Tribalism, or: Divided We Fall

Britain is effectively a one-party state. That’s a bold opening statement, isn’t it? However, it is accurate, and I’m going to tell you why.

We use a voting system known as First Past The Post. Under that system, the one candidate in a constituency who gets the most votes goes to sit in parliament at Westminster, and all the others effectively disappear. They did not get the most votes, so they were not elected, so they have zero influence. This system was devised back in the days when the only people who could vote were men, who were over the age of 25, who had an income of over £250,000 a year in today’s money, and who owned land. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that meant that maybe 10% of the population were eligible to vote – but that was okay, since only about 15% of the population could read or had any awareness of what was going on outside their local area.

As you may have noticed, things have changed since then. The population is about ten times higher, and every resident of the country over the age of 18 is eligible to vote, and pretty much everyone has awareness and knowledge of not just things outside their local area, but worldwide events and their repercussions, both economical and political. And yet the voting system is still the same one we were using in 1815. Yes, I know there are certain procedural differences – it is now a secret ballot, there are no rotten boroughs – but the fact is that the mechanism for electing members of parliament has not changed for well over 200 years.

The First Past The Post system also allows the party with the most candidates elected to form a government. Okay, yes, there have been times when a government was formed by a party that didn’t have the most seats, but that doesn’t change the fact that were still in government, and therefore in sole power. (The one exception I can find is the Labour government of 1923, who won 191 seats out of 615. The Conservatives won 298 seats and the Liberals won 158, meaning no party had an outright majority, and the Liberals supported Labour to be the government because they thought they’d make a bollocks of it and be able to profit from it. Labour did make a bollocks of it since there was an election in 1924, but the Liberals never again won so many seats.) There have been numerous coalition governments (mostly formed and dominated by the Conservatives, who without allies would have been governing in a minority), and sometimes a party has formed a government with the most seats but not the most votes, but generally speaking, the party with the most seats forms the government, and the party with the most seats usually has more seats than all the other parties put together – a majority.

So, a majority government is formed, and gets to run the country as they see fit for the next however many years they can get away with. They have more MPs that all the other parties put together, so they generally get all their legislation passed – unless some of their own MPs rebel and vote against them. Now, in a government with a large majority, such as Labour 1997 (179) and 2001 (167), that’s generally not an issue. It is an issue when the majority is small, such as the Conservatives in 1992 (21) or 2015 (10), as even a small rebellion can lead to a government defeat.

“So why is this a one-party state?” you ask, seeing that a well-organised opposition could probably arrange for a weak government to be defeated on a regular basis. Well, it’s because of a second factor that is exacerbated by the broken and not-fit-for-purpose First Past The Post voting system – habitual voting.

First Past The Post tends to generate what are known as safe seats – seats where the usual majority for one party is so high, it’s pretty pointless for any other parties to stand in that constituency. David Cameron’s constituency of Witney, for instance, returned a Tory majority of over 25,000 votes. Ed Miliband’s constituency of Doncaster North returned a Labour majority of just under 12,000 votes – two safe seats there, then. But Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale was held by the Conservatives with a majority of only 800, and Barrow & Furness was held by Labour with a majority of only 800 – two unsafe seats. In any one election there are only about 200 seats which change hands, the rest all have enough of a majority to be “safe”.

“What has that got to do with habitual voting?” you ask. I’m getting there.

In Witney or Doncaster North, if you don’t like the incumbent party you may as well vote for the Monster Raving Looney Party, or the Free Chickens For Everyone Party, because you’re not going to stop the same party that’s always held the seat from getting back in. If, on the other hand, you live in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale or Barrow & Furness, it could be your vote that decides who gets returned to parliament.

Now, in this country, there are (sadly) a lot of people who vote for a party because their friends vote for it, or their family votes for it, or they have always voted for it. They don’t stop to consider what the actual policies of that party are, or what the results of them being put into practice would mean, they just know that, “this is the party I/my friends/family always vote for, therefore I will vote for them again.” Well, why do they always vote for them? Very often, you don’t get a coherent answer. If you do get an answer, it’s along the lines of, “they’re the only party with a chance of getting into power.” Unfortunately, that is true under FPTP, with its’ safe seats and winner-takes-all design. If every constituency returned five MPs instead of one under a proportional system, then Witney would return four Tory and one Labour MP; Doncaster North would return three Labour, one UKIP and one Tory MPs; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale would return two Tories, two SNP and one Labour MP; and Barrow & Furness would return two Labour, two Tory and one UKIP MP. That’s nine Tories, seven Labour, two UKIP and two SNP MPs, a far wider spread of political opinion and outlook than the two Tory and two Labour MPs that we got from those four constituencies at the start of May. Yes, the vast majority of MPs are still either Labour or Tory, but at least others get a look in.

Under FPTP, it doesn’t matter how fervent your support for a party is, if it’s not one of the main two parties (the Lib-Dems are not a main party – when in coalition they were completely dominated by the Tories and had no effect on proceedings), it’s a wasted effort. Yes, the SNP won 56 seats, and the Green Party and UKIP won one seat each, but because of the Tory majority, they’re not going to have any practical effect. And, what is most unfortunate, is that the majority of people who vote for parties other than the Tories and Labour are the ones who have actual reasons for voting for parties other than the Tories and Labour. Reasons like, “they’re the only party that cares about normal people,” or, “they’re not a party crammed full of liars and criminals,” or, “it’s time for change, and this party will make it happen.” Ask a Green or SNP voter if they’ve always voted for their party, if they say, “yes,” they will probably give one of those reasons if ask them why. Ask a Tory or Labour voter why they’ve always voted for their party, you have a 50/50 chance of them spouting party propaganda, or replying with something along the lines of “because.”

