Argument

The British System Is Stacked Against Breakaway Parties

The Independent Group could influence the direction of Britain's politics, but it won't be by winning large numbers of seats in Parliament.

Former Labour and Conservative MPs Heidi Allen (L), Chuka Umunna (2L), Anna Soubry (3L), Chris Leslie (5L), Mike Gapes (6L), Ann Coffey (C), Luciana Berger (5R) and Angela Smith (3R) of the independent group of MPs are surrounded by pro- and anti-Brexit protesters as they arrive for their inaugural meeting at Institute of civil engineers on February 25, 2019 in London.
Former Labour and Conservative MPs Heidi Allen (L), Chuka Umunna (2L), Anna Soubry (3L), Chris Leslie (5L), Mike Gapes (6L), Ann Coffey (C), Luciana Berger (5R) and Angela Smith (3R) of the independent group of MPs are surrounded by pro- and anti-Brexit protesters as they arrive for their inaugural meeting at Institute of civil engineers on February 25, 2019 in London. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

British politics are in a state of flux. Amid an intense national debate over Brexit, a once stable two-party system is witnessing considerable churn.

The incumbent Conservative Party is bitterly divided over how best to withdraw from the European Union. Under Prime Minister Theresa May, it has proposed an exit route that keeps Britain closely aligned with the EU and which, for this reason, has alienated Conservative voters, most of whom are Leavers.

The opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, has spent much of the time since the referendum in a state of ambiguity and confusion about Brexit. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has done all that it can to avoid committing itself to a second referendum. This general reluctance, rooted in fears of alienating working-class Leavers in close-fought constituencies, has had the simultaneous effect of angering middle-class Labour Remainers.

This has led some politicians and pundits to conclude that Britain’s once stable two-party system has been broken by Brexit, as well as by sharp disputes about austerity and, within Labour, over anti-Semitism. Amid these cross-cutting influences, so the argument goes, neither Labour nor the Conservatives can fully satisfy their voters, and so the time has come for change.

“British politics,” the editors of the Independent newspaper wrote recently, “has long been overdue a fundamental realignment. Europe had threatened to do it before, but the old system survived, though fractured. The fissures are deeper now, and joined by new ones around antisemitism, the economy and defence.”

Enter two new movements. Disillusioned Remainers can now support a newly founded breakaway bloc, the Independent Group, or TIG, which can already claim nearly a dozen members of Parliament, a rapidly growing base of support, and much coverage in the media. Disgruntled Leavers, meanwhile, can now support the newly established Brexit Party, which is backed by Nigel Farage. The ex-leader of the national populist UK Independence Party (UKIP), who has watched his former party be taken over by far-right activists with strong links to the anti-Islam campaigner Tommy Robinson, argues that there is now considerable space for an altogether new right-wing party.

Both groups have generated considerable debate, not least because opinion polls point to a large reservoir of potential support. Last week, polls put the embryonic TIG, which advocates a second referendum on Brexit and a return to moderate social democratic politics, at 18 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, polls last year suggested that 38 percent of people would be open to voting for a new party on the right of the Conservatives that offered a much harder vision of Brexit, such as a complete departure from the single market and customs union.

So far, at least, the hardcore Euroskeptics in the Conservative Party—the European Research Group—have not jumped ship, largely in the hope of forcing a no-deal Brexit or, failing that, a longer-term realignment of the center-right in British politics. Against this backdrop, there is a sense of complete breakdown of the political arrangement that was once known around the world for its stable two-party system.

But these new parties are unlikely to dramatically transform the system. While they could yet exert a strong indirect effect by forcing the main parties to adopt their ideas and shift their positions, they are distinctly unlikely to bring about profound change in a party system that has long been organized around only two players.

There is no doubt that the fundamentals of British politics are changing. Three trends are especially important. The first is the continued weakening of traditional political loyalties that used to be organized tightly around class and pushed much of the working class toward Labour and the middle class toward the Conservatives. Academics used to argue that when it came to explaining voting behavior in Britain, social class was essentially all that mattered. But that is no longer the case. Today, these class-based loyalties are much weaker.

