I will be writing about the Labour Party and its political soul-searching in the coming weeks. But I want to make a more general point right at the beginning of this process that will have a significant impact on how Labour, and indeed the Conservative majority government, should position itself in the new political landscape we are in.
The First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system has traditionally had the advantage of facilitating stable majority governments through its ‘winner takes all’ mechanism. It amplifies the influence of the strongest party by giving it a disproportionate number of seats. This has worked well when there was a roughly equal contest across the whole country and the winner could, therefore, form a majority government. But this competitive landscape has now changed dramatically.
The party that won all but three seats in Scotland did not even compete anywhere else in the country and explicitly campaigned to avert a government led by the Tories, who have become by far the strongest party in England. Labour has won the most seats in Wales and the DUP in Northern Ireland. Four nations and four different leading parties – this is the new political landscape!
What FPTP does not do under these circumstances is create a stable government (the Conservative majority was a surprise – the SNP landslide in Scotland was not) but exacerbate the centrifugal forces between the different parts of the United Kingdom. In addition to triggering soul-searching in Wales and Northern Ireland, it pits a dominant Scottish party against a dominant English party. And given that their political programmes could not be any more different this is a recipe for confrontation and further alienation.
What can be done? The likes of UKIP and Greens have already complained about the unrepresentative nature of the current electoral system and I have written elsewhere that this system – geared towards two parties – no longer fits the more diverse political landscape of today’s Britain. A continental-style, more representative electoral system fostering cooperation rather than confrontation would in my view be a significant means to moderate the political forces ripping the Union apart. At the same time, such a system would deliver outcomes that have more legitimacy outside England as it involves a process of coalition and wider political representation.
Devolving more powers to the UK’s nations and major cities is also a good idea but, without a country-level reform of the electoral system, such a new round of devolution risks institutionalising division rather than empowering local government. A combination of both – electoral reform and devolution – would be the best way to create a political pressure valve and produce governments that are more representative of the country locally and as a whole.
In the absence of such reform, however, there might well be the scenario of further fragmentation. There are already voices in the Labour Party calling for going back to the tactical slogan of ‘regaining the centre ground’. I have always been critical of a strategy that is driven by electioneering rather than value-driven politics but in the new British reality is there actually any centre ground that includes both Middle England and Scotland? Or has that shared space gone, maybe for good? At the moment the latter looks increasingly likely.
In the absence of electoral reform the Labour Party might have to decide whether to win back Scotland or try to gain ground in England. The two aims look increasingly incompatible with each other. In a proportional system, on the other hand, the aim is to win more widespread support. It would thus incentivise the creation of a unifying, countrywide politics rather than prioritising electioneering in specific target areas.
The FPTP system might be the final nail in the coffin of the Union – and the hope for a majority Labour government. The crucial period we are about to enter will not just be characterised by a party that has to redefine itself. It has to redefine itself alongside major constitutional reforms that are necessary to secure the very survival of the country.
Henning Meyer is Editor-in-Chief of Social Europe and a Research Associate of the Public Policy Group at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also Director of the consultancy New Global Strategy Ltd. and frequently writes opinion editorials for international newspapers such as The Guardian, DIE ZEIT, The New York Times and El Pais.