The Conservative Party is actually an alliance of at least three distinct groups, which are artificially forced together by our first-past-the-post election system, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton.
If political annihilation has a smell, for me it’s wild garlic.
The early spring of 2011 was unusually warm and brought with it an abundance of wild garlic to the cycle paths of central Edinburgh that I used whilst campaigning for the Scottish Parliamentary elections of that year. That election all but destroyed my party in Scotland and I will always equate that rich, earthy smell with the brutality of that defeat. Memories of that campaign help me to understand exactly how the Scottish Tories must be feeling right now.
Almost a decade after that terrible result, the Lib Dems are back in business and even possibly on the verge of a breakthrough. For other political parties, the future isn’t as bright. Polling over the weekend revealed that every single Scottish Conservative MP is set to lose their seat in the coming general election. The reason for this is self-evident, but there is a human cost which goes with every defeat that is unseen by the public.
For every parliamentarian that loses their livelihood, four or five members of staff do as well. Casework managers, office administrators and researchers, often who have no allegiance to the party of their employer and who have no influence whatsoever on the decisions of the Johnson administration that will end their careers. They are powerless to prevent what’s coming. No-one should speak of the coming Tory collapse without consideration for the collateral damage that comes with it for their dedicated members of staff. But that’s politics.
How did we get here? Just 18 months ago, Ruth Davidson was more than an outside bet to become First Minister of Scotland in 2021. Now, not only is that impossible given that she has chosen to quit the field entirely, but the actions of No 10 are salting the earth in Scotland for coming generations of Scottish Conservative candidates. It could be so bad in fact, that were it not for the PR list system in Scotland, a Tory group might not be returned to Holyrood at all.
I’m not going to labour the self-immolation of the Tory Party by the factions that exist within it, that will be covered extensively when histories of this time are written. But I will say this. Those factions are a symptom of our broken democracy.
The Conservative Party isn’t one party, it is in fact three or more. The modern Tory party is made up of Brexit-Ultras (the ERG), Social conservatives (that might be at home in the Christian Democratic parties of Europe), “One nation” Tories (instinctively pro-European and socially liberal) and the sub-divisions of these factions are themselves extensive. The only reason these factions co-exist in the one party is that the electoral system forces them to do so. First-past-the-post elections only favour those parties with resource and muscle necessary to convince around 20,000 voters to back them in any one constituency.
There are no seats in Parliament for parties that can only amass five-ten per cent of the vote on a uniform basis. Without a proportional voting system, these factions are bound together in coalitions they would only otherwise form on an occasional basis.
The same is true for Labour. If we had a truly proportionate voting system, we’d have several parties of the left – Trotskyites, Marxists, Blairite social democrats, those that support Israel and those that revile it. They’d come together from time to time to form governing coalitions but as it is right now, those cats are all permanently tied up in one unhappy sack.
It is clear that a realignment is coming in UK politics, I only hope that part of that change is the introduction of proportional representation. PR will allow those people who support smaller parties a voice in Parliament for the first time and those factions unhappily cohabiting with other groups inside the big parties the opportunity to cut those ties and stand on their own platform. It can’t come soon enough.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western