A veritable obstacle to good government: the House of Commons. Image: Dorling Kindersley ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The two-party system is broken. It’s time to fix it

Britain desperately needs a system of government that is inclusive and genuinely representative
December 29, 2022

Charles de Gaulle said that politics was too serious a matter to be left to politicians. Recent events in Westminster seem to confirm that he might well have been right, though generals are not necessarily the only alternative. I began studying politics at university in early 1960s Britain, when outside of Oxford it was a new and rather daring academic departure. At the time, textbooks took it for granted not merely that democratic, representative forms of government offered the best way of running a modern state but that the two-party adversarial system provided the ultimate embodiment of that democracy. After all, it was to be found in all the fully developed democracies: the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. True, a significant number of western European states were struggling towards such a democracy in the postwar world, but they were not yet able to take the crucial step away from the confusions and inefficiencies of the multi-party and towards the clarity and certainty of a two-party system like the supposedly “Anglo-Saxon” nations. We wished them well, especially those plucky Nordics. 

The two-party adversarial system, we learned, allowed the forces of progress to compete with those of order and stability within a rule-based parliamentary framework, and consequently enabled the regular and orderly transfer of power. The natural swing of the pendulum saw both progressives and conservatives forming administrations which in theory were held to account by HM’s Loyal Opposition. No matter that the contest between progressive and conservative forces, sometimes caricatured as between equality and liberty, soon morphed into a contest between the landed interest and those of trade and industry, then later between those social and economic forces that favoured a “big state” and those that favoured a minimalist state, crudely between organised labour and organised capital. The two-party adversarial system, it was argued, had kept these forces in check over many years; it represented the best hope for a stable, mature, democratic political system. This analysis seemed sound to most of us politics students at the time. It confirmed my own experience of growing up in a working-class neighbourhood in which practically everybody automatically supported Labour and despised the Conservatives—of course, I knew there were leafy suburbs offering a mirror image. Yet it seemed so natural. After all, as WS Gilbert had written years before:

Every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive 
Is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.

And as we were always being told, there are two sides to every argument. (Really? Only two?) More important, perhaps, it began to become clear that a simple adversarial system seemed tailor-made for the presentation of politics on the rapidly growing medium of TV, especially the BBC, where balance was a constitutional obligation.

Ian Gilmour believed that the two-party adversarial system was the result “neither of the wishes of the British people nor the foresight of British statesmen. Like Tristram Shandy, it was begotten in a fit of absence of mind.” He was only partly right. The influence of common law practice on procedures in the House of Commons is neither accidental nor coincidental. Traditionally many politicians had legal training and adversarial procedures came naturally. They used their mastery of parliamentary procedures largely in the services of the landed aristocracy which was thus able to exercise a considerable measure of control in both houses of parliament before the 1832 reforms. Initially, the aristocracy considered that the Great Reform Act would rob them of this controlling influence. The Earl of Bathurst compared the consequences of the act to the Israelites’ loss in battle of the Ark of the Covenant. He would have been astounded had he known that, 130 years later, a peer of the realm, Baron Home of the Hirsel, would become prime minister (though he had to renounce his peerage). Through patronage of an elite public school system that produced leaders in most fields of public life, over the years the British upper classes continued to hold a disproportionate influence over parliament. Despite this disproportionate influence, the aristocracy were not unsympathetic to social and constitutional reform. The populist Chartist movement, considered by many to pose a threat to the public peace, championed a programme, the People’s Charter, comprising six constitutional reforms. Over time five of these reforms were implemented by parliament. (The sixth, annual parliaments, was rightly considered impractical.) Those who ruled the nation, on both sides of the adversarial divide, were by no means always opposed to reform, though it is worth observing that the landed interest was generally more sympathetic to reform on the industrial world and the industrialists more sympathetic to agrarian reform.

Time and again, on the other hand, political leaders and followers were expected to put party before country. In the 18th century, the Whig politician George Tierney had claimed that the job of the opposition was to oppose everything, propose nothing and throw out the government. An exaggeration perhaps, but certainly not a parody. When Robert Peel became convinced as prime minister of the necessity of reforming the Corn Laws in the 1840s, against the interests of the party he led, he was denounced by a young backbencher, one Benjamin Disraeli, who told him to damn his principles and stick to his party; in the event he did the reverse and broke his party. Did this deep-seated adversarialism matter much to the British people? It certainly added colour to the hustings, as George Eliot showed in Middlemarch or Felix Holt for example, but legislation only began significantly to impinge on the lives of citizens in peacetime as the 19th century wore on, and governments sought to control aspects of the economy through public legislation affecting working conditions in industry. Later, with the emergence of a new party—Labour—that sought to directly improve the living and working conditions of the working class through legislation, adversarialism came to matter very much, and many were fearful that it might matter enough to bring the parliamentary system down. But it didn’t. 

