The two-party system is strangling our democracy

Sam – GSAL Alumnus (2019 Leaver)

Editor’s Note: Former student Sam (2019 Leaver) was an editorial member of Salutaris, the Sixth Form academic journal, during his time at GSAL. This excellent short essay was originally published in Salutaris 2019, a project led by Mrs Gray, E-Learning Designer. CPD

The current state of British politics is likely to push more and more to the sentiment of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, that “Parliaments are the great lie of our time”. Pobedonostev, admittedly, wrote the line in 1896 as arguments for a state Parliament grew stronger under an archaic Russian monarchy, but by applying it to the current political impasse we now find ourselves in, perhaps Parliament is the great lie of our time. 

The British Parliament, long held as a bastion of government which inspired enlightened thinkers such as Montesquieu, and the framework for other Parliaments worldwide, is now an international laughing stock. Brexit may be the biggest peacetime crisis the UK has ever faced, but this is not the cause of the deep-set issues British politics has had for decades, rather just another symptom of it. The current First Past the Post system is the rot; it promotes a two-party system with two complacent, comfortable, and mainstream parties which fail to represent the interest of the public and pigeon-holes them into voting red or blue, often motivated by tradition, established principles, and class. Whilst the British Parliamentary system may have been idyllic for those such as Montesquieu wishing for constitutional monarchy in their own country, Brexit has demonstrated to the public for the first time that Parliament actually lives up to the origins of its name, and is now little more than a talking-shop as two parties scheme, manoeuvre, and sit on the fence so that they can have one eye on the ballot box and one eye on the donors.

There is an easy solution: a shift away from the First Past the Post (FPTP) system of the 17th Century and an embrace of modern-day voting practices, such as Proportional Representation, or PR. PR is needed in this country, as can be seen by the inequality that FPTP has created in our election process. The narrow choice that only two parties gives the public has resulted in neither Labour or the Conservatives ever having a majority of votes cast, despite winning elections outright by narrow margins that, with enough seats, can essentially turn Parliament into a rubber-stamping body for an imperial Prime Minister. To show how stark elections can be in terms of number of votes won and how many seats a party has won, a comparison just needs to be made between the 1997 and 2017 elections. The largest majority in history, Tony Blair’s 179 seat majority was won on the back of 13,518,167 votes, 43.2% of the turnout.  In comparison, Theresa May’s Conservative party won 13,636,684 votes, or 42.4% of the turnout. Tony Blair was able to implement changes, some which fundamentally changed British politics forever by facilitating more devolved powers for Wales and Scotland. On the other hand, Theresa May was forced to enter a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party in return for £1 billion in order to establish a majority and thus allow basic legislation to pass the Commons, despite the DUP having under 300,000 votes in total. This alarming comparison, 20 years apart, demonstrates how problematic FPTP is; votes cast have no relation on the outcome of the seats and thus it damages democracy. In essence, it creates an illusion of democracy, where seats won don’t dictate the public’s wishes, only a certain number of the public’s wishes in a few key swing seats.

The advantage PR would have in our political system which could improve this situation would be to predominantly eradicate the worry of voting seriously for a tertiary party where the vote cast would be, in effect, pointless. Therefore, PR allows the voting public to have more of a say in the direction and future of the country and millions who do not vote (roughly a third of the electorate on average) may be more encouraged to be active in democracy, as it means each vote has more weight, with the possibility that a more diverse and representative group of parties can be elected. This can be achieved through an examination of the German system of proportional representation which in 2017 returned seven parties, with the lowest number of seats 46 and the highest 200. The system is a combination of the FPTP and PR systems by incorporating the Additional Member System. This allows popular democracy in the style of FPTP to exist, but for citizens to make additional choices for a party on top of their ballot for an individual representative, allowing smaller, more diverse parties to have a serious say in the political conversation and force the parties to co-operate and work together in order to pass legislation, resulting in governance that is more moderate, and generally agreeable for more people. Applying this to British politics would mean that the stranglehold the two major parties have over the political system would be reduced, with more parties covering a wider array of issues and beliefs having a key say in our political system, with the public not having to worry about voting for a party such as the Liberal Democrats with the mindset that a vote for them is a vote for either the Conservative or Labour party. This attitude is worsening. In 2017, one of the most polarised elections in British history created an atmosphere of war between the two main parties and ushered in a new era of tactical voting, with the internet creating a way for people to see who the realistic winners were in their constituencies. This led to a significant rise in the focus on the two traditional parties at the expense of tertiary parties, but this did not mean they were ignored completely, only even more excluded. The Liberal Democrats performed poorly, winning 7.5% of the vote but less than 2% of the available seats. PR would put a stop to this, increasing the focus on the interests of those who do not fit into either of the main parties, as many now don’t, and improving the British democratic process.

Despite the current state of deep political polarisation and frustration, however, PR is just a pipe dream. The nature of the system means that legislation regarding electoral reform would be reliant on the two parties that benefit the most from the FPTP system to make the change. This is obviously a political reality that means it is hugely undesirable for either the Conservatives or Labour to change the system themselves, as it would see the possibility of winning elections by huge margins diminish, promoting more coalitions and corporation with other parties of differing core ideologies. Arguments against PR come from this vein, with critics complaining that coalition governments are weak and indecisive, although the overall successes of the coalition government in 2010 can show that this is not the case, with Parliament playing a larger role in politics, as can be seen with the votes on Syrian airstrikes. Another criticism comes from the promotion and allowance of an increase in the power of extremist and more radical groups, such as UKIP, which suffered from the FPTP system which limited them to one seat in 2015 despite gaining the third most votes, just under 4 million. This is just a symptom of why the political system needs to change to facilitate more diverse parties covering more interests of the public. If enough people vote for ‘radical’ groups around the country, they should have a say in Parliament, with the coalition system resulting in any ‘radical’ minority group having to become more moderate in order to work with other parties and actually have any chance of furthering their goal. 

Overall, it leaves us with the depressing realisation that our political system should change, but it won’t. There is an obvious inequality in our political system that can only be helped by PR with methods such as the Additional Member System, but the fact that the ruling political two-party class have such a hold on society, via tradition, money, and the deep-set idea that they are the only two parties worth voting for, means change does not look to be around the corner. One of the few positives of the current political climate is the greater awareness gained on the appeal of PR, and a spotlight given to the flaws of the two-party system with the supposedly ruling party losing its own votes by 230 whilst the opposition party sits on the fence and only deviates to increase its relatively low levels of popularity. This can only give us hope that sometime in the future there is a nationwide realisation that there is an alternative to our 17th Century two-party system that reduces democracy to an illusion, and instead there is a better way. It is time for the world’s oldest Parliamentary democracy to modernise. 

Sam

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