Bill Jamieson: We no longer have a two party system in the UK

We already have multiple parties so where does the new Independent Group fit in, wonders Bill Jamieson

Oh, no! Another political grouping? I’m with Brenda from Bristol, the pensioner who protested in 2017 “not another one” on news that Theresa May had called a general election.

But another political group we have. It is odd to the point of perverse that the new ‘Independent Group’ of MPs has been formed intent, they say, on “fixing our broken politics” and smashing the stranglehold of the two-party system.

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But we don’t have a two-party system. We have not had one for decades. We already have multiple parties – seven so far, and counting. The two-party system across the UK has given way to an array of new garments and colours that would make a Karl Lagerfeld catwalk look dowdy: Labour, Conservatives, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, UKIP, and Ulster’s Democratic Unionists.

Roy Jenkins, Dr David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers after the breakfast-time launch of the new Social Democratic Party at the Connaught Rooms in London in 1981. Picture: PA

Nor is it stopping there. Amid a groundswell among voters crying out for months ‘None of the Above’, we now have the genesis of two more parties – an anti-Brexit party seeking to combine the Remain factions within Conservatives and Labour, and a pro-Brexit party, drawing support from the Leave Means Leave pressure group, tens of thousands of disillusioned Conservatives, and Nigel Farage loyalists.

This would bring the total to nine. How many more do we need? Commentators rail against the ‘tribalism’ of the two-party system. But with nine parties, that tribalism would not be abolished. It would be multiplied.

And while the new parties rail at what it is they are against, what is it that they are for? It speaks volumes that the best name Chuka Umunna and his All-Sorts rebels could come up with is ‘The Independent Group’. Zingy, or what? It hardly has the ring of ‘En Marche’, ‘Golden Dawn’, or even ‘New Democrats’.

And independent for what? It is not at all clear what its programme is, or what it might wish to do in government. It seems all you need to form a new party these days is a podium, a Westminster press conference, TV cameras and Laura Kuenssberg. Is this really shaking up the tired old Westminster system? Or just more of the same?

And yet… There is no doubt that politics across the UK is in turmoil and set to intensify. This is by no means ‘just a Labour thing’. It has a wider resonance given the febrile discontent and exasperation that Brexit and the interminable parliamentary shenanigans have spread across the country. Neither the Labour nor Conservative parties seem capable of unity. Talk of disaffection, revolt and mutiny is rife.

For all this mutinous grumbling, can a few dislodged stones from the mountain really be the start of an avalanche? Has not the two-party system persisted for good reason? And with the first-past-the-post electoral system, are not the odds heavily stacked against breakaway parties having any prospect of success? Previous rebellions and breakaways have come to nothing. Does not history tell us how futile and self-defeating it all is?

Yet ‘history’ also testifies to the opposite conclusion. It is that rebellions and breakaway parties can lay claim not only to a disruptive history but also to be the driving force of major political change in Britain.

Reference has been made in recent days to the ‘failure’ of the 1981 breakaway ‘’Gang of Four’ Labour MPs as a warning to the Independent Group of the futility of breakaway groups.

Back then, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams formed the SDP, opposed to Labour’s adoption of unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the (then) EEC.

As now, there was also deep unease over the infiltration of constituency associations by the far Left. But success? In 1983 the SDP-Liberal Alliance secured 25 per cent of the popular vote, running close to Labour with 28 per cent. But only 13 Alliance MPs were elected, and just six represented the SDP.

All for nothing, then? Yet subsequent Labour poll disasters triggered a radical rethink of party policy, Tony Blair became leader, standing on ‘New Labour’ policies closely aligned to those advocated by the SDP, and went on to win three thumping general election victories. Labour survived because it adopted much of the SDP’s programme, and the breakaway SDP could thus fairly be said to have had a formidable influence on UK politics.

In Scotland, it was voter exasperation with the Holyrood Labour administration that brought the triumph of the once-marginal SNP to government – and it has held sway since 2007, bringing the country to an independence referendum with a result closer than most commentators had imagined. It is now the third largest party at Westminster.

In Wales, Plaid Cymru grew from having just one seat on the UK parliament to winning 17 seats in 1997 to Labour’s 28.

It was instrumental in securing a referendum vote in favour of a Welsh National Assembly and securing, inter alia, the Welsh language TV station S4C.

UKIP was a marked political failure in UK parliamentary terms, temporarily securing only two seats in by-elections.

But in the 2015 election it secured 3.8 million votes, it succeeded in returning seven MEPs to make it the largest UK party in the European Parliament, and it was a major influence behind the campaign for a referendum on EU membership, held in 2016 when a majority of UK voters opted to support Leave.

The No vote in the EU referendum has worked to destabilise both main parties, and could well have set the ball rolling for a major realignment in UK politics.

Breakaway and minority parties may seem to have been failures in winning government office – though the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and the Greens are now in coalition with the SNP at Holyrood.

It is easy to write off The Independent Group. But context here is everything. We have a two-party system in name only. And such is the seething disquiet over Brexit, even this façade may be about to crumble.