In one sense, the formation of The Independent Group on Monday came to many as a shock to the system. But in another sense, it simply reflected a long-term reality.
Britain’s parties are unwieldy coalitions, forced together by a two-party voting system. But there comes a point when those coalitions expand so much that they begin to unravel.
For decades now, people’s views have been diverging: away from who their parents voted for, or simply voting on class lines. And as ideas – less than social status – become the key driver of people’s voting behaviour, the traditional party structures are put under strain. In other words, loyalty is no longer enough to hold these coalitions together.
The big debates of our time – from Brexit to the ‘culture wars’, and from questions of national identity to security and social care – now intersect in complex ways, cutting much deeper than a Blue team and a Red team. The colours have blurred. As I told Wired magazine, society has fundamentally changed and Brexit has drawn back the curtains.
And while the big parties are coalitions, unlike in most advanced democracies which use fair, proportional voting systems, the voters have no control over which faction is going to be in charge of the party. Until yesterday, the Conservatives and Labour managed to hold their coalitions in line. No longer.
It is a difficult thing to accept, but parties have not been their true ‘shape’ for a long time – they have been artificially bolted together by a broken electoral system.
It is Brexit which has forced the moment to its crisis: revealing what is an impossible situation. We have just two huge ‘camps’ in the UK that try to represent everyone but can’t. This is simply not how politics works now.
It may not feel like it, but this is an opportunity for all parties. For Labour, a surge in votes no longer means a surge seats, as 2017 showed. A 10% increased vote share resulted in only a small parliamentary swing. For the Conservatives, it is the regional concentration of the DUP’s votes under First Past the Post which has given it such clout, while Conservatives go under-represented in the North of England. The warping effect of Westminster’s voting system only exaggerates parties’ disconnect to the diversity of the whole UK. It should be clear to both parties that a new constitutional settlement is needed.
Monday’s news, therefore, increases the urgency of the need for reform: the party system is changing but the structures that underpin it remain stuck in the past.
Across the country, voters are – it has to be said – rightly angry about not being listened to. This too is an issue for all parties.
Yet for all the unrest and unease, few are talking about how to improve the situation. The Independent Group’s slogan is ‘Politics is broken’. This is true, but solutions aren’t the preserve of one group or party.
So much has changed this past few years, and all the evidence points towards voters wanting greater power and to be listened to. The crisis is not unsolvable: we can reform Westminster’s broken structures and build a better democracy.
Politicians are there to fix what’s broken. Now it’s time to finally read the public mood and get their own house in order.
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