Much later, Andrew Gamble would suggest that the British two-party adversarial system had worked only because it hadn’t really been working. If it had really worked, he argued, the differences between adversarial parties, not yet as ideological as they would later become, would have pushed democratic systems to breaking point, as American politics seems to have been demonstrating for at least a decade. Fifty years or so earlier the humourist GK Chesterton and his friend, the MP Hilaire Belloc, had seen things differently: it was, they said, “enquiries after rheumatism” that had traditionally kept the system functioning. However much they fought in the chamber, members were always keen to enquire after the health of their opponents’ mothers when they met privately (of course, being of the same social class, they frequently did meet). As the century wore on this homogeneity declined, though a level of mutual respect between political foes didn’t die.

The nature of representation

Observers of politics only began to question the efficacy of the two-party adversarial system later, when British electorates, after six years of “big state” socialism from 1945 to 1951, began to elect predominantly Conservative governments; there seemed to be no natural balance after all. As early as 1960, Mark Abrams, Richard Rose and Rita Hinden had written a little bombshell of a book entitled Must Labour Lose? in which the influence of organised labour was shown to be diminishing and likely to continue to diminish, making electoral victory for a traditional Labour party—the naturally progressive party—increasingly unlikely. The years that followed seemed to show that they had been right. Meanwhile, as time passed, some of these formerly patronised European democracies seemed to be faring pretty well despite their pram full of factions and their almost inevitable coalition governments. They showed no sign of even wanting to develop into mature two-party systems like the Anglo-Saxons. What’s more, not only were they stable—some admittedly less so than others—but some were beginning to prosper economically to a noticeably greater extent than Britain. Perhaps, they were better governed. Slowly it dawned upon many of my generation that in the two-party adversarial model we might, after all, have been sold a pup; or perhaps more appropriately an ageing, cantankerous and now toothless hound. We began to look more closely at other forms of representation.

To the modern student of politics it might seem bizarre that, at the beginning of the modern era—that is, before the Great Reform Act of 1832—Tory politicians and thinkers could argue that the House of Commons was genuinely representative of the population. But this they did. In their arguments, they spoke of virtual representation. MPs could represent the interests of the people, even if they were not themselves of the people. After all, it was argued, we would never insist that a barrister ought to be of the same social class as the client they represent in a trial. Moreover, when 18th- and 19th-century writers called for a decisive role for public opinion in national politics, to make the system more directly representative, they had something more subtle and complex in mind than that government policy should reflect simple majority opinion. They acknowledged that representation is a far more nuanced concept; Rousseau, we remember, rejected the term “public opinion” and spoke instead of the “general will”. Nevertheless, extending the franchise eventually to represent all adults clearly signalled that, as a minimum requirement, an incoming government should expect to enjoy the support of a majority of voters. Indeed, wasn’t that the whole point? And so it ought to be a matter for concern that although muti-party systems almost invariably managed to gain such support, the British two-party adversarial system, using a first-past-the-post method of elections, did not.

As a matter of fact, the last occasion in which any British government entered office with the support of the majority of the population was in 1935, and that government was a coalition. Today there are about 100 Britons old enough to have voted in that election. None of the rest of us—47m or so voters—has ever had the privilege of helping to elect a government representing most voters. Even so, the system has been defended on the important ground that it furnishes strong governments and frustrates extremist parties, making it very difficult for them to gain a foothold in parliament. But it renders British elections unjust, sometimes profoundly unjust. The worst example occurred in 1983, when the Conservative party won 397 seats with 42.4 per cent of the vote, Labour won 209 seats with 27.6 per cent and the SDP-Liberal alliance, with 25.4 per cent of the votes, won 23 seats. Moreover, the system doesn’t necessarily prevent extremist minorities from exerting disproportionate influence from within a major party—as we shall see.

However, studies have consistently shown that only around 33 per cent of voters are familiar with party manifestos, with 10 per cent claiming “always” to read them and 23 per cent claiming to read them “sometimes”. If we take the 2019 general election as an example, we could argue that, of the 43 per cent of voters who backed the Conservative party, only between approximately 4 to 9 per cent (an even smaller proportion of the whole electorate) may have actually endorsed the party’s programme. The notion of an incoming government being mandated by a majority of the public to fulfil manifesto commitments is a myth. The reality is that, like all incoming governments, the Conservatives won their landslide victory as a consequence of the party’s favourable image, especially that of its leader.

