After the most recent European Parliament elections in May, pollster Peter Kellner wrote: ‘Britain’s two-party system is in intensive care.’
In that election, Labour and the Conservatives finished third and fifth respectively, sharing a total of 22.4 per cent of the vote, and Kellner – in an article sceptical of the idea that the two major parties were set to be immediately and permanently usurped – nevertheless concluded: ‘Ten years from now, I doubt whether British politics will look the same.’
May seems much more than just over six months ago. After some political weeks of a length even Harold Wilson might have thought dragged on, the next Parliament – Scottish seats excepted – looks set to be as dominated by Tory and Labour MPs as any time in recent decades. But have those two parties done less than ever before to merit as much as 75 per cent of the vote (let alone seats) between them?
Both the main party leaders, in their pitch to members and their selection of frontbenches, appear to crave a purification of their organizations, a distillation into the ‘narrow, ideological, factional’ party that the re-admitted Ed Vaizey conceded the Conservatives now were.
Perhaps, if you are certain columnists of the left or right – or websites named after certain birds or seventeenth-century recusants – this is a desirable tacking to the One True Path (whichever of the Two True Paths you follow). But it is a contrast even with the days of tightly managed New Labour, or the years when Margaret Thatcher liked to speculate whether individuals were ‘one of us’.
Neither of those tried, whether by push (expulsion) or pull (tolerating abuse from outriders) to rid themselves of sceptics. Last month, by contrast, the present Parliament ended with both main parties down nineteen MPs from immediately after the 2017 general election – more than the Conservatives lost on the day itself.
In the past, the odd Dick Taverne or (odder) Enoch Powell would fall off the edge of a party, but these were sporadic and often eccentric events. At the height of Labour’s 1980s civil war, Michael Foot did what he could to prevent the SDP breakaway, and to contain the defections.
Of course, though many would wonder whether the gap between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson on the biggest issue of the day, Brexit, is really as big as either like to suggest, their two manifestos are as starkly contrasting as any have ever been. And while the Brexit and Liberal Democratic parties, by topping the European polls in May, suggested a thirst for alternatives, any chance of mould-breaking, if it were ever feasible, has been dashed by the former withdrawing half their candidates and the latter stumbling through a series of largely unforced tactical errors.
This is a parliamentary democracy, elected by first-past-the-post. Not even the Liberal Democrats joining the Tories in government in 2010 made a dent in that. The system provides in-built advantages to two large parties, representing broad halves of the political spectrum. So it seems somehow wrong that the political process should be effectively taken over by small selectorates within the Big Two, putting in place self-absorbed leaderships seemingly contemptuous of so many of their own half. Are the sections of Labour voters that would prefer the position set out by Hillary Benn or Yvette Cooper – or of Conservatives with a liking for Kenneth Clarke – somehow irrelevant, or morally unentitled even to support those parties?
Sure, Johnson and Corbyn are not the only two options on offer, but one of them will lead the next government, and although his mandate will come from a minority, it ought to be at least not entirely unpalatable to the majority.
Both leaders, despite each attempting to pose as a maverick, have made it clear that those arrayed on the benches behind them should be in single file. Previous Labour leaders may have rolled their eyes at Corbyn in his rebel years, but there is no evidence that they or their acolytes actually tried to force him out. Parties are entitled to whip, but those in their caucus ought to represent the breadth of the coalition that their organisation represents – anything else is a hijacking of their ‘brand’, which carries so much weight under the British electoral system.
This, however, will take leaders of different temperaments and talents than the present incumbents. Each would have a strong case to make as leader of a factional party under a proportional system. They might even be more popular if they did not have to pay lip-service to being at the helm of broader movements, spluttering or mumbling (respectively) when forced out of their political comfort zones, knowing that honest statements of their personal positions would alienate the more doubtful of those they wish to win over, be it more liberal Conservatives or moderate Labourites.
