Is party politics damaging our democracy?

Is party politics damaging our democracy?

Catherine Neilan

17:44 17th February 2021

The UK has really always been a two-party system. For the last hundred years Labour and the Conservatives have soaked up the vast majority of votes - and attention - from around the country, and before Labour it was the Liberals, then the Whigs.

The UK's first-past-the-post electoral system tends to maintain the dominance of the two party system, and despite attempts at reforming it such as the long-forgotten AV referendum, it's not likely to change.

This is not all bad: proportional representation can see parties on the extreme gain more of a footing than they would do otherwise, which has led to the election of BNP representatives in the European Parliament, for example.

But the two-party system is deeply flawed, and the way the party system is structured around its membership exacerbates that further.

Firstly, having two parties necessarily creates an us vs them dichotomy, which is played up to by both sides. This is what "scumgate" and the "surrender act" were all driving at: you're either one of us, or you're one of them. There is no middle ground, no nuance and definitely no chance of compromise.

Of course, the reality is that cross-party consensus can and will be made. Most MPs are friendly, if not friends, with those who sit on the opposing benches, but it simply doesn't do to let that be known, in the main.

The simplistic narrative of us-or-them is then maintained by newspapers and even broadcasters who, confined by Ofcom rules around impartiality, must have someone representing both sides of the opinion. And with news competing for eyeballs against multiple other forms of entertainment, invariably it is the people with more trenchant views who get asked back to be talking heads again and again.

There are many other issues with the party system, some of which are outlined in Isabel Hardman's excellent point 'Why We Get the Wrong Politicians'. In that she notes the string of problems that affect our supposed representatives, from the way MPs are incentivised to support their leaders through the promise of ministerial promotion or threat of losing the whip, to the hurdles in becoming a candidate in the first place, not to mention the appalling (read: non-existent) work-life balance. You can also add to that death threats, particularly for female MPs.

But the really big problem is the way parties operate internally. Brexit was, as many have said before, a Conservative party psychodrama that we all ended up living through, as David Cameron made a promise to his Eurosceptic party members and the MPs who need to keep them onside that they would get a say on our future in the EU.

The same is true of the Corbyn years. The 'Absolute Boy' might have whipped up a storm among his supporters, who chanted "Oh Jeremy Corbyn" to the tune of the Seven Nation Army every time he so much as potted a jam, but outside the few hundred thousand campaigners his appeal was limited.

The depth of support he commanded internally never translated into broad appeal and in fact, ended up damaging his party to such an extent that it will take some years to rebuild those bridges.

But his selection in the first place - as with the EU referendum - is a symptom of the problem with the way a small number of people can shape what 60 million people end up having to deal with.

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Tags: Brexit Jeremy Corbyn Democracy