I was struck this week by a tweet from a professor of politics. Contemplating his “introduction to politics” seminar at the start of term, he has decided to scrap all his notes and start from scratch. After such a tumultuous period in politics, it certainly feels like we need a reboot. As Parliament heads into an unwanted and unnecessary suspension, we should reflect on our broken system.
There is so much wrong: the spread of hate-speech and online abuse. Rabid short-termism denying solutions to long-term issues such as social care. The creeping Trumpian populism.
But the main problem is that our parliamentary system was designed to fit two main political parties but public opinion has evolved. It is far more diverse and complex. In the Victorian era, the system worked fine. The Liberals and the Tories fought for the support of the tiny minority of the population (all men) with a vote. Then in the 20th century, Labour and the Tories took it in turns to form governments.
In the 1964 general election, 88 per cent of the voters voted either Labour or Conservative. The SNP and Plaid Cymru had zero MPs. In that election, two-thirds of working-class voters voted Labour and two-thirds of middle-class voters voted Tory. Today, those ties of class and party have all but disappeared.
By 1997, even at the height of New Labour, only 74 per cent voted either Tory or Labour. In 2017 it temporarily spiked again to 82 per cent voting either Labour or Tory, but the results of the European elections and local elections since then show a total collapse of the old tribal, blinkered loyalties. The Liberal Democrats are winning, gaining 700 seats in the local elections in May and beating the Conservatives and Labour at the European elections. Tens of thousands of people have joined Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats over the summer — including myself!
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Brexit has shown us that many issues do not fit into a 20th-century, two-party straitjacket. The old Left and Right labels don’t properly reflect our modern society and our multifaceted modern take on local, national and global issues. The two old parties can’t operate in the politics of today. The Conservatives have pitched to the extreme Right, and Labour promises to negotiate Brexit but tries to pretend to be pro-Remain, occasionally throwing small pieces of rhetorical red meat in a bid to placate those who want to stop Brexit.
In contrast, the Lib Dems are clear: we want to stop Brexit. We want a People’s Vote and will campaign for Remain, but if there is a General Election before that then we will campaign for a mandate to revoke Article 50 if we secure a majority government. The two-party system is dead. We need a new way of doing politics: less tribal, based on evidence not emotion, and with space for new ideas. It’s time to reboot. The alternative — extreme populism of Left or Right — is too terrible to contemplate.
- Luciana Berger is the Liberal Democrat MP for Liverpool Wavertree.