50-50 nations

Mickey Kaus says

that "a 50-50 tie may be the new equilibrium state of American politics",

and helpfully provides links to other

people who have said the same

thing in the past. It stands to reason that in a two-party state, the parties

will find themselves moving in the direction of the center. And the New York

Times front an article

today on how an individual – New York governor George Pataki – has

moved from being essentially conservative in 1994 to being essentially liberal

in 2002.

Which all set me to thining: why doesn’t a similar thing happen in the UK?

British elections are just as likely as not to be landslides, whether for Thatcher

or for Blair. And all the opinion-polling, focus-grouping and position-tweaking

in the world doesn’t seem to be doing the Tories the slightest bit of good.

Basically, I’m wondering why there seems to be no chance of a Tory government

in the foreseeable future. The reasons I came up with:

  • The UK (or Great Britain, at least) has a three-party system, not a two-party

    system, and therefore a vote against one party doesn’t need to be a vote for

    the other. In the US, if one of the parties caters too much to its core constituencies

    (the unions, the Christian right) then alienated moderates run straight into

    the arms of the opposition. In the UK, they run straight into the arms of

    Charles Kennedy, which is a much less frightening prospect.

  • Both Democrats and Republicans are more naturally universal than Labour

    and the Conservatives. Just look at their names – while everybody in

    the US is both a democrat and a republican, most Brits aren’t affiliated with

    organised labour, and neither do they consider themselves to be particularly

    conservative. Even within the Tory party, the Thatcherite wing was and is

    far from small-c conservative.

  • In the US, the executive and legislative branches are separately elected.

    So even when the president wins election by a comfortable margin, the electorate

    still constrains him through Congress. That’s impossible in the UK. It’s also

    much easier to split your vote in the US: vote Pataki for governor and Hillary

    Clinton for senator, say. In the UK, you can vote against your party in terms

    of local elections, but they have very little effect on national politics.

  • The fact that there are 50 elected governors and 100 elected senators, as

    well as a kind-of-elected vice president, means that both parties have a relatively

    large pool of powerful politicians from which they can pick their presidential

    candidates. Once a UK party loses power, on the other hand, none of its MPs

    hold any kind of important office. That makes it much harder for the opposition

    to take back power: basically, the party in government has to lose the election,

    rather than the opposition winning it. Remember that the only politician in

    the UK who’s elected by more than 80,000 people is the mayor of London.

All of which is to say that the British constitutional system would be vastly

improved by having a powerful and elected second chamber. It would be a good

thing for many reasons, of course, and the conclusion is far from ground-breaking.

But my point is that a second chamber would do more than simply provide a legislative

check on the executive. It could become a proving-ground for the opposition,

giving politicians who aren’t in government an opportunity to take on an important

public role. I’m not sure that even a second chamber would be able to rehabilitate

the Tories in their present parlous state. But it might have helped to create

a stronger opposition candidate in the 1992 election than Neil Kinnock. And

it could even give the Liberal Democrats the national legitimacy they need to

become the official party of opposition.

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2 Responses to 50-50 nations

  1. Richard says:

    Incidentally the electoral system doesn’t help — Labour would have a huge majority if it had the same share of the vote as the Tories — in fact the Tories need an 11% lead to get a majority, a 7% lead to become the largest single party

  2. Matthew says:

    why does it stand to reason that politics in a two-party state would tend to the middle? in some ways, politics in the u.s. has never been so polarized on key issues such as healthcare, taxation, intl trade. and given that the u.s. has largely always been a two party system, how would you explain the new deal, or reaganomics?

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