Having gotten the main Scottish musings out of my head yesterday, I’m onto pondering aspects of the wider result across the UK today. As it turns out these are mostly to do with the status of the smaller parties.
Multi-Party Democracy is Dead – Long Live Multi-Party Democracy
Much will be made – indeed already has begun to be made – of the apparent death of the UK’s fledgling multi-party democracy. On the surface, with the highest combined Tory-Labour share in years it seems the two party system is back with a vengeance. From five million votes between them and 16.5% of the vote (12.7% + 3.8%) in 2015, UKIP and the Greens suffered notable declines this time round, with just over half a million votes each and 3.4% of the vote (1.8% + 1.6%). The Lib Dems failed to mount their big comeback whilst the SNP flagged. But is it that simple?
I’m not so sure. Certainly, lumping UKIP and the Greens together would be foolish. To all intents and purposes, it does indeed look like UKIP are through. Their raison d’être fulfilled, their failure to hold any of their 145 councillors last month, falling out of parliament once more and losing almost all of their vote looks like a hard knock to come back from. Once their MEPs go as part of Brexit, UKIP will be down to their five Welsh AMs as their last major elected representatives. Even then, having started with seven there’s no saying that all will stay in UKIP and even if so they are likely to end up doing little more than count down until their inevitable defeat in 2021. With the rightward, hard Brexit shift of the Tories, UKIP are a party without purpose and risk withering away to nothing. Very few tears indeed will be shed should that come to pass, I reckon.
On the other hand things look a bit rosier for the Greens. Obviously I have a personal bias and a hope for future success as a Green member, but things are very different for us. We performed far better at local level last month, with 40 seats across the various contests. Whilst our vote declined significantly on Thursday, it wasn’t as severe as for UKIP and still represents our second best ever performance for Westminster. And we very comfortably retained Caroline Lucas’ seat with a staggering 52% of the vote.
The simple fact is that almost nothing about this election was like 2015, and voters responded accordingly. Last time round we were cruising for a hung parliament. There was a space in the narrative for insurgent, fresh faces and less worry about vote splitting. The anticipated demise of the Lib Dems put a lot of possibilities into play. For all that Ed Milliband was panned by the media almost as a warm up to how they’d react to Corbyn, and David Cameron was a bit (pork) mince, neither were particularly incompetent leaders. And of course we’d had plenty of time running up to the election to think about it, seeing as it was held according to the shiny new Fixed Term Parliament Act schedule.
A snap election was a different beast altogether. It was an unexpected sudden chance to boot out a Tory regime that had led the country to calamity and expected to be rewarded. As Theresa May proved ever more useless and it became clearer the Tories didn’t have a clue, it was almost possible to imagine beating them. And to do so people were well aware our voting system meant in almost every seat, at least in England, the only game in town was Labour. A full 20% of people intended on voting tactically rather than for their preferred party. The number of people voting Green – and perhaps even still UKIP – would undoubtedly have been higher under a form of proportional representation.
Even with the highest two-party share in a long time we ended up with a hung parliament, which must shatter once and for all the notion FPTP delivers stable governance. As the side that keeps losing out, Labour in particular is going to have to get on board with the idea of fair votes sooner rather than later.
Grounds for Growth – Why the Greens Won’t Go Away
I touched on this a bit in the above section, but as a Green I need a long, self-indulgent portion on the Greens. Although I don’t think this election was a disaster for us given the circumstances, it was a disappointment. I’d have loved to see Molly Scott Cato make it into parliament, and here in Glasgow for Patrick to have come a solid third in Glasgow North. But unlike UKIP, the various Green parties have retained a base for growth in the form of our councillors, our long history of MSPs in Scotland, our MLAs in Northern Ireland and Caroline Lucas at Westminster. And we’re part of a global political movement. That isn’t just going to up and disappear in a major Western democracy.
A big feature of the Green Party of England and Wales campaign was the notion of a “progressive alliance”. Frankly, the idea is awkward – at once both seeming necessary thanks to our dire electoral system, yet unworkable so long as the only force capable of leading such an alliance is at best cold to it and at worst outright angry when other progressive parties dare to contest elections. Having witnessed SNP calls for Greens to stand aside in Scotland for the past few years, to see Labour do the same thing in England and Wales is deeply frustrating. No one party has a monopoly on progressive politics, and quite apart from the democratic value in having a range of options, big parties need challenges from the outside to prevent complacency. Rather than call for progressive alliances or for unilateral withdrawal of opponents, we just need bloody PR.
In any case, it’s positively absurd to suggest that Greens need to just dissolve ourselves now because the Labour Party under Corbyn overlaps a bit more than it did under Milliband, Brown or Blair. Even if we could guarantee that was always the case, Green politics isn’t going to go away because it offers something different to – and obviously in my view better than – Labour politics. Whilst political ideologies of all sorts rework themselves over time to fit a changing world, I find aspects of the Labour ideology pretty dated.
The clue for the main thrust of Labour policies is in the name – it’s a party built around employment and people’s relationship with work. That’s not a bad place to be in and of itself, and is infinitely preferable to the Conservative or the Liberal ideologies, but it’s by no means perfect either. It’s an ideology that has been used, for example, to defend weapons capable of murdering millions of people not on grounds of national security but because maintaining them keeps some people in a job. It’s an ideology that idealises work, and whilst it has become more flexible in recent years, still holds the 40 hour working week up as the gold standard for all capable of doing so to aspire to.
By contrast, at the heart of Green politics is sustainability. And do you know what’s not sustainable with the world’s population constantly increasing and the amount of human labour required to produce goods and provide services decreasing? Expecting every single capable adult to work 40 hours a week. Long standing Green policies such as a Universal Basic Income and a much shorter working week can appear utopian and lazy to those who have never thought beyond the current norm, but are vital steps to make sure there’s an equitable spread of both wealth and work as society changes. Much like winter, automation is coming – for your job. And although Greens back a lot of what Labour want to do now with regards to work, and some in Labour are creeping our way, we’re much more keenly aware of the need to act urgently.
That’s just one example of where the politics of Greens and Labour, whilst complementary in many ways, diverge. It’s also the case that we’re far more ambitious when it comes to climate change and active travel, our bread and butter issues we’ve put on everyone’s agenda but still lead on. We’re champions of the local in a way Labour never have been – I can’t speak for England and Wales or Northern Ireland but in Scotland the Greens are the only party calling for radical reform of local government. We’re vocal supporters of freedom of movement and immigration whilst even Corbyn’s Labour is quite content to end the former after Brexit.
In these respects and plenty more the Greens offer something distinct from Labour. In most other European countries, proportional representation allows the two schools of thought to compete at elections and cooperate in government without much bother. In the UK, first past the post makes it much more fraught. And that’s where both our ideologies could once again align; FPTP doesn’t work, and isn’t sustainable. So this section ends up exactly where the previous one does – for the sake of both democracy and progressive government in the UK, we need some form of PR, and we need it now.