We might conclude that two-party adversarial politics, based on such flimsy foundations, is a danger to representative democracy. But experienced commentators like Michael Portillo have taken a relaxed view of the dangers of adversarialism, pointing out that elections tend to be won in the centre ground, between the adversaries, thereby diminishing the ideological space between them. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, said the critics of consensus politics. But this is misleading: public moods can change and centre grounds can migrate, as in 1945, when the centre ground moved to the left, allowing the emergence of a new “postwar consensus”. In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher declared her intention to break that consensus in order to free up the British economy and release the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit. She consciously sought to bring ideology and adversarialism back into the political system and. in succeeding in doing so, shifted the centre ground to the right, and incidentally took the nation to the brink of social disintegration. (It isn’t easy to promote policies that induce pensioners onto the streets to protest, but Thatcher’s poll tax managed it.) Blair’s New Labour adapted to this new “right-of-centre” centre consensus successfully, formally abandoning the party’s commitment to socialism, while the party’s aspiration to social justice became distinctly managerial rather than ideological in tone. Among the intake of new Labour MPs in 2001 there were, it was pointed out, more millionaires than miners. 

The concept of a static, definable centre ground that wins elections is open to another challenge. Although partisanship was never quite one-dimensional, as the phenomenon of the working-class Conservative shows, with the decline of social class as the main focus of allegiance a number of alternative allegiances has grown up, recently for example around “wokeism”. Partisans can be separated by a number of centre grounds, as party ideologies become less cohesive. Strategists are less certain as to which centre ground to target now that voters don’t divide as neatly as they did traditionally. Red walls can crumble.

Defenders of the adversarial system also argue that, Thatcherism notwithstanding, for much of the time adversarialism is more apparent than real; after all, governments of different parties face the same problems and the responses open to them are limited. One Conservative backbencher, when asked which of a Labour government’s policies he most objected to, replied that his objection wasn’t so much to the policies as to the fact that it was Labour that was implementing them. So, was his adversarialism bogus? Well, we can be sure that his party would have used whatever adversarial tactics were open to it to oppose those policies and to bring that government down. Adversarialism, then, trumps good government even when it is more manufactured than real. And it goes without saying that ideological confrontation can be very real and have profound consequences, as the policies of the short-lived government of Liz Truss made unmistakably clear.

At the time, it had been widely thought that the establishment of a coalition government in 2010 might lead to the collapse of two-party adversarialism altogether—some overseas commentators certainly believed so, Liberal Democrat leaders certainly hoped so. But the politics of austerity pursued by the coalition actually cemented it, and Labour’s rediscovery of radical socialism under Jeremy Corbyn only reinforced the fact that the postwar consensus that made a two-party system workable had disintegrated.

Adversarial politicians don’t consider that in pursuing their ideological goals they are forsaking the national interest

Adversarial politics came back with a vengeance when David Cameron decided to hold a referendum on EU membership. The Brexit divide cut across traditional allegiances to a measurable extent, exacerbating adversarialism’s systemic dysfunctionality and leading directly to the inability of Theresa May’s government to legislate any Brexit agreement successfully. The years following the referendum represented the nadir of British parliamentary politics, or so it was thought: the turmoil exposed the fallacy that however democratically deficient and unrepresentative British parliaments and governments might be, they at least get the job done. It was not the formal opposition that defeated the government’s series of attempts to shape acceptable Brexit legislation but the right-wing European Research Group (ERG) working inside the Conservative government. This group, with some 50 or so members, held and still holds disproportionate influence. A party within the party, employing its own primitive whipping system, the ERG brought the entire political system to near collapse. Later, in September 2022, the ERG supported Truss’s leadership campaign and was rewarded by the appointment of a number of its members to senior government positions and with the adoption of a neoliberal policy agenda. Ideology and adversarialism intensified. Gamble told us that the adversarial system only worked when it wasn’t working, yet there emerged a corollary to this: when it is working, the adversarial system doesn’t work. One hundred or so years ago Bernard Shaw, the playwright and Fabian, argued for the abolition of political parties: he might even have meant it. But he was wrong. It is naked adversarialism and ideological confrontation that prevents the system from functioning.

