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The pandemic has not dimmed hostility between political parties at Westminster, but it has downgraded the contest as a focus of public attention. Identification as Labour or Conservative is marginal to most people’s lives between elections, and irrelevant to the coronavirus. Last year many said they would like to see opposition and government working together, improbable though that may be given the rancorous state of British politics.
Sir Keir Starmer has struck a tricky and thankless balance between conditional support, constructive criticism and more pugnacious attacks on the government. He has to compete for attention with rebellious Tory MPs. In a parliament where the prime minister has a large majority, dissent from within the ruling party often excites media attention more than the official opposition. That tendency bestows privilege on libertarian, anti-lockdown views that are peripheral to mainstream opinion. Not for the first time, the frame of a national debate has been skewed by small, well-amplified rightwing faction with disproportionate leverage over a Tory prime minister.
Partly that is a function of an electoral system that awards sweeping power to a party that can turn a plurality of votes into an overall parliamentary majority. That prize also accounts for the resilience of the two-party duopoly in England. First past the post raises insuperable barriers for smaller parties. When every vote counts more equally, the British public are not so easily corralled into the long-established red and blue reservations. The Scottish National party’s great political breakthrough came first via Holyrood elections, using a proportional system. That advantage was then converted into dominance of Westminster seats. In the 2019 European parliamentary elections, the Brexit party and Liberal Democrats came first and second. The Tories got fewer votes than the Greens. That reflected the primacy of divisions and emotions exposed by the 2016 referendum.
Boris Johnson is now prime minister because he was then so effective at rehousing disparate parts of the leave-voting coalition under one roof. His 2019 general election campaign to “get Brexit done” was a triumph of tactical coalition building, but it created an unstable and incoherent electoral bloc. Former Labour seats in the so-called “red wall” and traditional Tory shire constituencies demand different things from their MPs. For Labour the challenge is trying to reconnect with older voters in those lost heartlands whose cultural outlook often clashes with attitudes in the party’s younger, more liberal, metropolitan activist base.
It is possible to cover large social and economic divides under one party banner (as, indeed, Mr Johnson proved) but there is a cost in honesty and clarity of intent. The effort ends up denying the existence of difficult trade-offs. The pledge to “get Brexit done” was a rhetorical device to wish problems away. It is useless as a guide to what the Tory party stands for. Labour is still in the foothills of a long journey to define its identity in post-Brexit Britain. It is a good thing that support for proportional representation is gaining ground inside Labour, as more people understand that the current system perpetuates a flawed pattern of politics.
These are structural problems shrouded in the fog of pandemic. British politics has been turbulent in recent years because so many people have felt ignored by a system that allocates power unevenly and often perversely. Brexit gave vent to that frustration, but it was not a remedy. Labour and Tories continue to benefit from arrangements that filter complex social and economic interests through a two-party contest. There is a brittle kind of stability in that process, but it masks a profound crisis of political representation.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on two-party politics: a binary choice is bad for democracy | Labour