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Can the EU referendum be the beginning of the end of the two-party system in England?

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Mon, June 06, 2016 16:34:22

The more I think about the UK EU referendum the stranger the whole thing becomes.

Consider some facts:

The leaders of the main political parties - Conservative and Labour - have publicly supported the “remain” position. In fact, almost every political party has adopted remain as its official position. That includes the Lib Dems, the Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Ulster Unionists, SinnFein. Only UKIP (with 2 MPs) is officially for “leave”

Yet polls consistently show that the British electorate is divided right down the middle. For instance, the Poll of Polls averaged the six most recent polls, and found 51% in favour of “leave”.

On the other hand, bookmakers are betting that “remain” will win (with 7:2 odds). The timeline of polls produced by the BBC shows no consistent advantage over time for either position:

What follows from this? Well, first of all, and this is hardly something new or surprising, it shows that the leadership of the political parties are not effectively appealing to (or appearing to represent) a huge swathe of the electorate.

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, it shows that on this issue (and maybe on much else) traditional party allegiance counts for little. In particular, Conservative and Labour members and supporters are deeply split on the issue. This is made even more curious in the light of the widely held belief that neither David Cameron nor Jeremy Corbyn have any instinctive appetite for the position that they are promoting. It has been suggested by some that Jeremy Corbyn’s “body language” adds up to an encouragement for Labour supporters to vote “leave” even though he is not willing to (or cannot) say it.

Thirdly, this issue has the capacity to fracture traditional two-party politics. The animosity and bitterness that has built up between different factions of these two parties is so corrosive that most people are predicting that no kind of “unity and reconciliation” will be possible, particularly if the vote is as close as the polls are predicting. Whichever side loses will not easily accept the legitimacy of the winning side.

And so we face the possibility that both main parties will split asunder, and new smaller political parties may emerge in the wake of the election.

I am one of those who believes that the two-party stranglehold on this country, aided and abetted by the “first-past-the-post” electoral system is no longer fit for purpose, and does not reflect the political diversity which contemporary British politics needs. If the result of the referendum, whichever way it goes, sounds the death knell of this long ping-pong match between Labour and Tory, then this is an outcome worth having. The ascendancy of the SNP in Scotland, the vibrancy of independent parties in Wales and Northern Ireland, and the huge rise in electoral support for hitherto fringe parties such as UKIP and the Greens, shows that our politics is not set in stone. Can this referendum be a truly decisive opportunity for pluralistic politics in Britain.

How does this mean one should vote on 23rd June? In a single referendum, where the total votes cast nationally is the only thing that matters, “tactical voting” as understood in general elections, doesn’t really work. The only thing I have come to so far is the suggestion that if you really can’t make up your mind which way to vote, you should express your inability - not by plumping uncommitedly for one or the other outcome - but by either abstaining or spoiling your paper. In other words, let’s not paper over the cracks, but face up to them. Britain is not a country divided between certain “remains” and certain “leaves” facing each other over an unbridgeable gulf. We are rather a people containing many shades of grey, with all kinds of uncertainties, ambiguities, and unresolved questions. Let the result truly demonstrate this by allowing the “don’t knows” to have their voice. In the system we have, abstaining or spoiling the paper is the only way to make that particular voice heard. And it will count in the political aftermath.

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