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Brexit will be the biggest challenge to the two-party system

Both Ukip and the Liberal Democrats could thrive through their unambiguous positions.

Once upon a time, the virtues of Britain’s two-party system were clear. Politics was dominated by two parties, one to the right of centre, one to the left. When the incumbent government had seemed to have run out of steam or to have lost touch with voters, there was a clear alternative to which the electorate could turn. However, given that elections were won and lost in the centre ground, both parties had a strong incentive not to stray into the extremes.

Those days seem to be long over. Having won well over 90 per cent of the vote between them in the immediate post-war period, more recently the Conservatives and Labour have struggled to win as much as 70 per cent. Neither party is now an effective force in Scotland. Meanwhile, following the inability of either the Conservatives or Labour to secure a majority in the 2010 election, the last parliament saw the first coalition in Britain’s post-war history.

This challenge to Britain’s two-party system shows no sign of abating. One reason, of course, has been the remarkable takeover of the Labour Party by the left-leaning "Corbynistas", after the introduction of a leadership electoral system that put the decision firmly in the hands of (a much enlarged) band of members and "supporters".

But the biggest challenge of all comes from Brexit. Ever since Britain first joined the EU in 1973, its membership has been a divisive issue. It played an important role in the split in Labour’s ranks in the early 1980s that lead to the formation of the SDP. More recently, UKIP’s anti-EU stance has been rewarded with remarkable record-breaking performances in elections held between 2013 and 2015. However, the potential disruptive power of the EU issue has never been more apparent than it has since last year’s general election.

Although all but a small minority of Labour MPs backed remaining in the EU, the parliamentary Conservative Party was torn apart by the EU referendum. According to the BBC, while 185 Conservative MPs backed Remain, 138 backed Leave. Now that division is being replayed in an internal (but often public) debate in the party about whether the UK should seek a "hard" or a "soft" Brexit.

Meanwhile, no party – apart from Ukip – was able to take its voters with it in the referendum. According to the British Election Study, while 63 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2015 backed Leave, 37 per cent voted to Remain. Labour voters were just as divided with 37 per cent voting Leave, 63 per cent Remain. Not even the SNP (34 per cent Leave, 67 per cent Remain), for whom being part of the EU is an integral part of its vision for independence, or the Liberal Democrats (30 per cent Leave, 70 per cent Remain), long Britain’s most pro-EU party, avoided a substantial split amongst their supporters.

In short, many a voter was out of sympathy with their party in June, and could continue to be so as the debate about Brexit intensifies. The key question now is whether some feel so strongly about the issue that they start to defect to a party they feel more adequately reflects their views.

Both Ukip, the self-proclaimed voice of the "hard Brexiteers", and the Liberal Democrats, who seem determined to become the standard bearer for "Remoaners", have had their troubles of late. But on Brexit they both have a clear position with which they can hope to attract new supporters to their ranks.

In contrast, both the Conservatives and Labour seem destined to try and keep their divided ranks intact with what could come to seem like mixed or even conflicting messages. If these efforts prove inadequate, then Britain’s two-party system could be facing its biggest challenge yet.

This is an article from Bright Blue’s latest magazine The End of Establishment?

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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