After the collapse of Theresa May’s efforts to push her withdrawal agreement through parliament, and the failed subsequent Conservative Party motion of no-confidence against her, two factors have been fairly well established. There appears to be no withdrawal agreement available that commands a majority in the House of Commons, least of all the current one. And both parliament and the Conservative Party lack the will to oust the prime minister. Not only is opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn reluctant to submit the motion required for parliament to hold a vote of no confidence because he does not think it would pass, but in addition, May is safe from another confidence vote from her party for a full year.
In short, Britain is now in a situation where the prime minister is relatively safe in her position but unable to move forward on the most important subject of the day. This is a profound level of political stalemate at a time when some form of forward motion is urgently required.
There are no immediate solutions available. The problems that led to this impasse run deep. However, two medium to long-term measures would at least help alleviate the risk of future stalemate and crisis.
One is reforming the way the UK elects its members of parliament. First past the post (FPTP, or “single member plurality”, as is the technical name) has a number of problems. Perhaps most damagingly, the distribution of votes is very poorly reflected in the distribution of seats. In 2015 UKIP scored an all-time high result of 3,881,099 votes, or 12.6%. Its parliamentary reward was one seat. In comparison, the SNP received 1,454,436 votes, or 4.7%. Its reward was 56 seats.
One SNP seat cost on average 25,972 votes, compared to, by definition, 3,881,099 votes for UKIP, or 149 times more than SNP seats. If those who have concerns about the UK’s international partnerships see their voices so blatantly ignored in general elections, it is perhaps not surprising that they welcomed the opportunity to vote Leave when the chance appeared. Although the UK did hold a referendum on electoral reform in 2011, and rejected it, the proposed Alternative Vote system would not have dealt with the problem of some parties gaining vastly more for their votes than others.
The current system is also forcing the two main parties to maintain what are blatantly very unhappy and dysfunctional political family units. Labour and the Conservatives have to contain within them people whose views diverge radically from each other. The sheer depth of the problem was painfully illustrated on the day of the confidence vote when two Conservative MPs apparently refused to feature in a TV interview together, live on air.
One Conservative MP described the situation in his party as something akin to Mad Max or Lord of the Flies. This situation is leading to damaging struggles over control of the leadership and wider organisation as different fractions vie for control. Labour’s internal battles over Corbyn as leader and the role of the grassroots Momentum group are further illustrations of this problem.
It seems clear that what is needed is a system of electing MPs that better reflects how people actually vote. This would help to channel concerns and objections about the political direction of the country in more meaningful and constructive ways to avoid festering dissent building up. It would also help split up the internally squabbling and dysfunctional parties, creating organisations more at peace with themselves ideologically.
A recent Ashcroft poll showed that when respondents were asked if they thought May’s Brexit deal honoured the result of the referendum and whether it was better than leaving without a deal or remaining, the answer “don’t know” was often the either first or second most popular choice.
If we are going to use referendums as a means to settle big political questions (and ideally we should not) then clearly the population needs to be sufficiently knowledgeable to make informed decisions. If citizens are to have healthy debates on future big decisions and electoral choices, political literacy needs to be given a much higher priority, both in formal education and beyond.
A recent House of Lord’s report stated that “citizenship education has a crucial role to play in helping to build active citizens”. It seems profoundly unwise to use referendums to answer big political questions if voters are not equipped to take such active role in decision making as a referendum allows. In addition, the same report noted that citizenship education, and arguably political literacy more generally, is central to encouraging “a thoughtful national narrative about Britishness”.
If the prime minister wants to succeed in bringing the country together post Brexit, which was a central theme in her speech to the Conservative Party conference, a “thoughtful narrative” about the political system that exacerbated this Brexit debacle seems a good place to start.