. But it can lead to what amounts to minority government, and it can be captured by extremes. In Australia we have seen this too: disappointment with a lacklustre left of centre administration has led to the capture of the government by the wayward right.

Britain may escape this fate. The wayward right is progressively taking over the Conservative Party. But many of the wayward millionaires that are behind this trend have lost patience, and are supporting the Ukip insurgency instead. This is ruining the chances of a takeover of the right – though a weak Labour leadership means that we can’t rule this out. Ironically the rejection by the right of electoral reform in the shape of the Alternative Vote (the system in Australia) is probably a shot in the foot. This naturally tends to push politics into a duopoly, as the Australian experience shows. Now electoral chaos is likely to discredit First Past the Post, and any reform is likely to towards proportional representation.

The multi-party, proportional model of politics has its faults. But increasingly it seems to be a better direction to take – it is less open to capture by the extremes. I hope that Britain will follow that path.

 

 

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Sliced bread, beer and politics. We must embrace pluralism

mothers prideSometimes I still hear the expression “the best thing since sliced bread”. This refers to the 1960s revolution in bread production, whose leading brand was Mothers Pride (missing apostrophes were another aspect of 1960s modernity). This was not just a matter of slicing the bread, but the invention of new baking processes that made the bread last longer. What was not to like about the new, modern stuff? It lasted longer and you did not have the hassle of cutting it. Sandwiches and toast became a doddle; the daily trip to the baker was no longer needed. And it was much cheaper, being mass produced in big factories. The new bread swept all before it, and traditional high street bakers disappeared.

But my mother hated the stuff, which she referred to as “cotton wool”. Mothers Pride was banned from the Green household. Eventually we resorted to baking our own bread. But in this, as in so many other things, hers was a lonely voice, to be sniggered at behind her back. But she was right. Bread consumption started to fall, and then to collapse. The new invention had solved many problems, but it had compromised its core values – taste and texture. Bread became pointless. Eventually craft bakeries sprang up as the middle classes, at least, were prepared to pay extra for something like the old product.

This is a pattern that repeats in the modern world. Another exampleHeineken is beer. Traditional beer is tricky to produce. But our industrial behemoths succeeded in creating bland, gassy and cheaper products. And then they set their marketers and advertisers onto the task of selling the stuff (a process that also happened to bread). There was more resistance at first. But the advertisers won through with lager. Clever, funny advertisements, like those for Heineken (“refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”) hit the zeitgeist, and traditionally made beers fell into rapid decline. Advertisers loved lager. They regarded it is a pure marketing product. It sold only through the strength of marketing, which had nothing to do with how it tasted. Indeed, researchers found that the blander it tasted, the faster, and more, people drank. The brewers adjusted their products accordingly.

And now the brewers are in crisis, in developed markets anyway. Beer drinking is in decline. All the momentum is with craft brewers, who produce small quantities of the stuff using more traditional methods – and which taste of something.

And so to politics. Politics used to be a labour intensive business. Political party membership would run to millions, and it was an essential part of social fabric. You won elections by knocking on doors, putting on public meetings and other events. Election literature was mainly a local affair. But the professionals got hold of this. They wanted something much more productive, with a wider impact. They pulled apart campaign messages and reconstructed something better crafted to the process of winning elections, using mass media to promote it (mainly a politically aligned press in Britain). This strategy, in essence, was to demonise the opposition with negative campaigning, while toning down your own offer to cause minimum offence. And persuasive effort was focused on a minority of swing voters. The message to more reliable supporters was was simply: I know you aren’t keen on a lot of what we are saying, but please come out and vote to stop the other lot. This required lots of money, but fewer people. These modern techniques worked. No modern mainstream political party would be without its professional advisers, armed with polling, focus groups, target voter analysis, and an array of modern marketing techniques.

And sure enough, public engagement in politics has declined. Voter turnout has steadily fallen. This bothered the professionals little, apart from some token public handwringing. What mattered was winning elections, after all. But now the political equivalent of craft breweries are on the rise. Smaller, tightly focused but distinctly unprofessional political parties. In Britain the winning political party would usually get over 40% of the votes cast (and in the 1950s about 50%). Now polling shows both main parties bobbing along at about 30%, even as the third mainstream party, the Liberal Democrats, languishes at about 7% when it used to reach two to three times that level at this point in the cycle. At the European elections earlier this year, the only national elections held under proportional representation, voters were confronted with a bewildering array of political parties, many brand-new. Few of these make much headway, but three “craft brewer” parties are making seeing success: Ukip, who won that election,  the Greens, who won more seats than the Lib Dems, and the SNP are sweeping all before them in Scotland (and who I would not accuse of being “distinctly unprofessional”).

This phenomenon is not unique to Britain. In America there are few in the way of craft parties – but there are distinct craft elements within the main parties, especially the Republican Tea Party groups. In Europe an array of fringe parties are doing well, as establishment parties take a diminishing share of the vote.

Can this decline of mainstream parties be reversed? Occasionally a charismatic leader can reverse the fortunes of mainstream parties. Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe in Japan; Tony Blair in Britain; Matteo Renzi, perhaps, in Italy. There is an interesting common feature in with all these politicians. They set themselves up as taking on their own party’s establishment, and picked fights with the conservatives on their own side. But the instincts of Britain’s current main party leaders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, are to paper over the cracks in their parties and not to pick fights. Perhaps, unlike Japan and Italy, there is not enough wrong in the British establishment to make such a battle credible. Tony Blair’s fight with the Labour left was spectacular, but his electoral platform reached new heights in blandness.

What to do? Personally I think that the fragmentation of British politics is a good thing, and that our electoral systems should be changed to facilitate it. This would turn politics into a squabble between smaller parties. In due course something more coherent would emerge. The idea that a single political party can encompass enough of a national consensus to have a mandate to govern belongs to the past. The choice of bread and beer in Britain is steadily improving now that the big businesses have been pushed back. It is perhaps the best it has ever been. Pluralism is not failure.

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