Our two-party system is falling apart

Published by the i paper (27th June, 2016)

So what an appalling mess our country finds itself in. Last Friday, we woke to discover Britain had decided to detach itself from Europe, ensuring we face self-imposed recession and probably the end of our kingdom’s union. This followed a depressing campaign that demeaned politics and divided the country. Already some of the careerists and charlatans who led the battle for Brexit are confessing they conned voters, accepting it will not end free movement or send an extra £350m a week to the health service.

They celebrated with champagne as shares fell, the pound plummeted and firms fretted. And yes, these are the people who say they seek to renew public faith in democracy. They talk about new politics while practising the most disreputable dark arts of their tarnished trade. Perhaps we should not be surprised when a supposed insurgency against ‘the establishment’ is led by a flip-flopping Old Etonian who cares only about grabbing the keys to Downing Street. Yet they corrode further the fragile bonds that bind Britain.

It becomes more obvious by the hour that those campaigning for withdrawal from the European Union have no idea what happens next. And as fallout sweeps aside a Prime Minister and provokes a coup against the opposition leader, our tribal two-party system forged from past tussles between capital and labour appears increasingly archaic. The modern fault line, cleaving Britain and so many other Western democracies almost perfectly in two, is between optimists that embrace globalisation and pessimists resistant to change.

This was exposed by the EU vote. Moderates and young voters united behind the Remain flag, while conservatives of all colours promoted Brexit. The two-party system was already crumbling with the rise of nationalism and anger against Westminster; now there are fears for the future of parties that governed our nation for so long. Both are struggling to adapt to the challenges of fast-changing economic, social and political environments, leaving them crippled by civil war as the country faces existential crisis.

The Tories were torn apart by the campaign. This was inevitable, given such high stakes and since Europe scars the party deeply – it also devastated the previous two Conservative governments. MPs in recent intakes tell me they can pull the party together, with less hostility lower down the ranks. Yet there is still need for Parliament to pass dozens of bills to break with Brussels and a clear majority in Westminster opposed to Brexit. A big battle has been lost but the war may not be over.

Fear over foreigners coming to our country was the core reason Britain voted to leave the EU, although they have helped drive economic success. This underscored the failure of politicians to make the case for immigration, letting migrants be blamed for inadequate public services. Boris Johnson, once a realist on this issue, ended up sounding like a Ukip spokesman. Now he aims to re-assert liberal credentials as he prepares to formally launch his leadership bid. The former mayor demonstrates the toxic legacy of a disingenuous fight led by metropolitan moderates that galvanised working-class social conservatives.

Johnson’s new friends on the traditional Tory right have more in common with Nigel Farage’s forces than with many of the party’s own more centrist MPs. Meanwhile, there are Tory moderates who could easily find common ground with refugees from Labour and the Liberal Democrats (who do still exist, by the way, although sightings are rare). Perhaps the party can coalesce around a new leader. But the more they bicker and deceive voters, the more people are turned off by politics and less trust they have in Westminster. Yet we live in turbulent times when we need political revival to thwart dangerous forces of populism.

Things are far worse on the left. Jeremy Corbyn is like a bad joke, an absurdist throwback to seventies-style Socialism. He bears almost as much culpability for our ejection from Europe as David Cameron, which will lose him some support among young idealists who handed him the leadership. He is utterly at odds with the parliamentary group, as seen in the latest coup attempt and rash of resignations yesterday, while backed by a new wave of members; almost two-thirds said last month they would vote for him again. Having lost Scotland, the party now fights itself as northern heartlands slip away.

Survey the political landscape and you see a pair of fractious parties that often look as outmoded as the telegram in this disruptive age. I loathe Ukip, but they exploited this failure. The two major parties have always been unwieldy coalitions, but are they really sustainable in our rapidly-changing world? Half a century ago, one in four citizens identified strongly with one of them; now it is only one in ten. No wonder: voting patterns last week revealed divides between young and old, skilled and unskilled, London and the north. Where are the English politicians providing voices for these new groupings?

Some argue for proportional representation to blow apart the old parties and rebuild more representative politics. They are probably right, yet recent political paralysis in places such as Belgium, Ireland and Spain makes me wonder about this solution. But as one party leader is deposed in a coup and another faces a challenge, those seeking succession would do well to reflect on the continuing corrosion being caused to our precious democracy. Meanwhile, members might ask: what is the point of their party today?

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