British political landscape could change forever
Neil Clark: If the Lib Dems force a coalition, every party could fragment – including Nick Clegg’s
Imagine a British political landscape without a Labour or Conservative Party. Where there are several political parties, all with a realistic chance of making it into government. Where single-party administrations are a thing of the past and multi-party coalitions are the norm.
Sounds far-fetched? It could happen much sooner than you think.
If the Liberal Democrats do hold the balance of power in next week's general election, as the opinion polls predict, then Britain's antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system will be kicked into touch.
But the adoption of proportional representation - the price the Lib Dems will demand for propping up a Tory or Labour government, whichever it turns out to be - won't only mean fairer elections in the future, it is also likely to lead to the radical transformation of our party system. And I mean radical.
While supporters of first-past-the-post denounce the idea of peacetime coalition government as being horribly 'un-British', in one sense we've had coalitions for years. Both the Labour and Conservative parties are coalitions, made up of people holding a wide range of opinions, who only stay together due to electoral convenience.
The Conservative Party includes socially liberal Europhiles such as Ken Clarke, and socially conservative EU-haters like Lord Tebbit. In today's Parliamentary Labour Party you can find the unequivocally anti-war socialist John McDonnell, and the darling of the right-wing media, Frank Field, a man who sits on the advisory board of the free market think-tank, Reform.
What keeps our two 'broad church' main parties together is the knowledge that under first-past-the-post any breakaway party has little chance of getting into government, even if, like the SDP in the early 1980s, it is led by well-known political figures and attracts plenty of positive media coverage.
But under PR all that will change. Political marriages of convenience will no longer be quite so convenient and, for some, divorce will look a far more attractive option.
Within a few years of a change in our electoral system, we can confidently expect the Labour Party to split into two or perhaps even three different parties. Labour’s traditional left, perhaps led by someone like John McDonnell, would campaign on an 'Old Labour' programme of public ownership, egalitarianism and opposition to militarism.
The party's centre-left, perhaps calling themselves the Progressive Party, and led by someone like Jon Cruddas, would advocate social democracy. Blairites would have their own 'New Labour' party.
Left-wing parties that have moved sharply to the neo-liberal right, as Labour has done since the 1990s, are far more likely to split under PR. A good example was the breakaway of disaffected socialists from Germany's SPD in 2005, to form a new 'Labour and Social Justice' grouping.
The Conservatives, too, are likely to fragment. If the party collaborates in government with the Lib Dems, we could see a right-wing, Eurosceptic, 'Tea Party' breakaway party led by someone like Daniel Hannan.
There could be a new centre-right party modelled on the lines of the European Christian Democrat parties and supporting a more positive approach to the EU and joining the Euro, led by someone like Tim Yeo.
There could also be a new conservative grouping influenced by the ideas of 'Red Tory' thinker Phillip Blond, which would reject free market ideology and revert back to traditional 'One Nation' Conservatism, led possibly by Nick Hurd (son of Douglas), who is in on the advisory board of Blond's think-tank ResPublica.
And what of the Lib Dems? One scenario has the Lib Dems transformed under PR to a party almost always in government, holding power alternately as part of a centre-left, or centre-right administration. No doubt Nick Clegg is hoping his party can emulate Germany's Free Democrats, which held office continuously from 1969 to 1998 as junior coalition partners of first the SPD and then the Christian Democrats.
But there is another, alternative scenario. While the Tory-supporting press have tried to portray him as a dangerous crypto-socialist, and the left-liberal media have promoted him as the country's progressive saviour, the fact is that Nick Clegg, the public school educated banker’s son, has moved his party sharply to the right.
Clegg is committed to privatisation, globalisation and free market economics. Under his leadership, the Lib Dems have dropped such policies as re-nationalisation of the railways, which was in their 2005 manifesto, and now advocate selling off the Tote - in public ownership since its inception in 1928 - and even support part-privatisation of the Royal Mail.
With Clegg dropping hints that he'd be prepared to work with a Conservative government if Labour comes third in next week's poll, there are already murmurs of discontent from senior party figures who would prefer to see the party work with Labour to form a progressive bloc which would keep the Conservatives permanently out of power.
In short, Clegg risks splitting his own party. If he continues his move to the right and goes into coalition with a Conservative government, the party could quickly fragment with a left-wing faction, led perhaps by Alistair Carmichael, a founder member of the Lib Dem's Beveridge Group, or Lembit Opik, who has criticised his party's decision to drop railway re-nationalisation, breaking away from Clegg and his free market neo-liberals.
In which case, electoral reform, far from leading to a new golden age for the Lib Dems, could see Clegg's party fragment as quickly as Labour and/or the Tories.
Of course, all of the above depends on the Lib Dems holding the balance of power after next week's election. If Cameron can win an outright majority, then we're back to square one. ·
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