Leader: The old political order crumbles

Theresa May’s failure to deliver the UK’s withdrawal from the EU by 29 March has revitalised the populist right, but Labour’s electoral coalition is just as fragile. 

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On 1 March 1973, Dick Taverne, a former Labour MP, won a landslide victory at a parliamentary by-election in Lincoln. Deselected as a candidate over his devout pro-Europeanism, Mr Taverne had quit both his party and parliament in protest. His actions were much praised, but one Conservative minister could not forgive the heresy. “I would have supported you at Lincoln,” Mr Taverne recalls Michael Heseltine telling him on his return to Westminster. “But you made one terrible mistake. You should have never lost your party. Remember Disraeli. Forget principles. Stick to your party.”

Until this month, Mr Heseltine, now 86, had honoured that mantra for his entire parliamentary career. In this year’s European elections, however, the Conservative peer has pledged to vote Liberal Democrat. “I cannot, with a clear conscience, vote for my party when it is myopically focused on forcing through the biggest act of economic self-harm ever undertaken by a democratic government,” he said. The Tories responded by suspending him from the whip. 

Many Conservatives who share Mr Heseltine’s moderate politics have undertaken a similar journey, most notably the three MPs who defected to the Independent Group in February. But Mr Heseltine’s case is particularly instructive and demonstrates just how profoundly Brexit is changing our politics. As Stephen Bush writes in this week’s cover story (page 22), the 2016 European referendum has upended traditional loyalties and destabilised the party system. Many voters now feel their primary allegiance is to Leave or Remain. 

Neither main party is prepared for the consequences of this age of upheaval. Theresa May’s failure to deliver the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU by 29 March has revitalised the populist right. Nigel Farage has returned with a vengeance as the head of the Brexit Party, sweeping all before him, even in parts of Wales. And it now seems inevitable that the Conservative membership will elect a hardline Brexiteer to succeed Mrs May, probably Boris Johnson, shifting the party even further to the nationalist right.

Labour’s electoral coalition is just as fragile. Jeremy Corbyn’s prevarication on Brexit has satisfied neither working-class voters who opted for Brexit nor liberal cosmopolitans. The party is losing ground in all directions: to unambiguously pro-Remain parties in the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, but also to the Brexit Party. As long as the European question remains unresolved, the  two main parties will continue to fragment. One need only look to Scotland, where a once-hegemonic Labour Party was crushed by the SNP in 2015, to see how quickly the old order can crumble.

Our two big parties hold together in part because of an antiquated voting system. All parties are coalitions and the crude majoritarianism of first-past-the-post has helped keep Labour and the Conservatives (dis)united. In many respects, their fracturing is long overdue. In this age of extraordinary politics the time is right surely for the Tories and Labour to embrace a fairer, more proportional voting system. If not, their poor showing this month will presage further decline.

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake

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