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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era