Is two-party politics dead?

This YouGov opinion poll published on 20th June is the fourth in a row to show Lib Dems second and the four leading Parties bunched together. Anything like this configuration will mean a deeply hung Parliament and force cooperation between decent people in the liberal centre of politics

We’ve now had four opinion polls in a row which have put the Lib Dems in second place behind Brexit and in front of both Tory and Labour parties. This is not a flash in the pan! Real votes have been cast in real elections. Of course, in the Euro-Elections we came second and gained 15 seats. In local elections yesterday we made major advances in 9 out of 10 wards contested and a gained a seat from Labour from a mediocre third place. To complete yesterday we then took two seats on the Forest of Dean Council from the Tories for the first time ever.

Does this mean a real change in the way that the UK does business? I suspect it does. With one exception – the election in 2017 – there has been a move away from two-party politics. In the 50s 95%+ of the population voted Tory or Labour. The Liberals were a Celtic fringe Party and the Welsh Nats Scots Nats and the Green Party did not even exist.

Lord Wade who had been a Liberal MP in the 50s and 60s conjectured that there were basically three political spheres in all societies. A right-wing sphere; a left-wing sphere; and a centrist sphere. In the UK those spheres were most populated by the Tory, Labour and Lib (Dem) Parties. Even the nationalist parties can be located within these spheres as their Parties in or out of government make decisions which can be judged and verified.

 The big secret is that for much of that time there has been a huge overlapping of those spheres in this Country and to some extent that cohesion between the spheres still exists although it is weakening. All three big spheres overlapped for 60% of policy making but any of those spheres could in part, as per a Venn diagram, have two spheres overlapping instead of three. Thus, on some issues there would be agreement between Tory and Labour; others between Labour and the Lib Dems and others between the Lib Dems and Tories. The fact that this worked in a binary system of government is largely because of the overlap reduced tensions and differences.

A good example of this is the last decade was the illegal 2nd war in Iraq. In this case Labour and Tory Parties were in agreement in supporting the invasion whilst the Liberal Democrats who led the opposition to it were supported by a handful of people from Labour and other smaller Parties.

The past three years have seen much change. The spheres have pulled apart as the Parties that were in two of them have pulled their spheres further away from the Centre. The impetus for both the Parties in them is Brexit. In the case of the Tories a new Party is pushing the Tories outwards. In the case of Labour, the Leader of the Party is pushing the Labour Party outward. Both Parties by moving outwards are leaving behind a proportion of people in who now feel more comfortable in the relationship with the centrist sphere or Lib Dems as we are now known!

This has not just been a question of policy but of the competence of the Party leaderships. Neither Corbyn nor May have been able to develop a coherent policy which could be supported by the majority of their MPs. Both Parties have been infiltrated by people who come from the extremes. The Parties are therefore morphing into the extreme parties and really making those extreme Parties unnecessary.

Physics teachers used to tell me that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this case the reaction is people from the moderate sections of the Party quitting. Many of come to us direct from cutting up their Tory and Labour membership cards. Others have just decided to stay at home and opt out to see what happens. Often these people have been the workers in the Party who kept those Parties going through think and thin. Their replacements are flag wavers with no real understanding of how Government works.

I think that this has two possible outcomes because people in the UK are reasonably comfortable in the broad central area where the three spheres overlap. We are not, by nature an extremist country. For most people ‘muddling through,’ ‘being reasonable’ and ‘getting on’ are the way that we have done things.

Option one is that the likes of Tom Watson and Dominic Grieve will find a way of reasserting themselves and pull their Parties back. This is improbable but not impossible in the short term. If that is not done over time the Labour and Tory Parties will die and be replaced by new, more moderate Parties on the left and right re-inhabiting the original core.

Option two is that multi Party politics is here to stay. After all, very few Countries have the binary political system which we have. Multi-Party politics is the norm and not the exception. This will mean that Parties and their members will have to become far more mature about their relationships with each other. A great example of this is Brexit. Around the specific issue of Brexit, the Lib Dems campaigned with Labour, Tory, SNP, PC and Green Parties. Similarly, and to a lesser extent a few Labour members are working with Tories on the opposite side of the campaign.

That’s grown up politics. ‘Partnerships’ emerging to deal with specific issues where the solution to a big problem is more important than the tribe you come from. I could see so many areas where this could happen starting with creating a cohesive response to the most vital issue of all – Climate.

Perhaps in Liverpool we can chart the course for this issue-based cooperation. In July we will be having a full council meeting solely about climate change. In September we will be having on just based on housing. Both Mayor Anderson and I hope that this will enable su to find a common cause rather than just argue about the areas that we disagree on. That does not mean to say that we should submerge our differences but that we should concentrate on the agreed areas and get on with delivering in a united and cohesive way.

Not only is that ‘grown up’ politics but is what most people want. I hope the Liberal Democrats will take the lead in making cooperation with others the norm and not exception.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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