Brits everywhere continue to grope for a response to last Thursday’s Brexit vote. Both Labour and Tories seem hamstrung responding to this in a decisive ways. The Tories are badly divided between go-it-alone types and supporters of continued engagement in Europe in order to advance the UK’s security and economic interests. Labour likewise struggles to reconcile skeptics of globalization with left-leaning international cosmopolitans. Given how badly the referendum went for both leaders, it’s quite possible Labour will be looking for a successor to leader Jeremy Corbyn before the Conservatives have found one for David Cameron.
That leaves the Liberal Democrats. The current third party—which not very long ago held the balance of power in the UK—has entered the fray with an unequivocal pro-EU position, committing to ignore the referendum result and keep the UK in the EU should they win the next election (assuming that option is still available at that point). Characterizing the referendum as a “howl of anger,” Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron argues “the British people deserve the chance not to be stuck with the appalling consequences of a Leave campaign that stoked that anger with the lies of Farage, Johnson and Gove.”
They may be able to make that last point stick. Certainly, Leave leaders like UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage have done their part to make the case easier by backing off a central plank of the Leave campaign just hours after the vote.
They will no doubt push for a fall election, arguing the country has lost confidence in a sitting government that just replaced its leader after losing a referendum that it volunteered to hold. From now until the next election, whenever it comes, they’ll be making every legal case possible to retain ties with the EU—for example the possibility (see p. 19) that withdrawal in fact requires the consent of the Scottish Parliament, and perhaps also the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, in addition to that of the UK Parliament. They’ll likely urge the government to delay triggering Article 50 (the section of the EU governing withdrawal) until after that autumn election. If and when the withdrawal process does begin, they’ll continue push to remain as integrated as possible.
Given that more than 2.6 million have signed a petition for Parliament to reconsider the referendum (and counting), enough to trigger a parliamentary debate on the subject, there is a definitely an audience for a strong pro-EU position. If the EU question remains the dominant one in UK politics for some time—and given recent events, that seems a reasonable assumption—the presence of an unambiguously pro-EU Liberal Democratic party has the potential to shift party politics in the UK towards a three-party system nationwide. A comparative look at Canada’s system can help illustrate why that is, as there a Canadian precedent for just such an outcome.
In general, people think that Westminster system and other similar systems tend to encourage two party political systems. It’s such a strong finding that it’s known as Duverger’s Law, after the work of French scholar-pratitioner Maurice Duverger. Basically, the mechanisms and psychology of voting in such a system drive voters to coordinate in two competitive blocs, thereby eliminating the possibility of similar parties poaching votes from one another.
Canada remains the world’s most famous serial violator of Duverger’s Law. UBC political scientist Richard Johnston has (persuasively, in my view) provided an explanation (gated link) for why. He argues that Canada remained a multi-party system through the 20th century and beyond due to the continuing salience of the Quebec question. In effect, Canadian political parties had to stake out positions over two dimensions, including not only the traditional left/right axis, but also a second, independent axis regarding the question of Quebec’s place in Confederation.
This provided the Canadian Liberals an opportunity not available to centrist parties in other FPTP systems. Effectively, the Liberals grabbed and held a position on Quebec that supporters across the country—both in Quebec and elsewhere—could get behind, a position of limited accommodation within a staunchly federalist framework.
In contrast, both the otherwise highly competitive Conservatives and left-leaning third party NDP were forced to cobble together uncomfortable coalitions on the Quebec question. The Conservatives often had little choice but to court strong Quebec nationalists and staunch opponents of accommodation in the rest of Canada. Such coalitions were quite unstable, and the Liberals were often able to run and win as the party of federalism in Quebec, the party of reasonable accommodation in the rest of Canada, and the party of otherwise acceptably centrist politics everywhere.
Shift to 21st century UK. Though the specifics of the situation are quite different, a similar opportunity now appears to be available to the Liberal Democrats. A national question, one going to the very identity of the country, has emerged in the UK on which they as a centrist party can take an unambigous, internally consistent, and quite popular position. In contrast, the major parties of the left and right struggle to reconcile pressures both for and against within their respective coalitions.
Under such conditions, so long as the Liberal Democrats maintain a broadly acceptable centrist positions on left-right issues to complement that clear position on the EU—and so long as the European question remains central to UK politics—they possess a significant advantage over their two biggest rivals.
Admittedly, the presence of successful nationalist parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland complicate matters, particularly given both are pro-EU bastions. For now then, suffice to say that the Lib Dems can be expected to push every conceivable button to retain maximal ties between the UK and EU, and to profit from doing so.