After the Second World War the Labour and Tory parties completely dominated British politics, sharing around 96 percent of the popular vote between them. According to some opinion polls, they will be lucky to get more than half the total vote in this week’s European elections.
But the political system continues to be dominated by the two main parties. This makes it much harder to address the crisis caused by the revelations about MPs’ expenses. Even though it is causing a revulsion against all the establishment parties, the response continues to be mediated by them.
The first stage of this response consisted of Labour, Tories, and Liberal Democrats competing to minimise the damage the revelations caused them. On the whole, Tory leader David Cameron won that stage.
This was partly because he moved quickly to remove some of the most prominent Tory offenders. But Cameron has been helped by Gordon Brown’s ineptitude.
Brown’s failure to sack Hazel Blears, the Flipper Queen, is extraordinary. The explanation is probably fear that the rot goes so deep into the cabinet that it would be hard to deal with Blears’s complaint that she had been made a scapegoat for the crimes of others as well as herself.
Now we are entering the second stage, which is a bidding game over constitutional reform. The Lib Dems have some advantage here, because they have a longstanding set of proposals, the most important of which is the introduction of proportional representation (PR). So their leader Nick Clegg is basking in unusual media attention.
But Brown and Cameron have to be seen to be offering reforms as well. My guess is that they will have two sticking points.
One is the power of the prime minister to call a general election at will. Cameron has said he’ll consider scrapping this, but I bet he won’t commit himself to doing it.
The other is the first-past-the-post electoral system, which allowed both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to win election landslides with two fifths of the popular vote.
These two institutions are key props sustaining the dominance of the Labour and Tory parties. Only if one of the two lost hope of winning a parliamentary majority under this set-up would it seriously consider scrapping them.
But Cameron expects to win the next election so he has no interest in seriously changing the present system. He will probably copy the ploy Blair used in the lead up to 1997 and play around with the idea of electoral reform, maybe even promise a Royal Commission on the subject, but then ditch it once he’s in 10 Downing Street.
Labour’s meltdown is encouraging calls from the left for PR, as the Tory election victories in the 1980s and 1990s did. Various worthies signed an advert calling a referendum on electoral reform that was published in last Sunday’s Observer newspaper.
I think that the left does have to look seriously at PR. But the most popular proposals – the Alternative Vote Plus and Single-Transferable Vote – are those that would prop up the existing party system. The strongest argument for electoral reform is that it would help break the dominance of two increasingly unrepresentative big parties.
But the collapse of the existing party system could make things worse if the only alternatives come from the radical right – UKIP and the BNP. The radical left in Britain today is deeply fragmented and electorally very weak.
This is ironic since the expenses crisis is in many ways about the corrupting influence that neoliberalism has exerted on mainstream politics. It’s important that the left doesn’t get trapped in a debate about constitutional reform that in many ways serves the interests of the big parties.
The most important task for the radical left is to get its act together so that it can offer a coherent and united alternative to the rotten mainstream parties. This will be a very important task after the European elections.