A clarion call for consensus – but will politicians heed it?

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She's leaving the scene: but how are the other 649 MPs going to make our broken politics work again?

If you thought last week’s strong showing for both the new Brexit Party and for the Liberal Democrats was merely a Eurocentric protest vote against the failures and chaos within Labour and the Conservatives, you’d better think again. This week’s YouGov poll of Westminster voting intentions showed the LibDems out ahead on 24%, the Brexit Party on 22%, and Labour and Tories both on 19%, the first occasion in a lifetime that neither of the big parties has made the top two. Then, on Saturday, Britain Elects produced an aggregate of polls that put the Brexit party in the lead for the first time (the same figures appeared in an Observer poll on Sunday).

Forgive me if this article sticks to discussion of the electoral fortunes of those four parties: I’m not setting out deliberately to exclude Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but I’m considering what is very much an English issue at present. Here’s the prediction psephologists derive from those two polls of the number of Westminster of seats that would be won by each of those parties, had this been a real election.  

 YouGov %SeatsBritain Elects %Seats
Brexit2217626306
Labour1918822205
LibDem241491633
Conservative19581726

Now, I’m no mathematician: but this looks barmy to me. YouGov’s figures put Labour and Tories on the same percentage of the vote, but with a massive difference of 130 in the number of seats each would win: the LibDems have the greatest share of the votes, but come third in terms of seats.  

Britain Elects puts LibDem 1% behind Conservative, but awards them seven more seats. In the same analysis the Brexit Party wins 10% more of the vote than the LibDems, but gains 273 more seats: that’s 42% of the 650 seats in the house.

That’s what you get from our electoral method, the first-past-the-post system. Its supporters claim it ensures strong government. A party needs only to creep past 30% of the vote to win a majority at Westminster. One usually manages to do so in the UK, which is why we normally enjoy “strong and stable” government (remember that ill-fated election mantra?): and why supporters of smaller parties, let alone voters in all the UK nations apart from England, feel frustrated and disenfranchised. 

Opinion polls are just that, opinions, and may bear little relation to the actual votes that will be cast when the current dysfunctional government finally collapses under the weight of its own internal conflicts and incompetence. Nonetheless, they provide food for thought. Confidence in the two major parties has collapsed: the LibDems are gaining from disillusioned voters, particularly Remainers, while ardent Brexiteers are understandably supporting the single-issue party promising to get the UK out of Europe at any cost. 

But if the vote continues to be split so (relatively) evenly between those four parties, even the bizarre mathematics of first-past-the-post will provide no overall majority.  The four-way split looks as big a mess as those European governments we Brits have long laughed at: think of Italy, regularly mocked for holding several elections a year, because no party ever wins a majority.  As Nigel Farage repulsively declared in the European Parliament after the Brexit referendum, “You’re not laughing now”. 

Let’s look at how those sent to Westminster, if elected in the proportions described above, might cobble together some kind of functioning government. We have a recent example, that of the coalition formed between David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s LibDems in 2010, forced on Cameron by the fact that he had not achieved an overall majority in the House. 

Back then, I hoped we might witness the emergence of true consensus politics. Instead, the LibDems were deserted at the next election by voters who felt that the compromises made in government had supported austerity and (unforgivably) increased university tuition fees. Somehow, the fact that the LibDems had also mitigated some of the Tories’ more right-wing endeavours, and pushed through some valuable reforms, was quickly forgotten. 

Why? Perhaps we, the electorate, are as bad as politicians at understanding the need for negotiation, for give-and-take in the search for consensus: after all, the current political dialogue outside Parliament is almost as divided and vitriolic as within it. In Westminster, entrenched attitudes and “red lines” (a term used too frequently) have stymied progress on any sensible kind of Brexit (I don’t regard no-deal as sensible), while simplistic slogans (“the people voted to leave”, “Brexit means Brexit”) block any reconsideration of alternatives.

Perhaps one party will emerge with a parliamentary majority when the real election comes: but it won’t represent the range and strength of feelings across the country. Moreover, if support for parties remains as split, as evenly spread, as it is at present, politicians will have to learn a new way of working, form coalitions and negotiate towards consensus: not just on Brexit, but in every area of government. 

Such an election result would be a clarion call for consensus: but I’m not convinced that more than a handful of MPs (and a fraction of the media) are currently capable of heeding it. They’ll need to learn fast: or the political chaos we’re suffering now will be as nothing compared to what’s to come.

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