As Labour and Tories splinter the old political order is broken beyond repair

Scottish Review, February 20th 2019

Gerry Hassan

The Labour Party have finally split after months of rumours – with so far eight Labour MPs resigning from the party and three senior Tories joining them – and numerous stories of many more considering their position in both parties.

This may or may not amount to a seismic meltdown of Labour and of two party politics as we know it. But something is rotten and deeply wrong with British politics. This is usually portrayed as the product of Brexit but has a much longer, deeper fuse. Brexit has merely exposed a series of fissures that go back to Blair and the New Labour era of disinformation, and how Thatcherism before that ignored more than half the country.

The independent MPs have caught some of the public mood with instant polling from Survation indicating this. Asked if they were right to set up their new group, for now called the ‘Independent Group’, 56% of voters said they were and 20% disagreed; asked who better represented voters between the new group and Corbyn’s Labour, 40% said the new group and only 23% Labour.

There are two conflicting stories in this. The ex-Labour MPs say that their old party has become intolerant, characterised by bullying, riven by anti-semitism and racism, and a leftist cult around Corbyn. Pro-leadership voices in the party counter-charge that this group represents nothing but the politics of New Labour, Blairism, and an outlook on the world which brought us the Iraq war, privatisation, and cuddling up to the super-rich.

These sound like competing truths where both cannot be right. But while both are caricatures they hold a kernel of truth which points to an even bigger issue – that British politics is nearly totally defined by a politics of yesterday with the main parties all in hock to ideas which went out of fashion a long time ago.

Thus, the Gang of Seven represent a moderate, pro-European centrism seen in the 1981 SDP split and early days of New Labour: a politics which has been around the block many times. Then there is Corbyn’s 1970s leftism that hasn’t changed its view on the main issues since then: Europe, nuclear disarmament, the economy and nationalisation.

Theresa May’s high Tory sense of public duty is similarly from another age, of 1950s polite society England. And if you think that is retro-Toryism, you can always go the full hog in time travel and sign up to Jacob Rees-Mogg and return to the divisions and deference of the 19th century. Just to add to this nostalgia fest the Lib Dems yearn for a time when people listened and took notice of them, which means the world of pre-coalition pre-Nick Clegg.

None of the three main parties are currently presenting any visible agenda for how we live in 21st century Britain. There are creative forces within Corbynism, energetic, idealistic and radical voices developing policies and trying to think anew about what it might mean to be a reforming left Labour government if they had the chance; trouble is they don’t get much traction with a leadership whose mindset and practice is firmly in the 1970s.

Will this split fail? For a start, it will have its work cut out as all previous splits from the two biggest parties have before. The fact that 85% of voters supported Labour and Conservatives – the highest since 1970 – can be often cited to show that somehow everything is normal. But this misses the turbulence below. Tory membership is inexorably disappearing and eventually on existing trends will not exist; Labour don’t have that problem but they don’t quite know what to do with their membership. Outside the parties, most voters don’t have faith in them or the Lib Dems: with only one in ten voters having a party identification – a massive drop from the 1960s when surveys began.

Despite everything going on there is a general insouciance at Westminster in many – that even if we see some shocks the old system will probably endure as it has done in the past and up to today. But this discounts the way politics already has changed and how the old system is creaking under the strain.

For one, the Liberal-SDP Alliance in the 1980s nearly ‘broke the mould’. It won 26% of the vote in 1983 and 23% in 1987, and in the former nearly supplanted Labour in votes. It contributed to a divided opposition and hence Thatcher’s landslides of that decades, but also force the Labour Party back to the centre ground from Neil Kinnock onwards.

The Lib Dems as they became then won – on the back of disillusion with New Labour and lack of trust in the Tories – 23% of the vote in 2010, and formed the first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s. This did not turn out very positively and the Lib Dems are still recovering from but it was a break with the old political order.

UKIP produced an earthquake in British politics. First, they erupted in the 2004 and 2009 Euro elections, won the 2014 Euro elections, and polled nearly four million votes in the 2015 UK election. They pushed Euroscepticism centrestage, and forced David Cameron to make his rash 2015 promise of an In/Out EU referendum which was the main purpose of UKIP, and which they contributed to Leave winning.

Nigel Farage was the main force in UKIP’s significant triumphs and he has now broken with his former political home, and in the last month set up a new Brexit Party. It has claimed to already have 100,000 declared supporters, and will, if Article 50 is extended, undertake to stand candidates in any Euro elections if they have to be held; he and his political allies are already prepared for any second Brexit referendum.

The Greens have also become a permanent fixture in UK politics, regularly polling decently in national surveys, with a recognised and respectable voice in Caroline Lucas, and with seats and influence in the Scottish Parliament and Greater London Assembly.

Finally, one of the biggest challenges in recent years to the two party duopoly has come from the rise of the SNP, which is often still discounted and forgotten in the Westminster village (despite its 35 MPs and UK third party status). The SNP, it should be remembered, had never won a national election until 2007, and have now been the party of government since then, and the leading party of Scotland in our Parliament, and at Westminster since 2015.

All of these forces show the realities of multi-party politics. Another factor forgotten in Westminster is the fragmentation and decline of homogeneous British politics. Instead, we have a four nation politics with very different political cultures and dynamics in each of the four nations. This is a fact underlined by Brexit being driven by English politics and votes (along with a narrow Welsh vote) and this new force, so far only having English MPs (with even its sensibility and temporary name, ‘the Independent Group’, not really working in Scotland).

Britain’s two party system has been creaking for decades as the above examples show. Its foundations and pillars are getting weaker by the day. The First Past the Post electoral system is often seen as a block on new forces but it cannot offer an impregnable firewall if voters want change. The only other developed country in the world with such a fixation on a two party monopoly is the USA and they are even in a more dysfunctional place than the UK.

Maybe this split won’t do it, but in all likelihood further defections are on the way and the state of Labour is much more fragile than it was in 1981 when the SDP was formed. Even if this doesn’t blow open British politics, further insurrections and revolts are coming, and more than likely at some point, the Conservative-Labour duopoly will give way to a new political system.

Both the traditional parties now face major problems – with resignations from Labour and numerous threats of reselections in both. For some loyalists in both parties they believe that the only option is to try to stay calm and remain to fight for what they think is the greater good: a Labour Government for some or keeping the other lot out for others. This was the view taken by the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, scarred as she still is by the SDP breakaway she supported.

Democracy and party politics is not in a good way in the UK. The widespread anger and cynicism has to be understood, as does the economic and social inequalities and generational gridlock. If these aren’t answered properly by democratic means, then there is a very good chance that the politics of authoritarianism and the appeal for a strong leader will find favour here as it has elsewhere.

The old political tribes have exhausted themselves, and while this small Westminster rebellion does not on its own shatter that old order, disruption, rebellion and even radical change are in the air and coming down the line.