The two-party system that has been the bedrock of both British and American democracy for centuries is beginning to burst at the seams. Socioeconomic stagnation and technological developments have made the concept of a big tent party virtually unworkable. It is ridiculous that one party is the most natural political home for both Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, but that is the world we live in.
Of the four major parties across the two countries, two are in open civil war and the other two are one electoral setback from it. As Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn energise party bases and horrify their colleagues, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton have only the promise of governance to hold together their quarrelsome parties. Brexit and the influence of corporate America, respectively, are proving nearly insurmountable obstacles to unity.
In the era of smartphones and social media, it is no longer possible for the same beast to show multiple faces. Parties, and politicians, must stay on message. One does not have the luxury of saying one thing at a meeting of party activists, another at a rally in the North, another at a rally in the South and another at a donor’s event. If the appearances are not officially recorded and up on a campaign’s Twitter feed in minutes, they will be unofficially recorded and shared. Not only that, but the internet era has allowed a diversity of views to flourish, one that is poorly reflected on the ground.
As Hillary Clinton noted, in some rather ironically leaked remarks, it is much more difficult now to have one policy in public and another in private. I think this should be read less as outright dishonesty, more a recognition of the above. What was once a delicate balancing game between activists, diverse groups of voters and donors has been blown apart. Instead of speaking with many voices, the party speaks with one or risks “disunity” and “infighting”.
When each party speaks with one voice and there are only two parties that really matter, this means that in terms of electoral politics, there are two voices for the whole country. This is not enough. It leads to people feeling like their voices aren’t being heard. It leads to an obsessive focus on control of the party structure (as with the disenfranchised British left’s Corbynite rebellion and the corresponding centre-left pushback), and this often comes at the expense of communicating clearly with the wider public.
The stark ideological divides produced by two-party politics mean that bipartisan cooperation is usually lauded. Even that has its pitfalls. Politicians are, almost by definition, members of the elite; one person’s “bipartisan cooperation” is another’s “elite collusion”. When you have a bugbear that is fairly common, but nobody within a sniff of power holds it, it’s hard not to feel pushed unfairly to the side. That bugbear can all-too-easily become a make-or-break issue if left to fester too long.
The route out of this is easier in the UK, which has a long tradition of minority parties achieving modest success. A coalition of centre-through-left parties could run together on this issue. They might even receive some backing from UKIP on it, too – their 4 million votes to one seat is a travesty that could turn electoral reform from a niche concern to a vote-winner. In the US, it’s harder to see a way out, but who knows what novelties the post-Trump soul search will throw up.
For the record, I’d prefer a single transferable vote system. 6 constituencies would be fused into one with 6 members, who would be elected through a system of preference voting. The mechanics are a little fiddly, but the demands on the voter are not: list the order of your preferences. It produces a more proportional result, while retaining the local aspect of a constituency MP.