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The UK’s New Prime Minister Might Not Stick Around for Long

It's a symptom of a system in desperate need of reform.


The UK has held a national election every year since 2015: general election, EU referendum, general election, EU election. For election buffs it has been a hell of a ride; for the general public, probably voter fatigue. Depending on your perspective, I have good or bad news: there’s likely another election to go before the end of the year. 

Spare a thought for the voters in Peterborough who in the space of a month had to vote in local elections, the EU elections and then a parliamentary by-election. Moreover, the results of each of these three elections have yielded victors from different parties each time; suggesting that the predictability of the two-party system is coming to an end.

In the space of a couple months, the two-party system has fractured. Successive polls have shown support for certain British parties shift dramatically. Labour and Conservative loyalists stuck with their parties while die-hard Brexiteers and Remainers flocked to the Brexit party and the Liberal Democrats, respectively. One could even assert that the UK is now in a five-party system. The Green Party has set record highs for themselves, surpassing the Conservative party in the EU elections by 3 percent. 

It is against this backdrop of collapsing traditional voting patterns that the UK is picking a new prime minister. The UK’s parliamentary system dictates that the leader of the largest party becomes prime minister. Rather than holding a national election to replace Theresa May, Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, her replacement will be chosen by the 312 MPs and 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. 

Initially, 12 Tory MPs ran to replace Theresa May. Over the course of two weeks and a series of votes among Conservative MPs, only Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt remained. Tomorrow, one of these men will be elected the next leader of the United Kingdom by Conservative Party membership, a group which accounts for only 0.35 percent of the UK population. 

How long the victor will remain prime minister is unpredictable. After the 2017 election, the Conservatives, colloquially known as the Tories, relied on a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to scrape together a parliamentary majority of seven. Two years later, this majority has decreased to three. The new prime minister will undoubtedly face a vote of no-confidence from Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, so whoever is chosen will need the full backing of his party as well as the DUP. 

Is this likely? That depends. The DUP pledged to back the new Tory prime minister in a confidence vote and the party’s fear of a Corbyn government will likely keep them in line. As for whether three Tory MPs will rebel against their new leader, all bets are off.

Brexit will be the decider of how many, if any, Tories rebel in a confidence vote. If Boris Johnson, the current front runner, were to win, there have been suggestions that some Tory MPs would leave the party partly based on his Brexit views. This same dilemma would probably confront any other hard-line Brexiteer candidate who might ascend to the office. Dominic Raab, a prominent Tory MP, has suggested proroguing — or shutting down —  Parliament until the October 31st deadline for Brexit passes to prevent MPs from doing anything to stop a no-deal Brexit. This kind of move hasn’t been seen since the reign of Charles I in the 1600s (it should be noted that his Parliament beheaded him). Parliament did not take kindly to being sidelined and ignored back then, and it will fight to avoid it happening again. While more moderate and progressive Tory MPs do not whole-heartedly back right-wing Brexiteer candidates, these candidates are beloved by much of the Conservative Party membership. This reality shows the fracturing between Conservative Party membership and its MPs; as the former drifts right and delivered the Conservatives their only electoral victory in the 21st century, the latter holds on to the middle. 

The British political landscape is transforming into a pluralistic system which will allow for greater diversity of opinion, new innovations in policy, and more governing by consensus. Only one obstacle stands in the way of this new future…

The parliamentary arithmetic points towards a no-confidence vote succeeding, giving the Prime Minister two weeks to somehow find the numbers to form a government or else face a new election. A new election could be the worst nightmare for the new Tory leader. With some suggesting that the Tory party is facing extinction, the threat of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party on the right, and a Liberal Democrat resurgence eating away at the center, it is possible that the Tories could suffer a crushing defeat to Labour in a national election. Labour, however, is not without its own problems. Its voter base largely falls on the Remain side of the Brexit question. Corbyn’s reticence to back a second referendum has brought about an exodus of voters to the avowedly Remain Liberal Democrats and Greens. 

When the next election comes around, probably sooner rather than later, the Tory and Labour parties are on course to be punished by their voter bases in what seems to be the two-party system’s final act. Between 1950 and 2010, the total sum of the Labour and Tory vote dropped from over 95 percent to 65.2 percent. Over these sixty years, the two-party system has been breaking down as strong national parties (the Liberal Democrats and the Greens) and regional parties (Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party) emerged. It wasn’t until Brexit, however, that these parties could break the decades-old Labour-Tory dominance. 

The British political landscape is transforming into a pluralistic system which will allow for greater diversity of opinion, new innovations in policy, and more governing by consensus. Only one obstacle stands in the way of this new future: the first-past-the-post system. 

The first-past-the-post system threatens to just replace the old two-party system with two new parties. It does not allow for a diversity of ideas that a new pluralistic system should bring as it just brings two new ideologies to the forefront of the political debate and continues to suppress the rest. In the recent Peterborough by-election not even a third of voters backed the winning candidate. Multiply that across the country and a majority could be handed to a party that has little national support. With the popular vote divided relatively evenly between four parties, just a small advantage in the polls could be enough to deliver a majority of seats to one party. If a party that receives less than thirty percent of the vote were to gain a majority, it would be a disaster for British democracy. A government cannot claim to have a mandate from the people if it is unable to even get the electoral backing of a third of voters.

Brexiteers routinely say that to not deliver on the 2016 EU referendum would be undemocratic. The Labour leadership, most of the Tory party, including the contenders for its new leadership, and the new Brexit party hold this view. I am glad that Corbyn and the potential new Tory leaders hold British democracy in such high esteem. Since they care so strongly that the will of the majority of voters be imposed, then they should support the view that future governments have the backing of the majority of voters; that they are not formed by a party which just managed to snatch the majority of seats by a few percentage points. They must want to see coalition governments commanding the support of the whole nation and not just subsections of it. 

If respecting the will of the people is doing what the majority votes for, then the new prime minister should keep in mind that over 60 percent of people in the EU election voted for parties supporting electoral reform; a larger margin of victory than the Brexit question. And since the Tory leadership hopefuls believe in democracy so strongly, then whoever becomes prime minister must feel duty-bound to call elections to secure a mandate from the people – not just the party membership which makes up less than half a percent of the electorate.

Brexit has been the mother of all disruptors in British politics. In terms of electoral reform, a more representative system is needed. Whether it be proportional representation or single transferable voting, the country’s political system in desperate need of reform. 

Whether you view Brexit as a populist backlash against the Westminster Parliament or as a cry for real change by the electorate, Parliament’s inability to make progress on the referendum’s result only makes the governing body appear ineffective, undemocratic, and unaccountable. The first step to restoring the public’s faith in Parliament is to build a more democratic system. The size of the parties in Parliament should be more proportional to the votes cast for them, and the election of a new prime minister must always be a national exercise in which all voters can participate. The political landscape has changed so dramatically over the past couple years. It is time that the electoral system caught up with it so that the government is truly representative of the entire country. The Tories and Labour have long resisted electoral reform, believing that it would weaken their standing in Parliament. Ironically, such a change could now be what saves them from being consigned to the electoral history books.

Jakob Youngblood


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