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20 February 2019

Leader: Britain’s political order crumbles

In the era of Brexit and Corbynism, Labour and the Conservatives can no longer contain their disparate factions.

By New Statesman

Britain’s once stable political system has been assailed by a series of shocks: the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 (and the fragmentation of the United Kingdom), the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the radical left leader of the Labour Party in 2015, and the Brexit vote of 2016. The creation this week of the Independent Group by seven former Labour MPs, the biggest split since the 1981 formation of the Social Democratic Party, is another symptom of a crumbling political order.

In the era of Brexit and Corbynism, Labour and the Conservatives – broad party coalitions that have defined the postwar age – can no longer contain their disparate factions. A significant number of MPs in both parties have more in common with one another than they do with their respective leaders. From these ideological contradictions, a new political and economic settlement could yet emerge. 

Labour MPs tried and failed to remove Corbyn as leader in 2016, and have since tried and failed to persuade the party to back a second referendum on EU membership. The seven MPs (since joined by another Labour MP and three Tory defectors) all have individual reasons for leaving – most distressingly, in the case of Luciana Berger, horrific anti-Semitic abuse (which Labour has failed to properly address). By resigning from the party, with no guarantee of retaining their seats at the next election (history shows defectors rarely do), the former Labour MPs have answered the charge that they are unprincipled chancers. But they have far greater ambitions than self-promotion: their hope is that the group will evolve into a fully fledged party that attracts defectors from across the House of Commons and realigns British politics.

Voter loyalties are, to the project’s advantage, less rigid than in previous decades. Since 2010, the Liberal Democrats, Ukip, the SNP, the Scottish Conservatives and Corbyn’s Labour have all enjoyed remarkable surges (and, in some cases, falls). So-called centrists also draw inspiration from Emmanuel Macron, who founded his own movement and party La République En Marche! in 2016 and became French president a year later (though he won just 24 per cent of the vote in the first round and his approval ratings have fallen since). But the UK’s anachronistic first-past-the-post electoral system represents a formidable barrier to such insurgencies.

If there is an unoccupied space in British politics, it is arguably not liberal, pro-market centrism (as represented by the Liberal Democrats) but leftist conservatism. There is public support for Labour’s economic programme of nationalisation and redistribution, but also for policies that promote social cohesion, a greater sense of belonging and more national democratic sovereignty. Independent Group MPs such as Chris Leslie (interviewed by George Eaton this week) are clear what they are against: Brexit and Corbynism. But less so on what they are for. Greater political and intellectual definition will be required for the project to justify its purpose.

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The schism within Labour is a test of both the left and their opponents. The former have long asserted that they will thrive with an ideologically purer party, the latter that they can claim an “unfilled space” in British politics. Both should now compete on the basis of ideas, rather than insults.

Honda heads out

The confirmation by Honda on 19 February that it will close its Swindon car plant, with the loss of as many as 7,000 jobs, arrived with grim inevitability. The move vindicated the warnings of the British Chambers of Commerce: political uncertainty has grave consequences.

Remainers were swift to blame Brexit following Nissan’s decision, only a fortnight before, not to manufacture its new SUV at its plant in Sunderland. Honda, however, maintains that its departure was unrelated to Brexit: it cited an industry transition to electric cars. Regardless of this, it was a humiliating blow to the Conservative government, which has hailed the UK as a “world leader” in electric vehicles.

The Tories have long traded on their reputation as the party of business. But Honda’s intended departure is merely the latest warning of the profound harm that a no-deal Brexit would inflict on the United Kingdom. In 2016, Theresa May promised to forge an “industrial strategy”. Her party’s Brexit vacillations may achieve precisely the reverse: an anti-industrial strategy, with mass redundancies to follow.

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This article appears in the 20 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State