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Is British politics broken?

14 May 2019

2:11 PM

14 May 2019

2:11 PM

I have been fairly quiet for a bit because I have been struggling to say anything useful about what is going on – or perhaps, more accurately, what is not going on.

You see we are living through, and in, the mother of all paradoxes: a time when everything and nothing is happening.

On a day to day basis, little of moment takes place: Tory MPs huff and puff that Theresa May must be evicted from Downing Street but bicker about how and when she can be forced out.

The prime minister and the leader of the opposition agree that people are fed up with all the Brexit uncertainty but their talks about a compromise are an epic of fatuousness.

This is the political equivalent of white noise, designed to drive us mad and distract us from trends and events that have the potential to change the way we run ourselves to a far greater extent than even the tectonic-plate shift of leaving the EU.

Here are the symptoms:

A party that did not exist a few weeks ago, led by an individual who has never been an MP let alone held high office, is set to win the EU elections and utterly humiliate the ruling Tory Party.

And yes of course past surges for Ukip foreshadow how Farage and his Brexit Party are picking up votes.

But whether you love or hate Farage, he is right that the speed and momentum of what he is building defies precedent.

Second, we are witnessing the longest parliamentary session since the English civil war of the 1640s – and its only notable characteristic is its abject failure to achieve the one important task it was set: namely to execute Brexit.

Which is a necessary but not sufficient explanation of why Farage is back and with a vengeance.

Third, the Tory party is irredeemably divided, head from body, on how to leave the EU, which for much of the UK is the only question that really matters.

Fourth, the opposition Labour Party is also a wholly unstable coalition: it has a head, a leadership, detached from a membership and trade union movement that largely wants a confirmatory referendum on any Brexit deal and a corpus of MPs whose politics are well to the right of Jeremy Corbyn.

Also (as an affront to its entire history) Labour has been unable to dismiss the charge that it is institutionally anti-Semitic.

Or to put it another way, the political system is paralysed; disillusionment with the big established parties is seemingly at an all-time high; the traditional purgative of a general election is hard to administer (because of David Cameron’s fixed term parliament act).

Even if it could be administered there is only a slim prospect the country would give a decisive answer to the question of who we want in charge (another hidebound minority government looks likely).

If the system is as bankrupt as it looks, three things follow:

Even if Theresa May were, against all odds, to secure parliamentary approval for her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, that would change little of significance because almost everything about our future relationship with the EU is yet to be decided, and there is no consensus among MPs about that future.

And anyone who tells you they know where we are heading is a charlatan or an idiot (probably both).

Finally, when a system breaks down, there is no point treating only the symptoms.

The point is that not since 2005 has a general election under our first-past-the-post system delivered a government with a comfortable majority.

Arguably we are lumbered with an adversarial parliamentary system that was effective when hand-to-hand conflict typically provided a winner as well as a loser but is futility on stilts in today’s Parliament of trench warfare that only yields losers.

Perhaps we need electoral reform, the introduction of a form of proportional representation, so we can escape the myth that minority government is not endemic in today’s fractured UK, and our elected representatives would then be compelled to learn the art of compromise.

For the avoidance of doubt I am only scratching the surface of the debate we need.

A new electoral system may help, but would not be everything in a UK whose integrity is more fragile than at any point in my lifetime.

Like climate change however, pretending there is no structural flaw in our politics only magnifies the risk of eventual catastrophic breakdown.

Can we please start talking about what matters.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This post originally appeared on his ITV news blog


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