Gradually, this realisation that less than a third of the country actually has any influence over who governs it is seeping through into the electorate. Turnout at general elections has been following a downward trend since 1945. No single party has won more than 50% of the votes cast or more than 40% of the votes from the total electorate since 1931. Add in the horribly disproportionate ratio of % votes:% MPs for all parties (2010 – Tories 36:47, Labour 29:40, Lib-Dems 23:9, SNP 2:1, Others 10:0.2; 2015 – Tories 37:51, Labour 31:36, Lib-Dems 8:1, SNP 5:9, Others 18:4), and you have a system that is geared to always returning one of two parties to power, and if one party falls out of that system it is replaced with another. The system encourages people to vote for parties, not for the policies espoused by them, and encourages punishment for those parties who lose support.

So, how does all that make a one-party state? Because of the punishment factor I just mentioned. In 2010, the Lib-Dems entered into a coalition government with the Tories with 23% of the vote and 9% of the seats. The coalition was massively dominated by the Tories, the Lib-Dems did very little to stop the Tory ideological foolishness of austerity and persecution of the poor, and even went back on some of their key election promises. In 2015, they were punished by the electorate for their spinelessness an treachery, and received only 8% of the vote and 1% of the seats. But where did all their voters go? The Tories share of the vote only increased by 1%, all the rest went to Labour, UKIP, the SNP, and the Greens. Hence we now have a Tory government, and an effective one-party state.

It’s not just the split of the vote opposed to the Tories that lands us in that situation though; it is the tribalism of the constituents of that split. Someone who habitually votes Labour will likely do so with not much passion for no very well-thought-out reason, and they like being in their comfort zone. Someone who habitually supports the Greens or SNP will do so very passionately, with a very well-thought-out reason, and either not caring that their party will never wield real power, or erroneously believing that this is the year things change!

No, things won’t. Especially if someone like Jeremy Corbyn comes along, and you go on being Tribal.

Jeremy Corbyn has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to join the Labour party in some capacity or other. He has done this by engaging with people far-and-wide, and quietly but insistently espousing an economic plan that makes sense, that benefits the majority of the people of the country, that is socially and environmentally responsible, and takes the Labour party back to left of the political spectrum. Not far-left, like the majority of the mainstream media would have you believe, and probably not more than just a bit left-of-centre, but certainly to the left of where it has been since 1995, loitering on the centre-right trying to hang out with the cool kids of the Tories.

So what other parties are left-of-centre? Well the two major ones are the Green Party and the SNP. In the last year or so, there has been a massive surge in support for those two parties, largely because they proclaim far and wide that they oppose the ideological austerity of the Tories. But those parties are never going to win enough seats to form a majority government in Westminster under the current electoral system. Labour can. And now that Labour has a potential leader that is proclaiming far and wide that he opposes the ideological austerity of the Tories, Labour are getting a massive surge in support. And what are the members of the Green Party and SNP doing in response?

“Waaah! Labour are draining members from us! Waaah! Corbyn should leave Labour and join us! Waaah! Stop promoting Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, we’ll never win if he gets in!”

So, not the sensible thing, then.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Tories do not give a shit about the environment, or people who earn less than £75,000 a year, or people who live in parts of the UK that are never going to vote for them (Wales, Scotland, the north of England, and most of the Midlands and West Country). They are simply in power to enrich themselves, enrich their friends, and enrich their party donors. Labour under Corbyn would care about the things I mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph – and Corbyn has demonstrated this on the campaign trail, with his policy ideas, with his engagement with people, with his willingness to listen to ordinary people. All things that the Green Party and SNP currently do, and Labour has not done for two decades.

If Labour returns to the left, it can effectively oppose the Tories. Effective opposition in Opposition is much better than ineffective opposition in Opposition, and is just as valid as actually being in Government. And if Corbyn wins the Labour leadership election, he will return Labour to the left, where the Greens and SNP have been waiting for a miracle.

Guys: Here is your miracle. Realistically, under FPTP, Labour is the only party that can beat the Conservatives in a general election. Any other view is just pie-in-the-sky la-la-land. The Green Party and SNP would be far better served by issuing instructions to their members telling them not to complain about the rise of Corbyn, and to support him in his potential leadership of the Labour party. Why? Because support for a Corbyn-led Labour now can easily translate into electoral reform and policies that you’ve been campaigning for for years – decades – after the next election. And the next election may not be in 2020 if Corbyn is Labour leader. His performance, sincerity, and opposition to ideological austerity as leader may well provoke Tory backbench rebellions, possibly enough of them to be in a position to move for a vote of No Confidence in the Tory government, which if it succeeds will lead to a general election.

But in order for that to happen, we need to end the effective one-party state caused by the obsolete voting system, political tribalism, and unappreciation for the big picture. If we want any kind of progress in this country towards a fairer society with better environmental protections and relevant systems of government, the primary objective must be to first remove the Conservatives from power. Under the current system, there are only two options for doing so: Have Corbyn as Labour leader, with other left-leaning parties offering their wholehearted support; or revolution. Tribalism will not serve us, it will only serve the Conservatives.

How to go about it


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3 Responses to Tribalism, or: Divided We Fall

  1. Rambling Dan says:

    Very interesting read! I most definitely agree with the idea that a Corbyn led Labour party is the most realistic route for immediate change if we are playing by the current rules of the system. Its all about solidarity and coming together for the greater good right now!

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