Thought for the day: Labour, first past the post and a united front

“Voting” by KCIvey is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Labour is tearing itself apart (as usual), leaving the Conservatives to get on with misgoverning us without the punishment due to them (as usual). It’s dispiriting for anyone who cares for this country. As usual.

Why does Labour do this? Why has it no settled purpose? Why does it throw hostage after hostage to the powers it exists to confront? Why does it bang on endlessly about helping the people it was founded to represent while ensuring it almost never gets the chance?

One reason is that Labour is exactly what it so often praises (or excuses) itself for being: a “broad church”.

And this in turn links to our unreformed first past the post electoral system (FPTP), which in Europe we share only with that beacon of fairness and freedom: Belarus. FPTP blesses two parties, damns the rest and calls itself democracy. Yet Labour still swears by it. It shouldn’t. Not only can it no longer win under it, but FPTP is a source of its troubles. Labour’s predicament is all of ours, whether we support it or not.

To succeed under FPTP the two big parties must either co-opt or neutralise dissenters and those at the radical end of their ideologies. It also makes sense for radicals and dissenters who eschew direct action to seek power through these big parties: alone they win no or next to no seats in Parliament.

The same goes (or went) for other parties, whatever their beliefs: the LibDems, Greens, UKIP, the SDP, the Alliance and others. Alone, they wither; only through the two big parties can they hope for even crumbs of power. Those who’d like to vote for them often don’t because it’s not worth it. Their voices are either lost or subsumed as sects in the bigger parties. Voters then become even more cynical about representative democracy. No wonder they see that impostor the referendum as the real thing, which it isn’t.

Proportional representation in any form would mean these parties could stand alone and be heard. They could campaign on their core issues with hope of a presence in parliament. Whatever critics of PR say, it would mean more inclusive, lively and open – and hopefully, though probably after a long and edgy time, mature – democratic debate. And we might all grow up a little in the process.

Back to Labour. Its trouble is that, unlike the Tories, it’s never managed to co-opt or neutralise its radicals. Instead they’ve had to infiltrate it. The result? The longest running family domestic in the history of political soap opera. It doesn’t even deliver for the radicals let alone anyone else. Except the Conservatives.

The UK has never had a popular let alone powerful communist or unalloyed socialist party. This is partly because, thanks to FPTP, those who’d support one have had to use Labour as the vehicle for the changes they seek. Because Labour can therefore be portrayed as forever at their mercy, no wonder it’s spent so much of its history in civil war and so little of it in government.

The Tories have always approached it differently: until recently*, they co-opted right-wing radicals, neutralised them, left nothing but a deniable dog-whistle and greedily harvested the votes of those who prefer to be told what to think. They’re very good at it, from Thatcher’s fear of “swamping” in the 1970s to Cameron’s exploitation of FPTP to dish UKIP in 2015 with a party-preserving but nation-breaking offer of an in/out EU referendum. The “eurosceptics”? True, they were the bane of Major, but Cameron had lanced the boil until his traitorous act of complacent stupidity changed this country forever. The Tory Party is now a corrupt, hollowed-out shell. But on it goes.

Labour must now wake up and make the hard choice to push for PR. Scotland is lost to the party, whether or not it becomes independent. The next general election will be the most decisive in recent history. Labour will lose it if it stands alone. We all will. It will be as stupid as Cameron’s decision to hold the EU referendum – but without even the compensation of being to its party political advantage in the long run.

Labour can’t just blame Corbyn for 2019 and ignore the historic failure to present a united, cross-party anti-Brexit front. The disaster will be repeated. With another pro-Brexit majority in Parliament on a clear minority of votes, democracy itself will be threatened from both within and outside Parliament.

Labour, the LibDems (yes, YOU, Ed Davey), the Greens and all whose hearts and minds loathe the route we’re going down as a nation: UNITE AND FIGHT the next election TOGETHER. Then get PR done. It’s our only hope.

Labour must be brave. Losing its radicals will be good for both mainstream labour and its radicals, as well as for the country’s threadbare democracy.

* Thanks to Neil Hopkins‘ excellent point that the Conservatives have more recently been – in effect – hijacked by the Brexiters rather than co-opting them.