The alternatives look shiny and spontaneous but they’re oligarchy in disguiseby Eliane Glaser / June 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
The two-party system, I keep hearing, is no longer fit for purpose. It is dysfunctional and obsolete. “You can’t put jump-leads on a dinosaur,” as the writer John Harris put it recently.
I don’t love political parties. Their meetings are tedious, they bombard you with emails, and the other members are often objectionable. But to those who want to sweep them away, I say: be careful what you wish for. The alternatives may look shiny and spontaneous, but they’re actually oligarchy in disguise.
European elections have always been an opportunity to give the main parties a kicking, but this time the punishment felt existential. Amid mixed results across the continent, one thing was clear: established parties are deeply unpopular. “For the first time in 40 years the two classical parties, socialists and conservatives, will no longer have a majority” observed Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the EU Parliament. In the UK, the old duopoly performed catastrophically: the Conservatives and Labour took less than a quarter of British votes between them.
In the wake of his gains, Nigel Farage gloated: “The two-party system now serves nothing but itself. I think they are an obstruction to the modernising of politics.” The only constant for comically shape-shifting Change UK is rage at the old system. Returning Green MEP Molly Scott Cato concluded that people “are disillusioned with two-party politics.” And when it comes to knocking the old order, liberals are populists too: Vince Cable decreed it “moribund.”
Commentators from the right, left and centre jumped in to agree. Describing the old parties as defunct has become an op-ed truism. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland wrote that their handling of Brexit represented “an indictment of our entire political class.” Sherelle Jacobs of the Telegraph pictured Farage “ready to rip fatal chunks out of our ailing two-party system.”
Pundits might think that they are offering a helpful diagnosis rather than prescription, but in politics, where momentum counts for so much, it is easy to confuse an “is” with an “ought.” There is little practical difference between reading the traditional parties’ eulogies and dancing on their grave. We should hesitate to do that, because they served a crucial purpose: containing broad social interests and…