If confirmation were needed, consider the Tory leadership contest following Boris Johnson’s fall from grace. Fought in the interests solely of the governing party and not those of the nation, in a time of deep national crisis, this archaic process made the proper functioning of government virtually impossible for two months. In war this kind of self-indulgent distraction might have been classified as treasonable. And to all intents and purposes, the nation was and is in a kind of war: confronting the massive challenges resulting from the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, the consequences of Brexit and the longer-term existential threats to the environment posed by climate collapse; problems demanding precisely the leadership the adversarial system has consistently failed to provide. When after two months a new government emerged, it showed itself to be the most ideological since the Thatcher years: too ideological for its own parliamentary party and for nearly all commentators. Within little more than a month of assuming office, the new leader was forced to resign. Taken together, these events, spread out over 10 months, marked the reductio ad absurdum of British adversarial politics. To coin a phrase, mere anarchy was loosed upon the world, or at least upon Britain.

Adversarial politicians don’t consider that in pursuing their ideological goals they are forsaking the national interest: they believe their goals are the national interest. They are almost invariably wrong. Consider the recent record of British governments. Only an ideologically driven government would have thought it wise to privatise water, or energy and probably not the railways, or to sell off nearly two million council houses without replacing them, or to reshape the whole structure and funding of the health service or the education system every few years, or to hand a hugely important and highly complex question like whether and how to leave the European Union to those least able to make a balanced judgement—the general public (all of us, on both sides of the debate), or to embark on a neoliberal agenda for growth at a time when nearly every national and international body of experts thought it suicidal. In short, adversarial two-party politics, running at anything like full throttle, have shown themselves inimical to good government in the modern age. Since 1945, as a consequence of ideological adversarialism, the battle waged by both major parties to make Britain a fairer, more just society was lost on the playing fields of Eton and in the rancorous committee rooms of militant unions and fundamentalist socialism. And so was the battle to secure a workable Brexit.

The present system, whereby two dysfunctional and ideologically divided parties wage endless battles trading futile promises inevitably aimed at short-term party advantage, has always been destructive of sensible long-term planning and of balanced government in the interests of all the people. Moreover, it is a travesty of the principle of truly representative government, which John Stewart Mill held to be “the greatest of all securities for good government”. But nowadays the two-party adversarial system isn’t just dysfunctional, it has become irrelevant. None of the major issues of today is amenable to partisan politics. A country simply can’t have two sets of interchangeable policies based on adversarial ideologies for managing the environment, for energy, health, care, welfare, public transport, infrastructure or education—indeed anything that really matters. Mill, who himself sat as an MP for three years (1865–8) was exasperated by the “wretched supposition” that the English institutions were models of excellence. What he would have made of their performance over recent years, when they have conspicuously failed to do what they say on the tin, is beyond imagination.

How to introduce reform in Westminster

Though these manifest failings of the adversarial system are not in the forefront of the public mind, they are certainly debated in political circles. But is there any appetite for reform? Conservative-minded politicians in all parties frequently claim that policies are not shaped so much by ideologies as by circumstances—“events, dear boy”. They take refuge in that shibboleth of homespun wisdom: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But in the real world, which of us manages their property or their motor vehicle on that basis? It’s illegal not to have one’s car “fixed” annually even if it is “working”. Today, we are told, the houses of parliament are in grave danger of structural collapse: they need the builders in for major restoration. The reputation of British representative government, which they are supposed to embody, has also been damaged almost beyond repair—partly through the endless post-Brexit legislative impasse, partly through the Johnson government’s blatant attempts to manipulate parliamentary procedures and conventions, partly because of the anti-social, occasionally unlawful antics at Toad Hall while the rest of the nation, including the head of state, were locked down, and more recently because for the second time in three years a tiny fraction of the British population, mostly elderly, well-heeled southern English, has elected the nation’s leader at their leisure—and with what consequences! Now Britain has its third leader produced magically out of the Conservative party hat. Not unconstitutional, just undemocratic. Time, surely, to extend the builders’ terms of appointment.

Mill advocated proportional representation (PR) as a way of making government more representative. Of the major parties at Westminster only the Liberal Democrats have consistently supported PR. In 1991 the Labour peer Raymond Plant produced a detailed report for his party on electoral reform. Labour next came into office in 1997 with a majority of 179 over all other parties. Mysteriously, the government chose not to pursue the advantages of electoral reform. The longer-term impact of the Plant report is clear when we Google it: very little on electoral reform, but a plethora of useful advice for gardeners.

PR takes many forms, and none offers a panacea. Some proportional systems habitually give disproportionate influence to small, sometimes extremist parties, though as we have seen the parliamentary successes of ERG indicate that the two-party system itself is not immune from the phenomenon of tails wagging dogs. On the other hand, New Zealand and later Scotland introduced (via devolution) a measure of proportional electoral reform into their erstwhile exclusively first-past-the-post electoral systems. Whether these national governments are generally more successful as a consequence is open to debate, but their elections are unquestionably fairer and their parliaments more representative of their peoples. This Mixed Member Proportional system of PR would likely make the House of Commons more socially representative and less adversarial, since parties would need to work together, and the government would be much more likely to be supported by a majority of voters. The current British first-past-the-post system seems almost to have been engineered to do the opposite. 

