To Be Successful, Britain’s New Centrist Party Needs Electoral Reform

There is room for a party in the middle of British politics. The problem is the first-past-the-post system.

The statue of Richard the Lionheart and the Palace of Westminster in London, England, August 12, 2014
The statue of Richard the Lionheart and the Palace of Westminster in London, England, August 12, 2014 (Shutterstock)

Britain’s youngest political party is growing. The Independent Group (TIG) has attracted eight lawmakers from Labour and three from the Conservatives. A ninth Labour member of Parliament, Ian Austin, has left his party but not (yet) joined the new centrist group.

Polls give TIG between 8 and 14 percent support.

Challenges

The group, which is not officially a party yet, faces two challenges:

  1. Writing a coherent platform that unites left- and right-wing views.
  2. Overcoming Britain’s first-past-the-post system.

I suspect the first will be easier than critics on the left and right allow. TIG’s statement of principles hints at a middle-of-the-road, liberal, social democratic program that could be broadly popular.

The second is the real hurdle. In 2010, the Liberal Democrats won 23 percent of the vote but only 9 percent of the seats in Parliament. Labour, by contrast, won almost 40 percent of the seats with only 29 percent of the vote.

BuzzFeed has calculated that a party of the 48 percent who voted to remain in the EU in 2016 would win just 35 percent of the seats, so distorted is Britain’s electoral system.

With Labour careering far to left and the Conservatives wholly embracing Brexit, there is clearly room for a party in the middle of British politics.

But without electoral reform, it will be hard for TIG, or any third party, to break through.

Arguments for reform

Defenders of the first-past-the-post system argue it makes Britain more governable, as it typically produces strong majorities for the ruling party.

Except in the last three elections. And in 1974. And 1964. And 1950.

If first-past-the-post really provided stability, Britain wouldn’t have had so many snap elections. In the sixty years since the end of World War II, it has actually had about as many elections as multiparty Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

And if stability is what you want, why stop at two parties? One-party systems are the most stable in the world — until, of course, they aren’t.

Another argument is that coalition governments are indecisive, but most of the time voters want their country “tweaked but not turned upside down,” as political commentator Janan Ganesh has argued.

Two-party systems can veer from one extreme to another. Multiparty democracies generally have more consistent policies, which allows businesses and citizens to plan ahead.

Elections in a two-party system are an all-or-nothing contest where the losing side will feel completely powerless for four or five years. This can make it harder to govern if the winning party has a small majority; unable to make deals with other parties, it can be held hostage by its own hardliners. That it what’s happened in the Conservative Party over Brexit.

Finally, two-party systems encourage polarization. They delude voters into thinking there are only two sides to every issue and they force them to pick a team. We can see this most clearly in the United States, where voters choose a party and then assume its beliefs, rather than the other way around. In multiparty systems, voters are less loyal to their parties and more true to their beliefs.