Will our tarnished democracy be enough to face future challenges? Photo: Getty
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Democratic crisis: how do we stem the remorseless rise of nationalists and populists?

Bleak prospects.

Perhaps most revealing about the Twitter affair that engulfed Emily Thornberry MP were the comments of the White Van Man himself, Dan Ware. He is reported to have told journalists that he wasn’t aware that there was a by-election going on in Rochester and Strood, and that he would not have voted even if he had known. In the past he had been a Conservative voter, but now he had joined those who see no point in voting. As he put it: "No matter who you have, it doesn’t matter".  

British politics is passing through a very strange period. There have been many scandals in the past about individual politicians from John Profumo to John Stonehouse to Jeffrey Archer. But the current scandals go beyond the individuals involved.

The release of the facts about MPs’ expenses, even though a majority of MPs were shown to have done nothing wrong, followed by the shocking revelations about Jimmy Savile and his friends in high places, has deepened cynicism about those in public life and led to wild rumours of conspiracies and cover-ups.

The perception that many public figures are self-serving has grown, feeding the widely held view that those who govern us now form a distinct political class which has become separated from those it governs.

As trust and legitimacy have declined, so a crisis of representation has developed. Both established UK parties have been losing support, their leaders have had negative ratings since 2010, their combined share of the vote has dropped from over 95 per cent in 1951 to 65 per cent in 2010.

Party membership is in steep decline, and ageing. Less than 1 per cent of British voters now belong to a political party. The political class has also come to be recruited from a narrower set of occupations. Only 4 per cent of current MPs are from manual working class backgrounds and more MPs have worked full-time in politics in one capacity or another since leaving university.     

The parties whose membership is growing, who appear confident and sure of their purpose and who communicate in a much more relaxed and direct way with the electorate are the insurgent parties, the Scottish Nationalists, the Greens and Ukip, all of whom are seeking to overturn the existing party system and to challenge core mainstream policies.

This is a phenomenon not confined to the UK but found in many other parts of Europe, as austerity has worsened in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. So far none of these parties has broken through and disturbed the consensus over core commitments such as maintaining austerity and membership of the EU, but some are getting closer. A victory of one of these insurgent parties in a major European country can no longer be ruled out.

In the UK, the success of the SNP and Ukip threatens to break apart the two Unions, the British Union which is the basis of the United Kingdom, and the European Union which Britain joined in 1973. Support for both are unravelling, forcing the Westminster political class onto the defensive.

The UK has faced political and constitutional upheaval before, notably in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Those years saw a dramatic reorganisation of the British state, the departure of most of Ireland from the Union and the development of a party system based on mass democracy and the opposition between capital and labour. The heyday of this new order was reached in the Seventies when most of the electorate identified with one of the two great blocs, third parties withered away, governments won by-elections, and party membership and trust in political leaders were both high.

Since then the parties have been using up the moral capital which was built up at that time, reflecting the close identification of both parties with particular but distinct common values, purposes and interests. That identification has been gradually eroded both by the professionalisation of politics as an activity and by the rise of a more issue based and instrumental politics as greater individualisation has taken root.

The Labour and Conservative traditions were slowly hollowed out, and the parties have found it much harder to express a sense of common purpose and common values. In the Scottish Referendum campaign with a few exceptions, most notably Gordon Brown, the Unionist politicians found it hard to voice a positive case for the Union. Their campaign stressed all the negative things that would happen if Scotland voted yes.

Until the old parties start to rethink how parliament should be reformed to represent the people and find language and purpose that resonates once more with voters, the prospects for stemming the crisis of representation and the remorseless rise of the nationalists and the populists seem bleak.

Andrew Gamble, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, was speaking at St Edmund's College as part of The Von Hügel Institute lecture series, ‘Ethical Standards in Public Life’, co-hosted with St Mary's University, Twickenham

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.