How might reform, beginning with electoral reform, be introduced into Westminster? With great care! After all, those who introduced reform to the Scottish electoral system believed that their propposals would prevent the emergence of a nationalist government. The first necessary step, assuming the current Conservative administration isn’t interested in reform, would be the election of a reforming Labour administration. In July 2022 the press reported Keir Starmer as stating that he had no intention of making any pact or arrangement, former or informal, with the Liberal Democrats, nor would he have any truck with the Scottish National Party. Such a strategy would only lock Britain more securely into its current adversarial straitjacket and kill hopes of serious reform; it should be reconsidered. The setting up of a coalition government, formal or informal, would represent the crucial second step. The step after that would be to establish a forum on climate change, representing an all-party committee but with a range of outside expertise and headed by a dedicated secretary of state with a status equivalent to the chancellor. This would represent a major change from the normal partisan policymaking model.

A reforming government might then set up a commission on representation. Its focus would be much tighter than that of the last constitutional commission, and it would be required to report urgently. The Kilbrandon commission, established in 1969 with wide terms of reference, finally reported in 1973 when the Labour administration that had set it up had been replaced by a less enthusiastic Conservative government. Worse, Kilbrandon’s report wasn’t unanimous, and a minority memorandum was also produced. A commission on representation should be much more sharply focused and would consider electoral reform and parliamentary procedure with a view to minimising adversarialism. 

What Britain desperately needs is a system of government that is inclusive and genuinely representative

Additionally, the commission might also turn its attention to the House of Lords, as Labour has recently done. A reconfigured, reimagined and renamed House of Lords could offer a platform for much wider forms of representation. Any reform proposals would start from the assumption that the last thing Britain needs is another house full of partisan “politicos”, however they might be chosen. Unfortunately, recent history indicates that it is some version of the latter that many reformers seemed to favour. The reformed house should represent the main civic institutions and areas of professional expertise within civil society, bringing a breadth of expertise and experience to decision-making not so readily available in the lower chamber. Though by no means a model, the Seanad Éireann in Ireland is an example of this kind of representation in government. The nature of the relationship between the houses would need to be clearly established but, broadly speaking, policymaking would evolve through a process of interaction between the houses as it does presently, though with an increased use of joint committees. A democratically elected, properly representative “first chamber” would take the lead and remain responsible for promoting legislation.

Moreover, sophisticated ways of involving the public are to hand these days. The part played by citizens’ assemblies in major social reforms in Ireland recently has shown their effectiveness as expressions of a general will. They helped shape legislative outcomes. Similar bodies should have a similar role in policymaking in Britain.

Fortunately, there is a wide group of wise and experienced men and women, including a number of former prime ministers, party leaders and senior political figures who might be prevailed upon to sit on such a commission. 

What Britain desperately needs is a system of government that is inclusive and genuinely representative; that allows expertise a major role, that is able to take decisions that reflect the values of the whole community. Britain has achieved unity across political divides before, especially in times of war, and much more recently—in part anyway—when confronting the coronavirus pandemic. The modern British adversarial system, both when it “works” (à la Gamble) and when it doesn’t, far from providing a model for others to copy, has become a veritable obstacle to good government. And all this just as we begin to confront profound environmental challenges, and when sound policies supported by the whole community are absolutely essential. The chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, recently described the decisions needed to deal with the range of social and economic problems facing the government today as “eye-watering”. Yet they are likely to seem relatively small beer in comparison to those that will arise from the need for the rapid development of carbon capture, as well as for reducing and finally eliminating the use of fossil fuels and replacing them with renewables.

If governments in the next few years flinch from these decisions, even more drastic measures will be needed later. Some such measures are already inevitable. Take only one example: how to confront the effects of the now inevitable rise of sea levels on coastal areas. Which areas would be defended—and how?—and which surrendered to the sea? How and where would the displaced communities be re-established? And what contribution could adversarial ideology make to such decisions? Like that of every other nation, Britain’s way of life will come under threat, a greater threat than any since the Battle of Britain.

Today, there are no Spitfires. Nevertheless, the technical ingenuity and inventiveness that created them, the energy and will that rolled them out in such numbers, and the resourcefulness and spirit of the young men who flew them are still here. What is lacking is a leadership capable of bringing together and galvanising the nation. If Britain doesn’t reform the way it makes decisions soon, we may come to need those generals after all.