A proportional response to our broken political system
Published by The i paper (3rd September, 2018)
Do you remember a politician called Vince Cable? He was that older bloke who famously foresaw the 2008 financial meltdown and looked like a bank manager breaking bad news whenever he popped up on our television screens – which used to be quite frequently during his ministerial days. A few months after his Liberal Democrat party was pulverised by voters for propping up the Tories in government for five years, he insisted that history would be kind to the coalition. “People, once they have seen Tory government on its own, will realise the difference,” he said.
Perhaps he was right with this prediction too. Just look at the pathetic mess of our current politics with the two traditional parties fighting among themselves while the country confronts its most daunting challenge since the Second World War. Focus on the politics, not the policies, and those days when two parties came together to steer the country through fiscal crisis feel like a lovely warm bath of stability. Then look what happened when it ended: the Tories unleashed the tragedy of Brexit and Labour turned sharp left under an incompetent old Socialist.
The Sunday papers underlined the severity of our political maelstrom. Tory ultras, led by a pair of shameless Old Etonians, have hooked up with the Australian spin doctor who screwed up the last election to force out the Prime Minister. This motley rabble of careerists, nationalists and zealots is determined to push through the hardest possible Brexit, disregarding collateral damage caused to less wealthy folk, and to install the odious Boris Johnson in Downing Street. This is the inevitable end game of an obsession with Europe that has already torn down three Conservative prime ministers. The party has turned right to try and head off their threat.
That is bad enough – but it is even worse on the opposition side. Jeremy Corbyn, who has long prided himself on being a noble fighter for equality, is embroiled in a sleazy row over anti-Semitism that exposes personal hypocrisy and is staining the party badly. Moderate backbenchers are in despair, not least over his dismal failure to oppose Brexit. One of the best-known MPs has resigned the whip, claiming the Labour Party is being corroded by nasty thugs who bully rivals – although my sympathy for Frank Field is severely reduced as he was foolish enough to nominate Corbyn as leader in the first place. There are mutterings more MPs may quit to form a breakaway party.
Meanwhile we drift towards the Brexit deadline, with growing fears about a cliff-edge exit due to the selfish intransigence of hardliners who refused to compromise with the rest of the country. Serious problems in our care homes, hospitals, prisons and schools are ignored by those supposed to be running the country since they are far too busy feuding with members of their own tribe to spend time actually addressing the nation’s mounting problems. Perhaps we should seek a refund on their pay, given how few politicians are doing their job.
Surveying this dire state of British politics, it is clear our political system does not fit its purpose. The two main parties, both historic coalitions in themselves, no longer hold together. There is much talk of a new centre party – and a mountain of money waiting in the wings – but little conclusion on what it might stand for beyond opposition to Brexit. And even that is not certain: a fledgling force backed by multi-millionaire Simon Franks has reportedly concluded the gap in the market is for an ‘anti-politics party’ closer to Nigel Farage than Chuka Umunna. More simplistic and shouty populism is the last thing this divided nation needs, however.
So what can be done? I am increasingly convinced the solution is very dull – and that is proportional representation. I know, I know, you are stifling a yawn and your eyelids suddenly drooping. But bear with me. The best argument for our existing system has always been that it leads to strong and stable government. ‘Throughout history it has risen to the demands of the time, often with a brutal decisiveness,’ said David Cameron on eve of the 2011 referendum over the issue. Cue hollow laughter. Clearly this is no longer true as shown by the Brexit contortions.
The country is so divided that Westminster is hopelessly stymied even after the two main parties swept up their biggest combined share of the vote for nearly half a century. We need to foster disruption at Westminster – and the best way to do this is to help smaller parties survive and thrive. Most voters dislike extremism and see themselves as being in the centre, even if they have conflicting views of where this is located. Yet they face an appalling choice between two hardline parties, both riven with division – and the Tories are likely to lurch further right when they finally oust Theresa May as Ukip members flock home to help select her successor.
Studies indicate that if there are lots of safe seats in a winner-takes-all electoral system, politics becomes more partisan and campaigning grows more negative. This is seen with even greater clarity in the United States. A reformed voting system would not solve the problem of politics in a populist age, as seen across Europe. But it could create space for smaller parties, ensuring everyone from moderates and radical greens to nativists, end up with more effective representation. This should hasten the break-up of both main parties, help politics react faster to wider societal changes, restrain the extremists and lead to more sensible and stable coalition government. It might even give the Liberal Democrats hope again under their current leader, whoever he is.