Ending the Punch and Judy show: How to get a more cooperative politics

Josiah Mortimer
Author:
Josiah Mortimer

Posted on the 30th May 2019

There is an uncomfortable fact for those who oppose moves to a fairer voting system: all the chaos we have seen in Westminster over the past few years has been under the ‘strong and stable’ voting system of First Past the Post.

All the chaos we have seen in Westminster over the past few years has been under the ‘strong and stable’ voting system of First Past the Post. Click To Tweet

Meanwhile, government in Wales and Scotland has seemed like a paradigm of stability in contrast. Both parliaments there are elected under proportional voting systems – where cooperation and dialogue are not dirty words, but ingrained in a more ‘consensual’ political culture.

There is a strong likelihood the next General Election will result in a hung parliament, according to analysis by Electoral Calculus. While parties will go into the election talking about ruling alone and securing whopping mandates for their terms – treating ‘working together’ as anathema as in the 2015 election – the result may well be very different.

It is no wonder. The party system is fragmented, with voters shopping around more than ever. They want wider representation, based on issues rather than class divisions. First Past the Post simply can’t handle it.

And yet, parties remain locked in a ‘majoritarian’ mindset – pretending to govern alone. That’s arguably why, despite failing to win a clear majority in 2017, it took Theresa May two years to reach out across the political divide.

For many party activists, the talks came out of the blue – as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to ‘look busy’ while the vultures circle, rather than a genuine attempt at meaningful discussion and compromise.

Yet, when you look at the evidence, the public is clearly much less tribal than activists and politicians. Away from the cries of ‘betrayal’ in Westminster, voters want politicians to find positive solutions together.

Away from the cries of ‘betrayal’ in Westminster, voters want politicians to find positive solutions together Click To Tweet

BMG research polling for the ERS’ new report Westminster Beyond Brexit: Ending the Politics of Division shows that 64% of people think that our political system should encourage cooperation between political parties. Yet only 19% believe that it currently does so. (Interestingly, voters in Scotland are the most supportive of political cooperation – having seen it first hand through power-sharing governments).

In fact, 49% of voters think political parties in Parliament should try to work together to find a solution to problems, even if this requires parties to break promises made at the previous election (some way more than the 31% who think the opposite).

Public antipathy to ‘yah boo’ Parliamentary politics is nothing new. But with political trust at rock bottom, we now need to see a move towards a more consensus-based political model. That respects reaching out across divides, rather than repudiating it.

A constitutional convention – involving the public – to look at our political set-up and how it must be reformed is one way forward. Alongside that, we need to move to a voting system where working together is expected. At present, we have the worst of all words: coalition-making is ruled out before elections and then becomes a necessity when the parliamentary numbers don’t stack up. As such, crucial political deals are made entirely behind closed doors, rather than in the open as in many European countries.

We should harmonise political relations between the nations and regions too, with a fairly-elected chamber representing the different parts of the UK.

And we should use ‘citizens’ assemblies’ at the local level, in a systematic and embedded manner to deal with complex and contested issues.

The fissures in the main political parties increase the urgency of the need for real political reform. The party system is fragmenting but the structures of Westminster remain stubbornly locked in the 19th century.

The party system is fragmenting but the structures of Westminster remain stubbornly locked in the 19th century Click To Tweet

The need for an overhaul of the centralised, adversarial politics we witness in Westminster is becoming more urgent by the day.

The public wants a fairer, more honest, more cooperative politics. It’s time to change the system to help make it happen.

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