We are, apparently, entering the age of “five party politics”. The old Conservative-Labour duopoly has been shattered, the theory runs, and since the Liberal Democrats have joined the Government there has been space for yet more parties to rise. UKIP and the Greens (who often complain that UKIP gets all the coverage despite that it has only just got an MP, something they managed in 2010) are going to fundamentally change our party system, with the various nationalists picking up the mould-breaking slack in Scotland and Wales.
Despite the decisive result of the referendum only three years ago, commentators are starting to ask if our electoral system can possibly withstand this new order of things, now that British politics has changed forever. My theory is that it very probably can, and most likely won’t have to do so for a particularly long time.
When you think about it, the idea that FPTP is fatally vulnerable because we no longer have the electoral politics of the 1950s is a strange one, because our electoral system actually long predates the 1950s. If FPTP was originally ‘designed’ for anything then it was designed for a chamber of independent MPs. Just check the historical members of some of our oldest constituencies – Cambridge has had Parliamentary representation since 1295, and there’s nothing resembling a modern party system until the Tories and the Whigs crop up in the 1700s.
Similarly the grand struggles between the Conservatives and the Liberals in the Nineteenth Century looks very much like a two-party system – if one sets aside the Irish Nationalists, who were decisive only later on – but it scarcely resembled the centralised political machines of the post-war period. Each was essentially a collection of eminent gentlemen, who were often elected unopposed and stood under a dizzying variety of designations.
But if you want the most striking parallels to today, then consider the politics of the Interbellum period following the Great War.
The general election of December 1910 (which, like 1974, had two of them) had produced a Parliament with far fewer parties than we are used to today (thanks in no small part to Northern Ireland not having its entirely separate political ecosystem). But in 1918 the introduction of the universal male franchise seemed to trigger an explosion in Parliamentary diversity.
Setting aside the main parties (who in any event were split along numerous lines and stood as Government or non-governmental MPs on what looks like personal preference) and the Irish parties, the following parties amongst others won representation in 1918: The National Democratic and Labour Party (9 seats); the National Party* (2); and the National Socialist Party** (1). Additionally the Women’s Party, a right-wing feminist group, came within a thousand votes of capturing Smethwick from Labour. As well as these there were a very large number of independent MPs of various stripes.
The decades that followed would show even the main parties were much more fluid than today, with regular floor-crossings and lots of standing under multiple labels. In truth, the “old order” – of two highly centralised, standardised parties duopolising British politics – only appears to have lasted a few decades or so. It could even be viewed as an aberration for a system which is designed to produce a Parliament of local representatives, rather than party delegates concerned only with national issues.
If either UKIP or the Greens manage to win a handful of seats next May, knowing this history should help to put those triumphs in perspective: in the long view, it is British politics reverting to type, and it is our political assumptions, rather than the system, which are truly challenged by that. Indeed the fluid chaos of inter-war politics, despite coinciding with a change in the electorate far more fundamental than any we face today, gave way in time to a more settled order of things, and there is no reason to think it couldn’t happen again.
History also suggests how this might be done: if the major parties wish to re-establish something like their own duopoly, their model should perhaps be that of the Liberal-Conservative system rather than the 1950s – broader churches, more autonomy, greater recognition of and ease with the fact that big parties are coalitions of disparate views, and more attempts to connect to sympathetic social, civil and political groups outside the traditional party structure.
A party that acknowledged itself as the product of cooperation between different groups might be much better placed to created tailored policy offers to a much broader section of the electorate, be less inclined to core-vote chasing (since each element would have its own supporters to look out for), and be less susceptible to wholesale brand poisoning that might cut it off from large parts of the country.
Nick Boles’ suggestion of re-establishing the National Liberal Party was swiftly dismissed by many, but is it really so different to Tim Montgomerie’s idea of a ‘Conservative Alliance’? Is it significant that party thinkers from quite different political positions are drawing similar conclusions?
But if the history shows that the creation of a new settlement is possible, it also suggests a price for failure: it is notable that British politics was at its most chaotic when an old, established but slow-to-adapt party, the Liberals, was being gradually overthrown by a new, initially tiny political force.
*The National Party was a right-wing splinter from the Conservatives that initially attracted seven defectors in the Commons…
**Pro-war socialists, not Nazis.