Just look at Britain’s most recent general election in 2017. The Conservative Party’s strong support for Brexit and its call for immigration reform produced its strongest result among blue-collar workers since the era of Margaret Thatcher, while the party also made serious inroads among people who have not gone to university and formerly populist UKIP voters. Meanwhile, Corbyn’s radical-left Labour Party enjoyed one of its strongest performances among the professional middle class, degree holders, and students since Tony Blair. All of this reflects how traditional class-based loyalties have weakened while other things such as age, education, values, and attitudes toward issues such as Brexit and immigration have become far more important to explaining how Brits vote. This has upended traditional models of voting behavior and produced a much less predictable electorate.

Second, citizens have become more distrustful of established politicians and much less deferential to the political class. Today, against the backdrop of Brexit, a striking 6 in 10 British voters no longer feel represented by the main parties while, last month, more than 8 in 10 people told YouGov that, as TIG’s leaders argue, “British politics is broken.”

There is also profound disillusionment with the handling of Brexit and on all sides; large majorities of Remainers and Leavers feel that the government is handling Brexit badly, albeit for very different reasons. While Leavers feel that May’s draft deal does not offer the clean break from the EU that they crave, Remainers detest the entire Brexit process, viewing it as a pointless distraction from other, more pressing domestic issues.

Lastly, and most important, is that these currents are fueling much higher volatility when it comes to voting; citizens today are far more willing to switch their votes from one party to another. In fact, today’s rates of volatility are largely without precedent across much of the postwar era. While it is true that both Labour and the Conservatives recently captured more than 80 percent of the vote between them, in many respects this was an outlier to the general trend. Over the past six decades, the share of the vote going to the two main parties has been steadily declining; if you look not at the party vote shares but rather how individual people are voting, then you will find that the 2017 and 2015 elections were the two most volatile in recent history, with record numbers switching their votes from one party to another.

This was reflected in a series of shocks: Labour capturing traditionally Conservative but now pro-Remain seats like Canterbury and Kensington and the Conservative Party capturing the traditionally Labour seats of Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent South. The U.S. equivalent would be the Republicans eating further into the white working-class vote in states like Michigan and Wisconsin and the Democrats continuing to lock down socially liberal and degree-holding professionals in suburban districts nationwide while starting to win in historically Republican strongholds like Arizona and Orange County, California. This process is already unfolding.

These deeper currents are leading excitable commentators to argue that a new anti-Brexit party could now break the mold of a rotten two-party system, much as the rise of Labour in the first two decades of the 20th century dislodged the Liberal Party, which struggled to reinvent its electorate at a time when the working classes were getting the vote.

Such a party could break through in specific places. There are 41 seats where at least 7 in 10 people voted to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum. They include ultraliberal and young districts like Bristol West and Brighton Pavilion, as well as student and young professional seats like Manchester Withington and Sheffield Central. With new research suggesting that British people’s political identities as “Remainers” and “Leavers” are becoming increasingly important, some argue that such seats could power a new revolt.

But there is a major and possibly insurmountable barrier. The most important obstacle to any new party, by far, is Britain’s simple plurality majoritarian system, known as “first past the post,” which delivers an in-built advantage to the main parties and stacks the deck firmly against new challengers. As the French political scientist Maurice Duverger noted in the 1950s, because candidates and parties simply require a majority of votes, the system imposes a vicious cycle whereby voters quickly realize that voting for anyone other than the “big two” is a wasted exercise.

The classic example is the 1983 general election, which was the last time the Labour Party split. The election saw the main opposition Labour Party returned with 209 seats and 28 percent of the vote but the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP) took just 23 seats with 25 percent of the vote. Or consider UKIP, which in 2015 won nearly 4 million votes, or almost 13 percent of the national total—that translated into only one seat in the House of Commons. Had Britain used a form of proportional representation, like many of its continental neighbors, then it is estimated that UKIP would have won around 100 seats in Parliament.

