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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?

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.