With Boris Johnson, the irony of a leader seemingly so in thrall to ideological hegemony that he is willing to expel so many previous loyalists is that his commitment to everything from European Union withdrawal, to the mechanics of how it should happen, through Heathrow expansion and beyond reveals a man whose only consistent position is cynicism. And yet he has demanded the Conservative Party plant itself in a part of the political spectrum where such compromises to circumstance are anathema, with a manifesto whose banality does not mask its often angry radicalism.
Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, has attempted to thumb his nose at the lessons so hard learnt by the Labour Party over the decades in which he has been active, in all senses. It may not be easy for him to hear that Labour can only be elected to government when it has convinced the public it can be trusted with the economy, but it is a fact – and the major reason for the current public scepticism about the party’s politics is Corbyn himself. He’s a man often as evasive in interviews as Johnson himself, perhaps too long in a political cocoon, before his unexpected rise, to not take scrutiny as personal. And even if he has had the harshest of presses, much of it is self-inflicted.
It could be argued that Corbyn himself, and his failure to ever truly develop the skills needed for his position, is the main reason why his policies will never be implemented under his leadership, and that a radical agenda in the other direction will be enabled. However, it seems the Labour campaign is increasingly not so much about getting a majority for the party in the Commons, but winning a majority for the Left within the parliamentary party.
We’ve managed – just, and despite the spectre of Brexit – to avoid in Britain the culture wars that have disfigured American politics, turning the Grand Old Party of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt into a vehicle for white resentment and a set of policy doctrines laid down by a noisy faction of evangelical Christianity (while transforming the Democratic Party of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace into one that thinks civil rights are a good thing and can be considered the more reasonable even by thoughtful conservatives).*
Such drift to unbridgeable extremes could, however, be the eventual result of the hollowing out of the main parties, leading to platforms that don’t seek to persuade the public so much as to satisfy the internal ambitions of their leadership.** That might well be what has already happened in Northern Ireland, where the more ‘extreme’ unionist and nationalist parties have eclipsed moderate rivals, with inevitable results for the durability of devolution.
There obviously wasn’t a golden age when the likes of Nye Bevan or Quintin Hogg did not take every opportunity to pour vitriol over their opponents, but it feels now as though their successors hold just as much contempt for those with whom they are allied – even while daring them not to vote for them and to risk the election of an even viler alternative. This is after all an election in which Tommy Robinson is a stronger backer of the Tories than is John Major.
One party is under a man whose popularity is lower than that of any Conservative leader in an election apart from John Major in 1997 and William Hague in 2001; the other under a man whose standing with the public is below even that of Michael Foot in 1983 (according to Ipsos-MORI’s tracker). Something has gone very wrong.
Peter Kellner, in his essay from May (the month whose namesake was then still Conservative leader) pointed out that ‘values’ rather than ‘economics or social class’ are increasingly the main drivers of political opinion, and suggested that Labour and the Tories had some ‘tough choices’ to make it they were to remain collectively dominant, even if some kind of two-party system continued in the absence of electoral reform.
But what is occurring is not some thoughtful, or even tactically astute, repositioning, rather an attempt to define each party respectively around on the one hand, the cynical posturing of Johnson, and on the other the attempt to replace the broad church of the Labour Party with a catechism based on loyalty to an individual. And it is most uncertain that failure in either case would lead to any sort of reappraisal; more likely, blame will be directed at the insufficiently loyal. What might occur in Kellner’s ‘ten years’ does not promise to be pleasant.
Before the vote to hold an election, it was clear that both Johnson and Corbyn wanted to start campaigning very badly. And indeed they have.
* I might have revealed my sympathies in American politics there. Also – full disclosure – George Wallace eventually renounced segregationism as a result of embracing born-again Christianity, which just goes to show whatever I write can be taken as more selectively and deliberately misleading than the most mendacious of Boris Johnson’s scribblings.
** And yes, I am implying that Labour’s manifesto, radical and often alluring as it is, was pitched more as a loyalty test for the next leadership election than with a sincere belief it would deliver a parliamentary majority.