As the schools go back after Easter, thousands of A-level politics candidates will be churning out essays about liberalism, conservatism and socialism. These, they have spent two years learning, are the major political philosophies underpinning the party system.
In the real world, two brands of Scottish nationalism will be scrapping over the Holyrood list vote, while the Northern Independence Party (NIP) and Reform UK will go toe to toe among working-class Brexiteers in the Hartlepool by-election. And in both competitions, the Greens will play a significant part in the outcome.
The UK’s party system is looking more vulnerable to disruption than at any time since the early 1930s. The Conservatives were transformed from polite liberals to authoritarian English nationalists in Boris Johnson’s 2019 purge. Labour has recaptured large swathes of the suburban liberal vote, while losing equal numbers of urban liberals to the Greens, but remains chronically unable to connect with traditional working-class communities.
The first-past-the-post system will, for now, hold political disintegration at bay, but the overall direction of travel is easily discernible if you look at our European neighbours. Spain’s traditional left and right parties have fragmented; the Greens are increasingly hegemonic in the centre of German politics; while in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin’s relentless squeeze on the two main parties now puts its support at 31 per cent (20 March, Irish Mail on Sunday).
Were it not for the current system, British party politics would be as riotous as the Holyrood election, and the A-level textbooks would have to be rewritten.
Why is this happening? In the first place, because in a networked society the barriers to entry into the political and cultural realms are lowered. Consider the way the authoritarian right has bought its way to prominence in talk radio – which, despite its name, is really a form of internet TV. Look at the way left-leaning outlets such as openDemocracy and Byline Times are able to deliver Fleet Street-calibre reporting scoops (while the tabloids themselves are reduced to a diet of celebrity gossip).
The same dynamic has allowed upstart parties such as Alex Salmond’s Alba and George Galloway’s All For Unity to achieve both name recognition and significant polling scores in the Holyrood list contest, and the NIP – which exists only virtually – to stir an instant flurry of voter interest.
But there’s something deeper behind the change, concerning the emergence of cultural conflict as the main driver of politics, and what voters perceive as politically possible.
It has become commonplace to read articles saying that nobody knows what Labour stands for under Keir Starmer. But the obstacles to Labour establishing a clear narrative and policy offer are bigger than most commentators imagine. Since the mass recruitment drives of 2015-16, Labour has become a vessel containing two parties and two political philosophies.
One is socialism – though the left itself is heavily divided over cultural issues. The other is – and here’s the problem – more difficult to define. When Labour MP Toby Perkins expressed support for police in Bristol in their “entirely appropriate use of the baton” in dealing with protests against the Police Bill last month, it is hard to use the word liberal to describe Labour’s right wing.
The Labour right is currently on the offensive against the left, but in favour of an absence of policy, the avoidance of clear spending commitments, and the crushing of party democracy. It is defined by a series of negatives, glued together with nostalgia for three things that are not coming back: Britain’s membership of the EU, working-class deference to Labour as a brand, and a stable neoliberal economic system.
The cumulative effects of failure and interminable civil war have not only trashed Labour’s brand, but made it difficult for voters to imagine a party united around an electoral offer. That was Starmer’s aim, and remains so, but as his poll ratings slide and no big idea emerges, progressives are becoming fatalistic.
It is now possible to imagine a future in which only the Conservatives can win elections. So long as the alliance of the affluent southern voters with the poor social conservatives of the English towns holds good, the Tories can win any election. Not only that, but Labour is obliged by the electoral arithmetic to steer away from its socially liberal moral centre, and away from radical economics.
The solution, as proposed, for example, by progressive campaign group Compass and the Norwich MP Clive Lewis, is for Labour to offer an electoral pact in England to the Lib Dems and Greens, and to resign itself to governing at the head of a progressive alliance including both those parties plus Plaid Cymru and the SNP. The achievable goal, within a decade, would be proportional representation (PR) and the democratisation of national governance structures, with increasing popular support for replacing the House of Lords with a second chamber of the regions.
This idea, though it gets very little airtime, is most definitely “out there”: more than 200 constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have discussed PR since the election defeat of 2019, and the campaign group Momentum is likely to put it on the Labour conference agenda.
But once you can see constitutional light at the end of a Tory tunnel, each political faction or individual starts to imagine how they might operate within the new reality. That explains the phenomenon of pop-up parties. The Brexit Party showed what you can do with money. The Women’s Equality Party is quietly carving itself out a niche within the liberal electorate. The Greens, not only in Brighton and Scotland but in cities such as Stroud, Bristol, Sheffield and Norwich, are now an established political fact.
Last Saturday (3 April) I covered the #97percent demonstration, an unofficial march down Whitehall by around 2,000 women, most of them under the age of 24, and many of them probably sitting A-levels this summer. I saw zero involvement from official politicians (though Jeremy Corbyn, Zarah Sultana and Clive Lewis all spoke at a later demonstration against the Policing Bill). The speakers at the end of the women’s demo were individual feminist authors and thinkers, plus the English Collective of Prostitutes and the anti-date rape group I’ve Been Spiked. As far as I could see there was not an MP or a councillor in sight, which seemed fine by the young women involved.
Anybody studying politics from the TV, as opposed to the A-level textbook, knows this is a dirty business, in which decent people get chewed up and spat out, by party machines that make their fictional equivalents in The Thick of It look amateur. This second networked generation looks at all official politics transactionally, asking “what will you do for us?” rather than “what do you believe?”
And so long as the Bank of England goes on printing money for the Treasury to borrow and spend, it is a sensible approach: the transaction will always look possible, if you campaign hard enough.
This, in turn, is exerting a new pressure on the left of the Labour Party. Any MP who thinks they might have a 20-year career ahead of them is now calculating as follows: if the only route to power is through an electoral pact, or a de facto coalition with the SNP, then how do I define myself in the coming world of splinter parties and coalitions?
For most of those under the age of 40, the answer is “not by acting as lobby fodder for a party leadership that doesn’t seem to have a strategy”. That is why, after ejecting most of the left from his front-bench team last autumn over abstention on the Covert Human Intelligence Sources legislation, otherwise known as the “spycops” bill, Keir Starmer also managed to lose the loyal soft-left MPs Tonia Antoniazzi, Helen Hayes and Florence Eshalomi from his team after the December 2020 vote on Brexit. Each of these women represents a Remain-voting constituency, a Remain-supporting party membership, and an electoral calculus that involves placating Green or (in the case of Antoniazzi) Plaid voters.
Parties that pop up can, of course, collapse soon after. The Brexit Party did its job for the establishment in 2019 but cannot generate sufficient energy in its Reform UK incarnation. Alba, while cleverly gaming the Holyrood system, would likely bomb if it tried to split the nationalist vote in a general election. The NIP looks, for now, like a one-off, point-making exercise.
But the proliferation of pop-up and virtual parties suggests one possible future for British politics, where coalitions around vital cultural issues – feminism, the Celtic nationalisms, northernism and environmentalism – can galvanise people in a way that the political philosophies from the textbooks cannot.
If Labour wants to avoid becoming irrelevant, it needs an overarching project capable of containing and channelling all the progressive political energy that exists on the streets and online. We are a long way from that.