If the result of the EU referendum had been 52:48 in favour of Remain, there would have been no problem knowing who spoke for the losers. Ukip would be all over it and riding high in the polls by now. Both the Tories and Labour would have gone out of their way to indicate to the disappointed Brexiteers that they were taking their concerns seriously and had a place for them in their parties.
Under those circumstances, the Liberal Democrats might well have ceased to exist as a political force, since it’s hard to see what their point would be if the liberal establishment were still in power but frantically seeking to accommodate its opponents. A Remain win that put paid to the Lib Dems and breathed new life into Ukip would have replicated the outcome of the independence vote in Scotland in 2014, which destroyed Labour and empowered the SNP. The Scottish Nationalists have shown exactly what can be done by channelling the energy of the losers in a referendum that promised a change that never quite came. “One more push” is a potent battle cry.
The same logic, however, does not work the other way round. A 52:48 victory for Leave has hardly produced a rush to accommodate bruised pro-European sentiment. Far from scrambling to give voice to the feelings of the losing Remainers, the two main parties are still competing with each other to show that they take the anger of the Brexit-voting classes seriously.
The Tory leadership doesn’t want to speak up for the losing side in the referendum and the Labour leadership doesn’t dare. The Lib Dems have been given a new lease of life by having roughly half of the voting population handed to them on a plate.
But we need to be realistic here. A few local government by-election triumphs and a steady creep back up to double-digit polling numbers don’t turn the Lib Dems into a government-in-waiting. The only alternative government at the moment exists buried somewhere deep inside the Conservative Party, where any appetite for getting back in bed with the Lib Dems is pretty small. Brexit may yet be derailed and the people who voted against it might find that their worst fears do not come to pass. But it’s hard to imagine that many politicians will be wanting to tell them that they were right all along.
So who will speak for liberal Britain? It can’t be the SNP, even though it currently represents the most effective opposition to the May government. The obvious difficulties are that the SNP has a distinct populist streak and it doesn’t want to be part of Britain anyway. Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader in Scotland, is notably more liberal and has come out strongly in favour of the Union. She was also in favour of Remain, though she is now hedging her bets like almost everyone else. One day she might be prime minister, which, if it happens, would mean that both project May and project Sturgeon had run their course. Still, it’s saying something when it takes a Scottish Tory who is not even an MP to give effective voice to the anxieties of large numbers of voters in England. That doesn’t qualify as representation. In effect, it leaves them disenfranchised.
The real problem is that liberal opinion in Britain has been squeezed by the results of the two referendums. The Scottish referendum had the effect of dividing opposition to Brexit between people on different sides of the border. If you live in Scotland, the avenue for resistance to the result of the EU vote is to seek to break away from people in England who think the same way that you do. This leaves Europhile voters in England at the mercy of pro-Brexit forces that are far harder to face down. The collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland, which shows no signs of recovery, has all but severed the ties that held liberal pro-Union opinion together. The English Conservative Party, whatever its views about Scottish independence, is too firmly committed to Brexit to bridge that gap.
The Tories can’t do it; Labour can’t do it; the Lib Dems can’t do it; the SNP can’t do it. It’s at times such as these that the call goes out for a new party of the centre to come together to fill the void. How will such a party emerge? Trying to create something out of the ashes of the old looks like a forlorn hope. The politicians on whom such a project might depend seem to have decided likewise. George Osborne will be too busy editing the London Evening Standard and Tristram Hunt running the V&A to have time for that kind of political heavy lifting. Both of those institutions could be seen as mouthpieces for certain kinds of liberal values, along with other parts of the press and other cultural institutions (such as the BBC). Yet an alternative government-in-waiting they are not and never will be.
The Oxford academic Stein Ringen has suggested that a new party will have to be built out of the few existing parties that have a relatively untarnished brand and retain some forward momentum. He cites the Greens and the Women’s Equality Party as two that still have their best days in front of them. That’s true enough, but the impossibility of these parties or any others of that scale making real progress under our electoral system highlights the barrier in the way of change. It’s the chicken-and-egg conundrum of British politics: we need a new party to change the electoral system; we need to change the electoral system to get a new party. Otherwise, we are stuck.
That’s why things come back in the end to the Labour Party, the decaying tree under whose shadow nothing can grow. Results in recent elections in other European countries using proportional voting systems – most recently in the Netherlands – have shown that mainstream social-democratic parties are in danger of being wiped out. Labour has a lot to lose by changing the voting system. At present, it is being kept alive by the knowledge that however bad things get – a vote share, say, of 25 per cent or even less – it will still be returned with 150-plus MPs at the next election and remain the primary party of opposition. That knowledge is what’s killing the prospect of real change.
At some point, Labour will have to complete its historic role as the essential agent of progress in British politics by subsuming its own interests in the wider cause of electoral reform. It won’t happen under the current leadership. But no one can effectively speak for the 48 per cent until the 25 per cent realise that their time voting for a party that could form an alternative government in its own right is done.
Maybe at the end of it all Ruth Davidson will be prime minister. More likely it will be someone else whom no one has considered at present, perhaps even a Labour politician. But whoever eventually comes to the rescue of liberal Britain, they will first need the Labour Party as it is currently constituted to get out of the way.
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition