Almost 50 MPs (almost 8% of the house of commons) have changed party since the June 2017 election. (Some have changed several times, so there have been 73 switches of party overall – like divorce, party infidelity rates can seem higher if one forgets that a smallish number of people contribute a lot of the statistics.)
For better and (often) for worse, parties, not personalities, have been how we vote for three centuries. Burke wrote that he
was quite sure he rested wholly on the Whig interest and would not obtain a single Tory vote (in point of fact he did obtain but one)
in Bristol in 1774 – and few MPs have done better. Manifestos, not our local MP’s opinions, are most of what we vote for. Party leaders, not local MPs, are most of whom we vote for. And parties are how MPs are disciplined to pay attention to these things – and therefore to our votes, and therefore to us. It doesn’t work at all well – but the alternative is relying on MPs’ consciences. That works well sometimes – but fails often.
One of Churchill’s reasons for praising the oblong shape of the house of commons was that when you changed party in Britain you “crossed the floor” (something he did twice but, as with other aspects of his career, that was unusual). Everyone saw Churchill cross the floor – and Churchill was very aware of himself doing it. In the continent’s universal semi-circle, representatives could gradually move their sitting positions leftwards (or rightwards) without ever facing such a moment of public admission.
However when “everybody’s doing it” and SW1 approves, the effect is weakened.
That the great realignment sees a breakdown of the old party structures is hardly something to complain about. But until we can get something better – until we can get not just a few who are better but 632 who are better – I fear we need either a new party or a purged one with the same discipline – or both. If the current crop of Tory MPs are purged to the point that we can safely rely on MPs’ consciences to deliver Brexit, not party discipline, then well under half will be in the next parliament.