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Britain doesn’t need another establishment party

By Alex Ashman, NHA Party co-leader

This week, millionaire Simon Franks has claimed that the current polarisation of UK politics indicates the need for a new centrist party to occupy the middle ground between left and right. He has raised £50m to create one and, despite some claims to the contrary, is surely busy trying to recruit support from disgruntled Blairites and Tory modernists. But does Britain really need another establishment party?

Splitting The Vote

When the decidedly non-establishment National Health Action Party formed in 2012, the LabourList blog claimed excitedly that it 'must be strangled at birth'. Every new political party encounters this sort of resistance, the reason being a fear of 'splitting the vote'. Ironically, it was Labour who most dramatically split the vote in 2017: the party's refusal to enter into progressive alliances on a national scale may have contributed to Conservative victories in as many as 50 seats. But why do we have such a polarised political system, in which two parties take turns at governing?

First Past The Post

The situation stems from the UK's First Past The Post voting system, in which:

  • Voters are afraid to support a small party for fear of splitting the vote (the 'spoiler effect'). 6.5 million people voted 'tactically' instead of supporting their party of choice in 2017*.
  • Most seats have a large majority vote for either Labour or the Conservatives ('safe seats'). Elections are decided by a small number of voters in seats with small majorities ('swing seats'). The 2017 election result would have been dramatically different if just 0.0017% of voters had chosen differently*.
  • Votes for losing candidates are discarded, allowing a party to win control of parliament with much less than 50% of the vote ('minority rule'). 22 million votes were 'wasted' in 2017*.

*See this report by the Electoral Reform Society (PDF).

The Two Party State

The result is that the two big establishment parties hold 98% of the seats in England, and they take turns at ruling with a minority of the vote. Until the 1920s these two big parties were the Conservatives and the Liberals; now they are the Conservatives and the Labour Party.

A previous attempt to overthrow the two party system occurred in 1981, when centrist Labour MPs defected to the brand new Social Democratic Party. The SDP eventually merged with the Liberals to create the Liberal Democrats, who thanks to First Past The Post have played third fiddle to the big two parties ever since.

A New Centrist Party?

Women's Equality Party leader Sophie Walker has already pointed out the irony that establishment figures like Farage, Trump, and perhaps Franks, can win votes with a populist, anti-establishment message. We know from history that as long as the First Past The Post system is in place, we will be stuck with a two party, establishment system. Perhaps Franks' party could replace one of the big two parties. Perhaps it might form an electoral pact or coalition with one of the big two parties, repeating the Lib-Lab pact or the Lib-Tory coalition. Or perhaps the party will simply sit in the middle, attracting swing voters and thus drawing the big two parties back towards the centre ground.

Actually Break The Mould

Our plea to Simon Franks is simple: don't build another establishment party.

If you must create a new party, it must be used as a vessel to reform the system from the inside. You must fight for proportional representation and throw out First Past The Post. You must ban your future MPs from taking cushy 'revolving door' private sector jobs when they leave office. You must support progressive alliances where you know that individually your party cannot win. You must get outside of the Westminster political bubble and do things that you find uncomfortable.

Even better, forget the new party. This sounds ironic coming from the NHA Party, which formed just 6 years ago, but we promise that we are practising what we preach. We want you to support a cross-party movement to disrupt the two party system, detoxify politics, and better represent the people of Britain. Work with organisations like Compass, who favour progressive alliances over tribal politics. Combine this with the 'colour-blind' politics favoured by Brian May's Common Decency movement. Talk to the NHA about healthcare, talk to the WEP about women's equality, and talk to all the minority groups whom the political class often ignore. If you're looking to upturn the apple cart of British politics, this is the way to really break the mould.

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