Is two party politics dead?

We’ve now had four opinion polls in a row which have put the Lib Dems in second place behind Brexit and in front of both Tory and Labour parties. This is not a flash in the pan! Real votes have been cast in real elections. Of course, in the Euro-Elections we came second and gained 15 seats. In local elections yesterday we made major advances in 9 out of 10 wards contested and a gained a seat from Labour for a mediocre third place.

Does this mean a real change in the way that the UK does business? I suspect it does. With one exception – the election in 2017 there has been a move away from two-party politics. In the 50s 95%+ of the population voted Tory or Labour. The Liberals were a Celtic fringe Party and the Welsh Nats Scots Nats and the Green Party did not even exist.

Lord Wade who had been a Liberal MP in the 50s and 60s conjectured that there were basically three political spheres in all societies. A right-wing sphere; a left-wing sphere; and a centrist sphere. In the UK those spheres were most populated by the Tory, Labour and Lib (Dem) Parties. Even the nationalist parties can be located within these spheres as their Parties in or out of government make decisions which can be judged and verified.

 The big secret is that for much of that time there has been a huge overlapping of those spheres in this Country and to some extent that cohesion between the spheres still exists although it is weakening. All three big spheres overlapped for 60% of policy making but any of those spheres could in part, as per a Venn diagram, have two spheres overlapping instead of three. Thus, on some issues there would be agreement between Tory and Labour; others between Labour and the Lib Dems and others between the Lib Dems and Tories. The fact that this worked in a binary system of government is largely because of the overlap reduced tensions and differences.

The past three years have seen much change. The spheres have pulled apart as the Parties that were in two of them have pulled their spheres further away from the Centre. The impetus for both the Parties in them is Brexit. In the case of the Tories a new Party is pushing the Tories outwards. In the case of Labour, the Leader of the Party is pushing the Labour Party outward. Both Parties by moving outwards are leaving behind a proportion of people in who now feel more comfortable in the relationship with the centrist sphere or Lib Dems as we are now known!

I think that this has two possible outcomes because people in the UK are reasonably comfortable in the broad central area where the three spheres overlap. We are not, by nature an extremist country. For most people ‘muddling through’ and ‘getting on’ are the way that we have done things.

Option one is that Tom Watson and Dominic Grieve will find a way of reasserting themselves and pull their Parties back. This is improbable but not impossible in the short term. If that is not done over time the Labour and Tory Parties will die and replaced by new, more moderate Parties on the left and right re-inhabiting the original core.

Option two is that multi Party politics is here to stay. After all, very few Countries have the binary political system which we have. Multi-Party politics is the norm and not the exception. This will mean that Parties and their members will have to become far more mature about their relationships with each other. A great example of this is Brexit. Around the specific issue of Brexit, the Lib Dems campaigned with Labour, Tory, SNP, PC and Green Parties. Similarly, and to a lesser extent a few Labour members are working with Tories on the opposite side of the campaign.

That’s grown up politics. ‘Partnerships’ emerging to deal with specific issues where the solution to a big problem is more important than the tribe you come from. I could see so many areas where this could happen starting with creating a cohesive response to the most vital issue of all – Climate.

Not only is that ‘grown up’ politics but is what most people want. I hope the Liberal Democrats will take the lead in making cooperation with others the norm and not exception.

* Cllr Richard Kemp CBE, Leader, Liverpool Liberal Democrats

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