Labour and the Tories' woes show our political system is breaking apart

The growing strength of the Tory right and the anti-austerity left suggests our stable, predictable system of party politics may be coming to an end.

It is fair to say Philip Hollobone and Peter Bone don’t think much of David Cameron’s government. The clan leaders of the so-called Tory Taliban were responsible for the ‘alternative Queen’s Speech’ the other week which included moves to ban burqas, bash gypsies and wallop wind farms.

On the other side of the political aisle, activists from the People’s Assembly Against Austerity don’t think much of Labour either. One of their luminaries, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, spelled out why in his Staggers piece last week, berating Ed Miliband’s repositioning on welfare and spending as "economically stupid" and "politically inept".

Both can be dismissed as trumpet blasts from the political margins but they are indicative of something that our political leaders know only too well: British politics, as we have known it, is on the way out.

For 80 years, our system has accommodated large, conglomerated parties of the centre-right and centre-left, a small liberal party and assorted nationalists and unionists. This settlement has proved remarkably resilient in seeing off pretenders before, most notably the Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s, but the edges are now starting to atrophy, leading to fractiousness and fragmentation.

It starts at the edges but it really affects the centre, with powerful disintegrative forces pulling the two main parties towards the extremes, with centrists in both parties clinging on for dear life. As the Tories leach support to UKIP, Cameron moves rightwards to counter their advance.

Labour, meanwhile, faces a different challenge. It doesn’t have to counter an exogenous threat; recent events focusing on Unite’s modus operandi in parliamentary selection battles shows its problems are closer to home. The duty of trade unions to represent their members’ interests sees most reject austerity. This will become increasingly at variance with Labour’s more pragmatic approach as the party begins the process of staking a claim to the centre-ground and detailing its plans around deficit reduction and governing a radically downsized state.

As the party’s largest affiliate and biggest financial backer, with £8.4m donated to party coffers since 2010, Unite is currently pondering a merger with Serwotka’s more radical PCS (which isn’t affiliated to Labour) presenting the risk that a new super-union may disaffiliate from the party given the growing disagreements over economic policy, a move which would also scupper Labour financially.

Although it is the Tories who are publicly riven on issues stretching from gay marriage to HS2, Labour’s divisions run deeper. Social democracy, stripped of the ability to use the heft of the state to create a more equal society, suggests that Labour’s nervous breakdown is on its way, with the lack of hard detail about its direction currently serving to disguise tensions that go to the heart of what the party is for and in whose interests it governs.

Could either Labour or the Conservatives break apart? Traditionally the costs of establishing a political party and a hostile first-past-the-post electoral system, which makes it difficult for newcomers to gain electoral traction, has prevented this happening. But UKIP’s recent success is perhaps showing that it is possible to break the mould (although Farage still has to translate opinion poll results into actual seats).

Yet beyond the philosophical differences within our main parties lie deeper structural problems. Membership and participation levels have tumbled to all-time lows. Even allowing for a spike in new members following the 2010 defeat, Labour’s total is now half what it was in the mid-1990s. The Conservatives, with two million members in the 1950s, are now down to a tenth of that figure, with around 180,000 today. Meanwhile UKIP, with 30,000 recruits, is on course to overtake the Lib Dems, who have lost 35 per cent of their members since entering the coalition.

The emergence of a four-party system could see Labour win the next election with as little as a third of the popular vote, a prospect that should horrify party strategists, with "one nation" politics becoming a hollow boast if two-thirds of the electorate back other parties. But the rot goes far deeper than just the state of our parties. As few as six out of ten people now bother to vote in general elections – down from 78 per cent as recently as 1992, with the Electoral Commission warning that at least six million people are not registered to vote at all.

The crackpots of the Tory right and the purists of the anti-austerity left are easily dismissed as unrepresentative ultras, but their very existence – and their growing strength - serves to tell us that our stable, predictable system of party politics is now breaking apart.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband look on during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.