The Labour Party’s fears are not restricted to the UK level of government. With the SNP on anything up to 62% of the vote, according to the latest opinion polls, even the much more representative system used for Holyrood elections looks likely to be dominated by one party with no alternative looking electable at present.
As far as I’m aware, though, the Labour Party’s deep and sincere concern for having a viable alternative party of government doesn’t extend to Wales for some strange reason, despite Wales being the one place in the UK where there has been no change of lead party in government for the last 16 years, and where there is no such change in prospect either. It’s easier to accept the concept of there being only one party with a realistic chance of forming a government if it happens to be your party, I suppose.
Is it actually true that a functioning democracy depends on there being an immediately viable alternative government-in-waiting? It’s asserted as unassailable truth often enough, of course. In Wales, even the Tories claim it as a necessity, acting as a justification for their repeated proposal for an alliance of everybody else against Labour – a proposal which makes considerably more sense in terms of simple arithmetic than it does in terms of politics.
In Scotland, there have even been anguished howls from some commentators that the system is fundamentally flawed if it allows any party to dominate in the way that the SNP seem likely to if the polls are anywhere near correct. Whilst the first-past-the-post system used at UK level could indeed be said to be flawed, producing as it has a majority government on the basis of a 37% share of the vote, I’m not sure that the more proportional system used in Scotland and Wales is as badly flawed. And even though I’d prefer a system based on a single class of members using STV, there is no system of voting which can guarantee a viable government-in-waiting if the most popular party starts to attract 50-60% of the votes.
If the electors are happy with continued government by a single party (whichever party) and continue to elect it with a majority in successive elections, any claim that a functioning democracy depends on there being a viable alternative sounds a lot like saying that the electorate have got it wrong, and have no right to exclude other parties from government. It’s up to those other parties to enthuse the electors enough to make them want to vote differently.
The problem that dogs politics in the UK is that for too long, the ‘alternative’ parties have believed that the only way to do that is to sound increasingly like the party that they want to dislodge, and to fight elections on the basis of being different people rather than people with different views. But having two parties saying the same thing and taking turns at governing is really little different from a ‘one-governing-party state’ in practice, because they become more like two factions within a single party than two different parties.
In that sense, the idea that there needs to be an alternative to keep democracy functioning is a very superficial one. Unless that alternative government is actually offering something very different, it’s more a way of preventing democratic change than facilitating it, by trying to convince the electorate that they have a choice when they don’t.