There’s no doubt that centrists in the UK have become the political vagrants of the island. As the Labour party promises the nationalisation of major industries, while the Conservatives continue to reject the free market in favour of one-nation paternalism, the Westminster of today is now dominated by advocates of big-government.
Voters in the UK wishing to opt for small-government, individual liberty, and free markets aren’t left with much of a choice these days; voting has become, more so than before, a matter of the lesser of two evils. Evidently, there is something of a democratic deficit in Britain these days.
Refuge for Centrists?
Fortunately, I don’t seem to be alone in my concerns for the future of British centrism. Commentaries and calls for a new party to break the mould in Westminster have been making the rounds, and a ‘new centrist party’, headed by LoveFilm founder Simon Franks, has received £50 million in funding. But is a new party really what Britain needs right now?
Of course, third parties already exist in the UK to varying degrees of success. Until 2015, the Liberal Democrats provided a considerable degree of opposition to the establishment. UKIP, too, were arguably able to rattle cages through shifting public opinion, rather than through electoral wins. Yet no third party is currently able to offer a viable alternative to the two main parties – something evidenced by the marginal changes in third-party votes in 2017. Even in Scotland, the SNP lost 21 seats to the Labour party. This doesn’t bode well for the prospects of success for Mr. Franks’ new centrist party, who would be facing all of the same challenges as other third parties, without any of the pre-existing support.
This isn’t to diminish the worth of a new centrist party; many voters would relish the opportunity to vote outside of the box. But introducing a new party to remedy the establishmentarian tribalism of British politics seems akin to fixing a broken arm with a wet paper towel. It simply ignores the bigger issue: our electoral system.
Symptoms of a Larger Problem
Ultimately, the heart of Westminster’s representation problem lies not in a lack of parties, but in the system which denies them a reasonable chance of success. This is due to the majoritarian system employed by our democracy, typified by the ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) system, whereby whichever party can achieve a simple majority (>50%) in a constituency wins the entire representation of that area.
This makes it exceptionally hard for a minor party to achieve success, since voters may become inclined to vote strategically, i.e. voting to keep one party out of parliament, rather than to get one in. Since only a simple majority is needed, there is little room for nuance and personal preference.
Britain’s democratic woes can perhaps best be understood as a classic prisoner’s dilemma, especially in a swing-constituency where individual votes actually have some worth; if changing the strategy and voting third-party means risking the other party winning, then there’s little incentive to do anything other than support one of the big two.
Rather than risk a government of their less preferred party, voters here are pushed to vote strategically in order to minimise chances of opposition victory. This isn’t constructive democracy, but defensive tribalism.
A new centrist party will likely be unable to provide British centrists with a home, as voters will continue to vote on strategic lines, rather than based on ideology or trust. Unless reform is brought soon, Westminster will continue to be unable to truly represent its people, regardless of how many startup parties rise up.
Is Reform on the Horizon?
Sadly, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll see any such reform any time soon. It simply isn’t on the agenda nor in the interests of the governing parties to do anything about this.
This isn’t to say that we should just accept the status quo, however. A new centrist party won’t solve all of Britain’s problems, sure, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it a shot.
British democracy needs a whole new makeover if we’re going to to break away from this tribal me-against-you system, and a new party is extremely unlikely to do that. That doesn’t mean we can’t get a little excited that people are fighting against the two-party system, however. Britain doesn’t need a new party, but the ideas behind it are more than welcome.