Simon Szreter: Proportional Representation -- Historical Destiny Beckons?





History shows both how the two-party system has lasted for so long in our country and also why it has now outlasted its usefulness. It has entered, during the last two decades, a period of pathological obsolescence: dead on its feet, only kept alive by the life-support machine of the first-past-the-post electoral rule.

The origins of the system lie in the aristocratic period of the 18th century but the system really flourished- and served British society tolerably well- during the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, from the time of the first electoral reform of 1832 until the 1969 Act which extended the vote to all aged 18-21.

There have been two general historical reasons both why the two-party system has effectively served British politics for the last two centuries and, conversely, why this is no longer the case today. The system worked relatively well because the social structure and each party had a genuine and distinctive community of opposed economic interests to serve. For much of the 19th century voting interests aligned either behind the incumbent authority and power of land - the Tory party - or behind that of commercial and industrial capital - the Liberals - with their respective cultural and ideological elaborations: church and squire versus chapel and master.

With the expansion of urban, industrialised capitalism and its commercial ethos, in the 20th century another polarised opposition emerged as the dominant influence on the nation's newly democratic politics: capital versus labour, 'us' versus 'them'. The politics of religion was superseded by the politics of class: the Conservative party of property-owners versus the Labour party of property-less wage-workers.

But now in the 21st century these two great economic divisions no longer make sense to the vast majority of the electorate. They do not describe their self-identities, nor their political wishes and aspirations. Voters are now, in the main, both property-owners and wage-workers. The New Labour project recognised this political reality by abandoning its oppositional politics to capital. Hence, with the two main parties both now presenting themselves as the friend of both capital (neither of the two main parties has committed to break up the banks, the one thing that the bankers truly fear) and labour (the Conservatives do not oppose the minimum wage and talk of 'hard-working families'), the traditional battle lines have been changed.

The electorate perceives that the two main parties no longer stand for major ideological differences on how our society should be organised, in whose interests governed, and for what moral purposes. Whilst a generation ago, individual voters would identify their allegiance with a party's ideology before enquiring about its policies, this has now been turned on its head. Voters think first about what policies they support and then seek to match this with a political party, often using web-based tools.

Yet the electorate is unable to give proper expression to such sophisticated political judgements. The strait-jacket of the two-party system constrains us into a dysfunctional politics of anachronistic class conflict. Today there are political issues of immense significance for our elected representatives to debate and act upon: climate change and world development, financial system reform, social exclusion, immigration, health spending and health inequities, ageing and pensions, education and social mobility, to name a few. However, these issues do not, for most people, fall into a neat ideological schema that allies them either with New Labour or the Conservatives.

A General Election Briefing Paper by Democratic Audit's Andrew Blick and Stuart Wilks-Heeg demonstrates how voters have increasingly rejected this false dichotomy. Before the 1970s, the two main parties typically polled 85% of all votes cast, by the 2005 election this had fallen below 70%. Conversely the number of MPs elected for 'other' parties has risen from around 15 before the 1970s to almost 100 in 2005, even with the life-support system of first-past-the-post artificially boosting the two main parties' total. The Nick Clegg phenomenon has merely made obvious what voters have indicated for decades; they want a wider political choice. The two-party stranglehold no longer suits the economy, society or culture.

The response to the televised debates has shown that Britain could now be on the brink of a revival of political vigour and empowerment in Britain. This is not going to happen through David Cameron's Big Society of the little state and an army of do-gooders. It will happen once the people of Britain can express and act on their political preferences by voting for the diverse parliamentary parties of their choice, not either of the two monopolistic parliamentary parities they are currently forced to choose between.

A 'hung' parliament is therefore exactly what the nation needs at this historical juncture to transform and revive its political system. The only meaningful act of this balanced parliament would be to act as midwife to proportional representation, enabling the British people to enter a new age of political choice. Bringing this about will not be remotely easy. There are two wily old foxes, long used to sharing all the hens in the coop between them, who, even in the aftermath of the recent parliamentary disgraces, won't want to give up their cosy monopoly on power.


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