It is now safe to say, after a Brexit deal vote failed for the second time in Parliament that not just the Tories but the entire UK is now ungovernable. The wings of the Conservative party are now so far apart on Brexit it is hard to see them coming together, making Britain functionally lack a government.
But, just as important, if not more so is the fact Labour is barely a functioning opposition party. By this, I mean while all the attention has been on the Tories allowing their members to vote “their conscience” on Brexit, Labour has been unable to even rally around an idea for what Brexit should look like, let alone support or oppose.
The reason both Labour and the Tories cannot corral the various wings of their parties are because those wings have different views. Consider both the Tories and Labour have corralled the votes in recent years of former UKIP voters, the voters who backed the Brexit referendum. But, now, those same voters are clamoring for their parties to support a full Brexit. But, traditional business interests in the Tory party, and the younger, urban, and more diverse wing of the Labour Party, which benefits from the EU, opposes such a move.
These dynamics define the dysfunction we are seeing in modern day British government. The Tories have been so consumed with Brexit for the last two years they can focus on little else. But, Labour has been so divided it cannot function as an effective opposition.
This culminated last month in 8 Labour MPs and three Tory MPs leaving the parties and forming an Independent Group. Their reasoning was to be more effective during the Brexit debate but it also was reflective of dissatisfaction with the way government is functioning. So far, no other MPs have joined the group.
Britain’s electoral system, while mirroring America’s first past the post and single-member district system, is also drastically different in that multiple parties occupy Parliament. Like America, while only two major parties can win majorities, Labour and the Tories, there are effective third-party opposition groups like the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It is just these groups have little electoral support outside Scottland (SNP) or urban Britain (LDP). Plus the LDP and SNP have staked out their ground in support of opposing Brexit in any form.
Unlike non-single member district electoral systems in other European countries it is harder for viable third-parties to form. For example, multi-member district or proportional systems ensure third-parties can get a toe-hold in their respective legislative chambers if they hit a national vote threshold in a district, region or country.
Because of this, little analysis has focused on the potential of a major third-party forming. But the Tories and Labour are being divided along clear class and demographic lines which would offer a third-party an opportunity to peel off a sizeable share of voters.
Ultimately, a viable third-party would have to stake a claim to being to the left of Labour or right of the Tories (nobody is out-leftting the LDP). But, unlike UKIP, a viable third-party could focus on more than just Brexit and immigration. Labour and the Tories cannot effectively govern and as such the message of a third-party could focus not just on trade, Brexit, government, fiscal spending, but simply on returning government to working order.
Whether such a third-party could survive is open for debate. The traditional lines which once divided the Tories and Labour (government spending and fiscal management) have become blurred along demographic, generational, gender and immigration lines. It’s why if Labour does well the LDP (which courts well to the left Labour voters) usually loses seats and vice-versa. The same is true of the Tories and UKIP. A viable third-party would need to find a niche to occupy and grow out of it. It would also need to be able to if not win a majority of seats become a sizeable minority fairly quickly.
This does not make it impossible for a third-party to form and thrive. But it probably means the hypothetical third-party would need to pilfer members from either Labour or the Tories, or both, and be able to develop a coherent message on a wide range of issues fairly quickly. It is also entirely possible they would need to focus on a specific issue such as government competence to get started and branch out vs try to appeal to everybody.
Admittedly, it probably won’t happen. Despite all the turmoil roiling Britain right now, Labour and the Tories do not face any significant opposition to their power. Even the defections of the 11 MPs could not change this fact. It would either take many more defections or the resignation of May (which would trigger a new election). Still, the chances have never been greater for a major political realignment in the UK. Now, we’ll see if somebody will act on the opportunity.