True, a multi-party democracy has a number of highly attractive features. I, myself, generally favour the European-style mosaic parliaments to the Westminster system where two groups share a century-long monopoly on political power, ever-confident that it’s a matter of several years before they re-take the government, and thus barely motivated to please the electorate with creativity or courage in policy-making.
However, there’s little in common between the multi-party elections in Continental Europe and the fragmented mess that British politics may very well become in the near future. To begin with an obvious point: the leading exemplars of the European ways, be it Scandinavians, Dutch or Swiss (all are heavy hitters of the glossy Democracy Index) use a Proportional representation system. The UK has never been particularly excited with the idea of adopting it, despite 130 years of activism by the Electoral Reform Society. This means that for all the fresh faces and personalities in TV debates the issue of lost votes – when parties with wide support yet with few “strongholds” are under-represented in the national legislature – is still alive and well. As current prognosis suggests, relatively popular parties like Greens (5 per cent) and UKIP (14 per cent) are going to struggle to secure several (if any) seats in the House of Commons, whereas the SNP (3.5 per cent) and Northern Irish DUP (<2 per cent) could receive many seats and a disproportional say in state affairs, trading their support of a major party’s minority government for some appealing boons to their respective regions. Their expected triumph, meanwhile, is also central to another significant problem…
In European democracies, one of the key advantages of multi-party system is that the greater variety of political platforms results in a more precise expression of citizens’ will: some nations even indulge in such excessive luxury as having, for example, two major centre-right liberal (Netherlands) or six left-wing (Denmark) parties. That, in turn, creates an intense competition and thus, in most cases, a healthy and lively political culture. In the UK, however, most successful minor parties are local; they don’t field candidates outside their regions, so the majority of the electorate (in other words, England) are denied the joys of political smorgasbord.
For the same reason, the existence of these minor parties does not promote competitive political environment – a left-wing English voter simply does not get to pick between Labour and the SNP, for instance. As a result, neither diversity of options nor the better political climate are achieved. Transformed into something between the two-party system it used to be and a multi-party system some want it to become, Britain is not only missing the advantages of the latter, but also risks losing the one true advantage of the former: a single-party majority government, capable of undertaking quick reforms without a need to discuss their terms or trade them for concessions, in practice not bound even with weird whims of some naughty upper house, unlike those in certain other English-speaking countries (whom could I possibly mean here..?).
In the present coalition, the Liberal Democrats, in my opinion, have hardly distinguished themselves as uncompromising negotiators, so this quality still applied to the current cabinet; joint management of, say, the SNP and Labour may not be as smooth. In order to not become both sluggish and unrepresentative at the same time, Britain will have to eventually pick one system. But the regional parties are on very good terms with their electorate (no wonder – why wouldn’t some average Ruaridh or Patrick vote for a group which explicitly claims to lobby for their country?); the public has made its decision, so there is nothing a government could do directly to return the UK into the comfort of a not-so-fair, but effective leadership (unless it’s taking lessons from my homeland, Russia).
The remaining option is to complete the shift: in an ideal world, I’d want to see a change of the electoral model in the next decade, but after the failure of the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011, I am doubtful that people would be eager to abandon the first-past-the-post voting any time soon.