What Good Is a Two-Party System If It Doesn’t Provide Stability?

The Conservatives and Labour have won a combined 80 percent support, yet neither commands a majority.

View of the Houses of Parliament in London, England, December 21, 2011
View of the Houses of Parliament in London, England, December 21, 2011 (Ben Sutherland)

There is a lazy assumption in much of the British election coverage that the return of two-party politics was the only good news of the night.

Between them, the Conservatives and Labour won 82 percent support on Thursday, up from 67 percent in 2015.

Yet neither party has a majority. The biggest party is in disarray. The second party has no way to form a government. It is quite likely there will be another election later this year or next.

Multiparty democracies on the continent, like Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, are arguably more stable. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010 was one of the few governments in recent British history that sat out its full, five-year mandate. It’s why I argued here before the 2015 election that Britain shouldn’t be so allergic to coalition government.

Polarization

That’s even more true now that the Conservatives have lurched to the right and Labour has lurched to the left. This polarization makes it more difficult for either party to govern.

Imagine, by contrast, if the Liberal Democrats had won something like fifty seats. They could have tempered the right’s enthusiasm for Brexit or the left’s nostalgia for statism.

Either way, no party would have been inclined to impose its vision — supported by at most 40 percent of voters — on the whole country.