So much for the Great Fragmentation – it seems two-party British politics still works

The promise of rainbow politics came to nothing. For electoral success, head to the centre ground

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The Independent Online

Among the thousands of words written before the election that turned out to be irrelevant – and I wrote many of them about the effect of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act on a minority Labour government – perhaps the most mistaken were those devoted to the subject of the Great Fragmentation of British politics.

We had entered the era of five-party politics, it was said. Six in Scotland. The old party loyalties had broken down and new forces were breaking their way into a voting system that was not designed for them. Burgeoning support for Ukip and the Greens were a measure of how alienated the voters were from the traditional parties.

Only it didn’t turn out like that. Support for the two main parties went up. The Conservatives increased their share of the vote by 0.7 percentage points and Labour by 0.5 points. Not much, but an outcome sharply at odds with the thesis. The Liberal Democrat vote collapsed, and Ukip and the Greens did not even make up the difference. With a three-way split in the non-Tory, non-Labour vote, the forces of the great hunger for an alternative actually ended up with just 10 seats: eight Lib Dems and one each for Ukip and the Greens.

Two-party politics has turned out to be more durable than fashionable opinion ever thought. Except in Scotland, which turned into a one-party state and a law unto itself, and to which I will come in a moment.

But first let me deal with those elements of the rainbow politics that suffered such a crushing reverse on 7 May. I was relieved by Ukip’s failure, not so much because I disagree with pulling out of the EU – which is an argument that ought to be better represented in British politics – but because I had recklessly said, a year before the election, that in five years’ time we will have forgotten who Nigel Farage is.

I understand that Ukip voters feel badly treated by the voting system, which gave them just one MP for 13 per cent of the vote. But those are the rules, and they were affirmed in a referendum not so long ago. The idea, much touted by the advocates of the Great Fragmentation thesis, that the British people, who rejected a modest change in the voting system in 2011, would have supported Irish-style proportional representation in multi-member constituencies if that had been on the ballot paper, is fantasy (and a fantasy that might well have delivered a Tory-Ukip government this year).

Then there are the Greens. Many of their potential supporters must have been baffled by the party’s election campaign, which hardly mentioned the environment and which sounded more like a revolutionary socialist party, banging on about jobs, housebuilding and Gaza. So its “radical” alternative – otherwise known as a protest vote – for those former Lib Dem voters for whom Labour was unappealing, faded to just 3.8 per cent of the vote on election day.

It was the eclipse of the Lib Dems that was the biggest disaster for the Great Fragmentation thesis, however. The party, which elects a new leader tomorrow evening, has almost ceased to exist, yet the limbs continue to move by reflex. Nick Clegg’s mission to persuade the British people of the virtue of parties working together has been tested to destruction. The voters looked at the way the Coalition had worked over the past five years and decided that it was better than the alternative offered by Ed Miliband. In which case, why vote for a party that might switch sides when you could vote for a party that would give you the certainty of more of the same?

I suppose you could say, if you wanted a more philosophical reading, that the Lib Dems are a victim of their success: in that both Tories and Labour are now liberal parties – and even social-democratic parties, by the standards of the Lib Dems’ predecessors. It is quite hard for the Lib Dems to differentiate themselves from a Conservative Party that is in favour of gay marriage, a living wage and, more or less, civil liberties.

That is because two-party politics works. Most of the time our voting system forces the two big parties, which are themselves coalitions, towards the centre ground. However, what it cannot cope with is regional parties, which is why the Scottish National Party is the exception to the reassertion of binary politics.

I bridled, though, at the debut speech given on Tuesday by the new wonder-child of the House of Commons, Mhairi Black, hailed as a combination of Pitt the Younger, Owen Jones and Barbara Castle. Yes, she was pleasingly fearless, but she was lecturing the Labour Party on how to win by holding up the example of “a personal hero of mine”, Tony Benn.

That would be the Tony Benn who nearly destroyed Labour in the 1980s and who hailed the result in 1983, which was even worse than this year’s and in which he lost his seat, as eight and a half million votes for “an openly socialist policy”.

I also found her objection to the accusation of nationalism darkly ironic. She said “nationalism has nothing to do with what has happened in Scotland” as if the N in her party’s name stood for Nice. The idea that Ms Black’s constituents voted for her because she is a Bennite and not because she would assert Scotland’s separate interest is certainly a nice one.

In fact, the lesson of the election is the opposite of Ms Black’s prescription. To Bennify the Labour Party – to make it part of the rainbow fringe of alternative politics – would be to ensure Conservative governments of the UK for ever. This is, of course, what the SNP wants, even if Nicola Sturgeon definitely didn’t say so to the French ambassador, so Labour is quite right not to take advice from that end of the opposition benches.

The lesson for Labour is, as ever, to head for the centre ground. At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, there wasn’t a single question from a Lib Dem, Ukipper or Green. Tory MPs enjoyed themselves, waving at Harriet Harman to come over to their side of the House. But they used to say the same to Tony Blair. 

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