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Brexit will be the biggest challenge to the two-party system

Both Ukip and the Liberal Democrats could thrive through their unambiguous positions.

Once upon a time, the virtues of Britain’s two-party system were clear. Politics was dominated by two parties, one to the right of centre, one to the left. When the incumbent government had seemed to have run out of steam or to have lost touch with voters, there was a clear alternative to which the electorate could turn. However, given that elections were won and lost in the centre ground, both parties had a strong incentive not to stray into the extremes.

Those days seem to be long over. Having won well over 90 per cent of the vote between them in the immediate post-war period, more recently the Conservatives and Labour have struggled to win as much as 70 per cent. Neither party is now an effective force in Scotland. Meanwhile, following the inability of either the Conservatives or Labour to secure a majority in the 2010 election, the last parliament saw the first coalition in Britain’s post-war history.

This challenge to Britain’s two-party system shows no sign of abating. One reason, of course, has been the remarkable takeover of the Labour Party by the left-leaning "Corbynistas", after the introduction of a leadership electoral system that put the decision firmly in the hands of (a much enlarged) band of members and "supporters".

But the biggest challenge of all comes from Brexit. Ever since Britain first joined the EU in 1973, its membership has been a divisive issue. It played an important role in the split in Labour’s ranks in the early 1980s that lead to the formation of the SDP. More recently, UKIP’s anti-EU stance has been rewarded with remarkable record-breaking performances in elections held between 2013 and 2015. However, the potential disruptive power of the EU issue has never been more apparent than it has since last year’s general election.

Although all but a small minority of Labour MPs backed remaining in the EU, the parliamentary Conservative Party was torn apart by the EU referendum. According to the BBC, while 185 Conservative MPs backed Remain, 138 backed Leave. Now that division is being replayed in an internal (but often public) debate in the party about whether the UK should seek a "hard" or a "soft" Brexit.

Meanwhile, no party – apart from Ukip – was able to take its voters with it in the referendum. According to the British Election Study, while 63 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2015 backed Leave, 37 per cent voted to Remain. Labour voters were just as divided with 37 per cent voting Leave, 63 per cent Remain. Not even the SNP (34 per cent Leave, 67 per cent Remain), for whom being part of the EU is an integral part of its vision for independence, or the Liberal Democrats (30 per cent Leave, 70 per cent Remain), long Britain’s most pro-EU party, avoided a substantial split amongst their supporters.

In short, many a voter was out of sympathy with their party in June, and could continue to be so as the debate about Brexit intensifies. The key question now is whether some feel so strongly about the issue that they start to defect to a party they feel more adequately reflects their views.

Both Ukip, the self-proclaimed voice of the "hard Brexiteers", and the Liberal Democrats, who seem determined to become the standard bearer for "Remoaners", have had their troubles of late. But on Brexit they both have a clear position with which they can hope to attract new supporters to their ranks.

In contrast, both the Conservatives and Labour seem destined to try and keep their divided ranks intact with what could come to seem like mixed or even conflicting messages. If these efforts prove inadequate, then Britain’s two-party system could be facing its biggest challenge yet.

This is an article from Bright Blue’s latest magazine The End of Establishment?

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear