The British party paradox

The House of Commons closed because of flooding sewage pipes is too good a metaphor to miss, really.

Britain is not short of crises right now. The post-referendum period has been filled with a series of political, constitutional and economic crises, feeding off each other, multiplying and becoming more complicated as ever possible solution only seems to lead to further crisis.

Somewhere within this Gordian morass of problems, there’s a major problem with our political parties. In fact, there are two problems with them, and those two problems appear to contradict each other, giving us a paradox that goes right to the heart of why our politics is so terrible right now.

The problems are these: first, British political parties are too strong. Second, British political parties are too weak. At the points where the our current political situation needs them most to be weak, they’re too strong, and at the points where they need to be strong, they’re too weak.

Let’s start with where they’re weak. One of the key roles of political parties is to provide a link between the people and the political system (Parliament and Government), providing a way to aggregate people’s opinions into various coherent viewpoints so they can be expressed within the system. In an ideal view of party democracy, the parties lay out their plans and manifestos, and the voters carefully consider which of them lies closest to their views before casting their vote to enable that party to represent them.

The problem is that the parties aren’t capable of fulfilling that role because no one knows what they stand for, or if what they say they stand for means anything. This isn’t just on Brexit, that’s just another symptom of this problem, not the cause. The issue is that our parties have been big tents for so long that their coherence comes from the fact that they’re all together because they’ve always been all together. Our two main parties are in open warfare with themselves about who they are and what they stand for, and neither leadership can confidently put forward a policy position with any confidence that it will get support from the party as a whole, or even a majority of it. If you cannot be sure that your local candidate supports their party leadership, then a vote for a party is not a vote for a coherent set of policies. This then leads to a wider problem where, without the parties giving a wider framing to political debates, the wider national debate and conversation about issues is completely incoherent too.

So, where our system needs parties to have some strength and some level of organisation and coherence, they are weak. Weak because they’re losing whatever internal coherence that had and weak because they’re losing their connection to the electorate, and this is a major problem in a system that’s based on the idea of an electorate organised mostly coherently around two major parties.

At the other end of the scale, our problem stems from parties being far too strong at the elite level when our situation and the system needs them to be much weaker. This is where the heart of the paradox lies, we have a period where open disputes, rebellions and revolts are common, but party loyalty is still incredibly strong. Rebellions are rarely done in the name of getting away from the party but rather in the name of standing up for some higher ideal of what the party should be about, contrary to whatever direction the leadership is taking it at any time. The Independent Group/Change UK was big news but represented about 3% of Labour MPs and 1% of Conservatives and Nick Boles’ live announcement of his crossing the floor was shocking precisely because it was such a rare event in Parliament.

While voters are fluid in their party choice in a way they haven’t been in recent history, the elite levels of the parties are much more hardened in their ways than they have been before. The parties are firmly entrenched in their positions, with no desires to seek common ground or work together across the lines. What would seem an obvious answer to the massive internal feuding and divisions — splitting the parties — is seen as either unthinkable or seen only as a logical choice for the other side of the argument. “We are the true inheritors of the party and its traditions, so they should leave.” While the people are becoming much more flexible in their attitudes to parties, the party elites are becoming much more rigid, even as the battles over what the party represents intensify.

And having come this far, I wish I had a solution to this problem that I could propose here, some way of resolving all these contradictions, but I’m not sure there is one. Or if there is one, it’s not simple and easy. We can all talk about how our preferred idea for political reform will change everything and solve the problems and it may well be that if we had electoral reform/a written constitution/sortition/no whips/whatever your personal cure-all is this might be solved, but how do we get from here to there? How does a system as jammed and broken as ours get to a place where we can even discuss reforming it, let alone argue the merits of different proposals? Or do we have to wait for the whole thing to come crashing down and take our risks on what might crawl out of the wreckage?

All I know is that we have a problem, and we need to acknowledge it if we’re ever going to get even vaguely close. Our system isn’t working and the parties are just a symptom of that. We can wait in the hope it might fix itself, or do something now in the hope we’re not to late to stop the rough beasts of political breakdown slouching towards their birth.