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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No, the Brexit vote wasn't just about immigration

The data shows that most voters want a fairer society. Labour must fight for this in the Brexit negotiations. 

The result of the UK referendum to leave the European Union has shaken the political establishment to its core. As I have argued since then, it should be a wakeup call to all political parties.

Some have also argued that the referendum result is having international repercussions, with the election of Donald Trump to the White House cited as "Brexit Plus Plus". With the imminent election in France, and Germany’s later this year, responsible analysts are trying to understand why people voted the way they did and what this means. Too often, there are knee jerk explanations without any evidentiary justification to back them up. 

Analysis of who voted to leave shows the majority of people who voted to leave live in the South of England, and 59 per cent were from the middle classes (A, B, C1). Only 21 per cent of people in the lowest income groups voted to leave.

Analysis of why people voted as they did is more complex. This includes an increase in Euroscepticism particularly from older, middle class voters; concerns about globalisation and the impact on jobs; inequalities and being left behind; and new voters who didn’t vote in the 2015 General Election, for whom immigration was a concern. When this analysis is overlaid on analysis of that election, some themes emerge. The attitudes and values of the majority of the British public are firmly rooted in the desire for a fairer society, based on principles of equality and social justice. Although immigration played a part in the election and referendum results, perceived competence, being "left behind" and disillusionment with the direction of change were the key drivers.

Whether people voted to remain or leave, they did so because they believed that they and their families would be better off, and the majority who voted believed they would be better off if we leave the EU. Labour accepts and respects this. We have said that we will vote for Article 50, but we intend to hold this Tory government to account to ensure we get the best possible deal for the country.

In his speech last week, Jeremy Corbyn set out the issues that Labour will hold the government to account on. We have been absolutely clear that we want tariff-free access to the single market, to ensure that Britain continues to trade openly with our European neighbours, and to protect the cost of living for families struggling to get by. Getting the best deal for the UK means that we must continue to have a strong relationship with our EU neighbours.

Under my work and pensions portfolio, for example, we know that 40 per cent of pension funds are invested outside of the UK. If we want to guarantee a dignified and secure retirement for our pensioners, we must ensure that savers can get the best returns for the investments they make.

We also know that many of the protections that have until now been offered by the European Union must continue to be guaranteed when we leave. Provisions that secure the rights of disabled people, or that protect worker’s rights are an essential part of British society, enhanced by the EU. These cannot be torn up by the Tories.

Defending these rights is also at the heart of our approach to immigration. The dire anti-migrant rhetoric from some parts of the media and certain politicians, is reprehensible. I reject this scapegoating, which has fear and blame at its heart, because it is not true. Blaming migrants for nearly seven wasted years of Tory austerity when they are net contributors of over £2bn a year to the economy is perverse.

Of course we need to respond when public services are coming under pressure from local population increases. That’s why Labour wants to reinstate the Migration Impact Fund that the Tories abolished. We also need to ensure new members of communities get to know their new neighbours and what’s expected of them.

We believe that migrants’ broader contribution to British society has too often been obscured by the actions of unscrupulous employers, who have exploited new arrivals at the expense of local labour. A vast network of recruitment and employment agencies has developed in this country. It is worth hundreds of billions of pounds. Last year over 1.3m people were employed in the UK by these agencies. In 2007, 1 in 7 of these people came from the EU. We should ask how many are recruited directly from the EU now, and offered precarious work on very low wages whilst undercutting local labour. Labour will put an end to this practice, in order to protect both those who come here to work and those that grew up here.

Importantly, however, we cannot let our exit from the EU leave us with skill shortages in our economy. Our current workforce planning is woeful, particularly for the long-term. We need to reduce our need for migrant labour by ensuring our young, and our not so young, are trained for the jobs of the future, from carers to coders. Again, the Conservatives have undermined people’s chances of getting on by cutting college funding and the adult skills budget.

Unlike the government, Labour will not shirk from our responsibilities to the nation. Our plans for Brexit will respect the referendum result, whilst holding the Government to account and delivering a better future for all our people, not just the privileged few.

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.