Binary Politics in a Non-Binary Era: A Rant

The UK and the USA are politically choked by an outdated political system completely at odds with the modern era and its network-based quiddity.

Politics in the USA has always been a binary affair; a long-running battle between the Democrats and Republicans in their two-party system. In the UK, despite a greater diversity of political parties, the system is more or less the same and has, by and large, been a struggle between the Conservative and Labour Partys for the best part of a century.

In the UK this has started to change, as evinced by the emergence of vote-splitting parties such as UKIP and the SNP. But this serves little purpose within the confines of this system – these parties remain choked and, more than anything, play into the hands of the binary system currently at play. With the Labour vote diminished by the rise of UKIP, the SNP and the Greens, the Tories find themselves in a more comfortable position than ever, their electoral prowess only marginally effected by the ubiquity of UKIP. At some point this imbalance could conceivably swing in the other direction, but it will remain a two-party system, with only occasional forays into the realms of coalition forces, such as in the 2010 election.

The binary system of politics made a sort of sense in the past thanks to the way we received information. Views were relatively narrow in the UK and this was reflected in the media landscape. People could get their news from papers such as the Telegraph, Times, Mail, Guardian, Mirror and Sun as well as TV news on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. But this was more or less the spectrum of debate that held, and many of the news sources were much of a muchness, broadly either Labour or Tory supporting. Wider views were very much secondary, something to be sought out by interested parties.

Now we live in a networked age where the opinions of the world are just a click away. This means that the scope of debate has broadened as people are able to quickly find likeminded people through a quick Google and talk about issues important to them. The rise of parties such as the Greens, UKIP and the SNP is tied to this – people can seek these alternatives out rather than kowtowing to the narrower information dispensed by the mainstream newspapers. In the ’90s, you wouldn’t hear people talk about feminism much unless you knew feminists or identified as one personally. Now feminism is very much on the agenda thanks to the internet – it connected a disparate association of women and men interested in female freedom and allowed it to organise on a global scale.

The advent of the internet has necessarily led to new news sources, thus splitting the readerships of the traditional news sources and leading to their decline. One can get their news from all the traditional news sources, but also from new, online start-ups such as The Intercept, Breitbart, The Canary, InfoWars and countless other sources, some good bastions of quality journalism, others bordering upon the realms of fake news. Nonetheless, people are able to find the one that conforms best to their own particular world view, no matter the wider validity of that perspective.

This means that people can plug into the debate around the issues personal to them, but that doesn’t mean that these issues are respected in the wider mainstream, leading to a frustration that manifested itself in the recent phenomena of Trump and Brexit. The narrow party political systems on offer in the UK and the USA, as well as further afield, necessarily limit the scope of discussion and debate, causing people to lash out against that system by going for any anti-establishment options that arise, in the hopes of inciting some sort of change to the overall system.

As a result, we have a multi-faceted society unable to express itself politically thanks to the outdated and limited offerings of our party systems, and if anything this has led to an even stronger manifestation of binary politics wherein the complexity of political debate is eschewed in favour of a resurgent factionalism: Trump vs Clinton, Remain vs Leave, May vs Corbyn, Corbyn vs his own party. People talk about winners vs losers – the mantra of “you lost get over it” is bandied around, merely an avoidance of nuanced debate and a willful misunderstanding of the way politics works. The struggle to form a government has become a football match where opposing sides jeer at one another because of meaningless identification with a particular side. Supporting Fulham because you come from Fulham contains about as much logic as supporting UKIP because you’re British – it all just comes down to an identity politics which inevitably leads to a rejection of intelligent discussion in favour of using one’s gut to make decisions on what are in actuality highly complex issues.

Elsewhere many countries offer multi-party systems in which complex coalitions must form governments. Better yet, the most progressive states use a Proportional Representation system in which, as the name suggests, the government is formed proportional to the popular vote. If 3% of the population vote for a Green party, then 3% of representatives in parliament will be Green party members. There’s a simple sense to such an arrangement.

Compare this to the First Past the Post system in the UK which, in 2015, saw the SNP with 56 seats on a vote share of 1.45 million, whereas UKIP held only 1 seat with 3.88 million votes. A system that proportionally represents votes would translate to an SNP with approximately 30 seats, and UKIP with a staggering 81 seats. As much as the prospect of living in a country with such a strong far-right influence is alarming, it goes to show how broken our current system is.

That’s not to say a proportional representation system is perfect. Any political system comes with its caveats. But a PR system would be far more democratic than the archaic system the Conservative Party clings to at present. It logically follows that a country that sees its votes translate to an accurate picture of the political landscape, will be more satisfied and will be less likely to drift to the extremes. In theory and in practice, a proportional representation system generally allows the parties to temper one another’s influence, with left-wing parties blocking overtly right-wing policy and vice versa. The system works as a sort of counterbalance that prevents extremism and allows a more accurate centrism to arise. That doesn’t mean that politics stagnates centrally. If a country has a stronger representation of right wing parties than it will be reflected in a general centre-right politics, but the extremes will be avoided. Phenomena like Trump and Brexit are unlikely to arise in such an atmosphere where parties are able to police the more unhinged intentions of one another and thus prevent the implementation of policies which lead to huge public dissatisfaction.

What this comes down to is a simple dilemma. Either we accommodate our old-fashioned political system by consolidating political parties and forming a progressive alliance, which has been discussed in some circles, between Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems (and perhaps even the SNP) to effectively take on the Tories, or we change our political system to something like a PR system in order to accommodate the multiple parties that vie for power. Whatever the solution, the current system is beyond repair, kept running by nothing more than the band-aid of multi-national business, a right-wing media, and a revolving door among the elite between politics and other corrupt, capitalist ventures that props it up.


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