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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Women's bodies should not be bargaining chips for the Tories and the DUP

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights

When Members of Parliament are asked to pass laws relating to when and whether women can terminate their pregnancies, women’s rights are rarely the focus of that decision-making process. You need only look at the way in which these votes are traditionally presented by party leaders and chief whips as “a matter of conscience” - the ultimate get-out for any MP who thinks their own value or belief system should get priority over women’s ability to have control over their bodies.

Today’s vote is no different. The excellent amendment that Labour MP Stella Creasy has put before the house reveals not just the inequalities experienced by women in different parts of the UK when it comes to being able to make decisions about their health, but also the latest layers of subterfuge and politicking around abortion. 

Creasy’s amendment seeks access to the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales from Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Right now women in Northern Ireland are pretty much denied abortion by legislative criteria that limits it to cases that will "preserve the life of the mother" - (that’s preserving, not prioritising) - and pregnancies under nine weeks and four days. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not included as grounds for termination. The thousands of women who thus travel to England are refused free abortions on the NHS - confirmed by a recent Supreme Court ruling - on the grounds that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. 

The idea behind devolution is that power should be more evenly and fairly distributed. It is not intended to deprive people of rights but to ensure rights. In refusing to exercise the powers available to him, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is rightly acknowledging a difficult history of power imbalance between Westminster and Stormont, but he is also ignoring a wider imbalance of power, between men and women.  

There is so very much wrong with this arrangement. But a further wrong could be done if, as reports suggest, the Conservative Party whips its MPs to vote the amendment down in order to protect the regressive alliance with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is keeping their fragile minority government in power.

Instead of taking this opportunity to respond to the demands of women of Northern Ireland, this government is setting out the parameters of its complicity in refusing to listen to them. 

It is not the first time. In 2008 it was reported that the Labour party struck a deal with the DUP to leave Northern Ireland’s abortion laws intact, in exchange for their support over detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days. Labour said at the time that it was concerned about the impact on existing UK abortion laws if the debate was opened.

But not one woman has equality until all women have equality. Women’s bodies are not chips to be bargained and we should not be bargaining for one group of women’s rights by surrendering the rights of another group. The UK parliament has responsibility for ensuring human rights in every part of the UK. Those include the rights of Northern Irish women.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop playing politics with women’s lives. Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights – a fragility that was dismissed by the Conservatives as they drew up a deal with one side of the power-sharing arrangement.

It’s time to confront the fact that nowhere in the United Kingdom – taking Northern Ireland as a starting point rather than an end in itself – do women enjoy free and legal access to abortion. Even the UK’s 1967 act is only a loophole that allows women to seek the approval of two doctors to circumvent an older law criminalising any woman who goes ahead with an abortion.

As long as our rights are subject to the approval of doctors, to technological developments, to decisions made in a parliament where men outnumber women by two to one, to public opinion polls, to peace agreements that prioritise one set of human rights over another – well, then they are not rights at all.

The Women’s Equality Party considers any attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights an act of violence against them. This week in Northern Ireland we are meeting and listening to women’s organisations, led by our Belfast branch, to agree strategy for the first part of a much wider battle. It is time to write reproductive rights into the laws of every country. We have to be uncompromising in our demands for full rights and access to abortion in every part of the UK; for the choice of every woman to be realised.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.

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