Monday, 8 September 2008

Two-party system: no room for other views

Tom Harris MP, in a recent post, laments the end of two-party politics in the UK, yearning for the days of two massive parties slugging it out against one another, with only few MPs from other parties. To his credit, he does recognise that his is a minority viewpoint, but it still makes me a little sad.

He says he sees “nothing undemocratic in a system which actually encourages the widest possible range of opinions within a particular party.” Now, I don’t agree that a wide range of opinions are prevalent – or at least public – in one party in a two-party system. But the idea that there is nothing undemocratic in a two-party system surely needs blown out the water.

We’ll ignore (for the moment) that inherent undemocratic nature of the electoral system which produces such a two-party system – you know, the system where two parties can win the same %age of vote but one wins vastly more seats than the other (thinking October 1974 – SNP with 30.4% of the vote win 11 seats while Labour won 33% of the vote and 41 seats).

Arend Lijphart (whose Patterns of Democracy is a pretty decent if anorak-y read) emphasies the benefits of consenus democracy over majoritarian (or Westminster) democracy. He cites 10 ways that democracy is better served through consensus – including proportional representation against a FPTP electoral system, Minimum winning coalition government v the concentration of power in single-party governments and, multi-party v two-party systems. His conclusion:

“Contrary to the popular wisdom that decisive, effective, majoritarian leadership leads to better policy outcomes, Westminster democracies do not outperform consensus democracies.”
Tom Harris’ problem with PR is that it “encourages parties to retreat into narrow ideological silos” and claims that “wider, more transparent coalitions” can be formed within a political party before election day.

I think he’s wrong on both counts. The narrow ideological silos are only served by two-party politics strangling the life out of political debate with their closely whipped debates. And how transparent is a coalition in the Labour party – or, indeed the Conservatives – when they are elected (like in 1997) with a huge majority?

I know he’s taking a break from blogging at the moment, but I’d be interested in hearing why he thinks the archaic two-party system is more democratic. Or, indeed, if there are any more political dinosaurs out there that want the “glory-days” of two party politics to return.



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