As any challenger will tell you—from the Liberal Democrats to the Greens—breaking through in Britain is the political equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. There is absolutely no reason why TIG won’t face a similar fate to that of the SDP or a new anti-Brexit breakaway party will not run into the same problems that ultimately proved too much for UKIP.

Look at those very pro-Remain seats, for example, which some argue offer fertile soil to TIG. Of the 41 seats identified above just over half (22) are in London while a further 11 are in Scotland. This matters because very few of these potential seats are actually competitive. In many of them, the Labour Party commands more than 60 or 70 percent of the vote; north of the border, the cross-cutting issue of Scottish nationalism—and the appeal of the Scottish National Party—also eats into any potential constituency for a new party.

The mass surge of public enthusiasm that any new party would need is not there yet. In some of the more recent opinion polls TIG has polled below the Liberal Democrats, and when I asked 200 of my undergraduate students this week—who should be a prime target for a new anti-Brexit party—the response was fatigue rather than fascination.

There are other problems, too. The message of an anti-Brexit party would be diluted by the Labour Party, which, since the arrival of TIG, has already co-opted some of the new bloc’s potential support. Labour, which was seriously rattled by the formation of the new bloc, has shifted toward backing a second referendum, thereby removing a key incentive for otherwise would-be defecting MPs to abandon the party and risk losing their entire political careers. The party has also appeared to adopt a tougher line on anti-Semitism, another key grievance for the bloc. The party has suspended one MP, and hundreds of Labour supporters have written a public letter of apology for the handling of the issue.

While it would not be too difficult for Labour to close down space for a new party, observers also conveniently forget that once you look beyond the issue of Brexit, many Remainers actually agree with what Corbyn and Labour say on other issues—such as the need for a more radical approach to economic redistribution. Far from being a clear and cohesive entity, Remainers are at odds on many issues, and this will dilute the potency of any TIG-led backlash.

A more plausible outcome is not the breakthrough of an entirely new party but rather the reconfiguration of Britain’s established parties by creating pressure from the outside rather than within party structures. As we have seen, the emergence of TIG is already leading Labour to commit more forcefully to catering to the demands of Remainers. For the Tories, likewise, under David Cameron, it was the emergence of the breakaway UKIP that eventually led to the decision to hold the first referendum and then pushed the Conservative Party toward a more pro-Brexit and anti-immigration position.

In the shadow of the Brexit vote, May reached out to the social conservatives whom Cameron had alienated, committing her party to catering more clearly to those who had felt abandoned by Cameron’s more socially liberal politics. While the internal logic of Labour now dictates that the party will have to make a clearer offer to Remainers, the internal logic of the Conservative Party will ensure that its next leader will almost certainly be a Leaver who retains a strong focus on Brexit voters.

This is why it’s more likely that Britain’s two-party system will be reconfigured rather than completely transformed. The real triumph for challengers in British politics comes not in terms of winning seats in Westminster but indirectly pushing the older parties to revise their positions and cater more clearly to their Leave or Remain constituencies. Ironically, then, movements like TIG that call for a greater degree of national unity and moderation might end up encouraging the further polarization of British politics, as Labour drifts further to the socially liberal left and the Conservatives, under pressure from the radical right, drift further to the socially conservative right.

The long-term significance of Britain’s Brexit moment might not be the creation of new parties but that it exacerbates deeper divisions, with challenger parties playing a much greater role in shaping the agenda, pushing the main parties down a far more polarized path, and leading to a more profound overhaul of Britain’s established party politics.

For an opposing argument by Garvan Walshe, click here.

Matthew Goodwin is a professor of political science at the University of Kent and a senior visiting fellow at Chatham House. He is the co-author of the new book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. Twitter: @GoodwinMJ

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