Break-up of the UK’s traditional political parties or damp squib?

20 February 2019 JR Max Wheel

What’s going on at Westminster? Is the sudden crack in the ranks of traditional parties by the formation of an Independent Group any more than individual desperation over Brexit or the beginnings of a big change in UK politics. Most moves like this, resignation from parties fizzle out even when like the SDP they created a viable party, but these are not normal times. Things are changing in the UK, and in many respects these changes are long overdue.  It is not only clear that the first past the post system (FPTP) has serious failings in terms of representation, and most especially when there is a close result, but that the old largely class and interest-based groupings are increasingly irrelevant to younger age groups, if they can muster any interest in voting at all.

It is also not solely about the vexed topic of Brexit although it is an important driver. References to “broken politics” are frequent. Matters European have been unravelling since the financial crash of 2008, the austerity measures, the incompetence of public sector service management and the downright greed of major transnational corporations, easily able to choose where and when to move capital and people across frontiers, with scant regard for the consequences of those affected.

The Commons has over 650 members, this is grossly overstaffed at one level and under-representative at another, namely the ability to respond to legitimate issue or grievances. The unstitching of the UK via representative assemblies or Parliaments in the constituent countries has hardly proved a resounding success either but is a sop to nationalist ideals and a divisive and expensive way to try to square the circle. It has manifestly not worked in N. Ireland. barring the relief from the troubles but the basic question of United Kingdom or United Ireland, kept on ice as too provocative. Result, a non-functional Stormont. This is a serious impediment to community harmony, let alone the deliberately provocative issue of the RoI/N.I. border.

Scotland is no better, after a failed referendum in 2014, nationalist sentiment simmers beneath the surface. Wales has an Assembly but is still a Labour dominated country more reminiscent of its industrial past than its current stagnant economic future. All three have been paid scant serious attention by Westminster since it is the golden triangle of the South East, London, Home Counties and University cities like Oxford and Cambridge that dominate. This is equally scandalous for the other English regions, whether South West, Midland, North West or East.  When taught economics years ago there was a “location of industry” theory where governments in their wisdom were supposed to pay attention to the balance of industrial and service industry distribution and with it the necessary and supporting infrastructure. This was dismissed as a result of “pork-barrel” politics and the patent failure to make sensible choices about what to back where. It was left to the market. That was a long time ago and it needs to be resurrected in the most aggressive and determined way if communities are not to left to rot.

Fixing British politics means radical change, given that cooperation and compromise are needed more than ever. It may require an acceptable version of PR, as no party has a monopoly of wisdom.

It certainly requires drastic pruning of the House of Lords or its abolition. The regions must be properly represented for decisions of national importance- just what kind of body can answer that is tricky but why not a second chamber with representatives from the 4 countries rebalanced – in effect a Federal Britain. We have long resisted the Federal Europe on offer and on balance it seems an unlikely event given the resurgence of the nation state and regional powers, these need to be recognised whether in Barcelona, Belfast or Edinburgh.  If the Independent Group can grasp any of the real needs, then they just may redraw the constitution in a way fit for purpose and government of the UK in an increasingly fractious world. It’s got to be better than the current system.