Whoever wins next month’s election – or even if, as seems more than likely, no one wins it – the future shape of UK politics will have been profoundly changed.
RIP the Conservative and Labour parties as we have known them for the past hundred years. And RIP the notion that any party that hopes to win power needs to embrace a broad swathe of views and opinions.
Remember the ‘broad church’ theory? Just a few short weeks ago, the Labour MP Hilary Benn wrote: ‘To paraphrase Harold Wilson, the Labour party is a broad church or it is nothing.’ (What Wilson actually said, in a speech to the Labour party conference in 1962, was: ‘This party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.’ Which isn’t quite the same thing.)
Broad church: ‘a group or movement which embraces a wide and varied number of views, approaches and opinions.’ (Collins English Dictionary). In other words, a movement that can comfortably accommodate both Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, or Boris Johnson and Ken Clarke.
No longer. Ken Clarke was one of 21 MPs who were booted out of the Tory party for daring to disagree with Boris Johnson. Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party, has thrown in the towel after trying – and failing – to resist the Corbynite ascendancy. (He had more success in his efforts to dislodge Tony Blair from 10 Downing Street on behalf of his long-time ally Gordon Brown.)
Ian Austin, another former Brownite, who during a debate in 2016 about the Chilcot report into the Iraq war told Jeremy Corbyn to ‘sit down and shut up’, is now advising voters to support the Conservative party. (The former Labour MP, John Woodcock, who had the party whip withdrawn last year after sexual harassment allegations were made against him, has done likewise.) Philip Hammond, former Tory chancellor, foreign secretary and defence secretary, is quitting politics and says his former party has been turned into an ‘extreme right-wing faction.’
True, Boris Johnson still likes to claim that he is a ‘One Nation’ Tory – I’m not sure some of his senior Cabinet colleagues (Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, for example) feel the same way. Likewise, Jeremy Corbyn insists he favours ‘gentler politics’ – tell that to Luciana Berger, Margaret Hodge or Louise Ellman. Shock news: just because a political leader says something doesn’t mean it is true.
For much of the period since the end of the Second World War, the UK’s two dominant political parties positioned themselves close to what they perceived to be the centre ground of public opinion. (Margaret Thatcher was a notable exception.) ‘Butskellism’, an approach embraced by both the Conservatives’ Rab Butler and Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell, was the order of the day: the Tories accepted the establishment of the welfare state, and Labour signed up to NATO and a British nuclear weapons programme.
In the years that followed, Tony Blair admired Margaret Thatcher; David Cameron admired Tony Blair. At election times, voters could be heard complaining that they couldn’t tell the difference between the parties. I doubt there are many voters now who would say they can’t tell the difference between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
There is a perfectly good argument to be made that this cosy centre-ground consensus did not serve the country as well as its proponents like to think. In 1997, Gordon Brown promised that Labour would match the Tories’ spending plans; in 2007, the Tories pledged to match Labour’s spending plans; and the global banking melt-down of 2008 was due at least in part to Labour and the Conservatives agreeing that the financial markets would operate best with only the lightest of regulation. Well, we know how that one ended …
The UK is not alone in witnessing the hollowing out of the political centre. In Donald Trump’s America, the Republicans have moved sharply to the right since the so-called Gingrich revolution of 1994 and the rise of the Tea Party faction since the late 2000s, while the Democrats are swinging left under the influence of would-be presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s extreme populist and anti-immigration League party is outflanking more moderate parties, while in Germany, the centre-right Christian Democrats of Angela Merkel are under increasing pressure from the far-right anti-establishment AfD party.
Yes, there are a few exceptions: Emmanuel Macron in France, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Justin Trudeau in Canada all position themselves more or less in the centrist tradition – and even in the UK, more voters still say they think of themselves as in the centre of the political spectrum than on either the right or the left.
But if democratic politics tend to resemble a pendulum, swinging first this way, then that way, what we are increasingly observing now is a pendulum swinging ever further in each direction. Why? Because no party in power has yet managed to convince voters that it has got a grip on the problems that matter most to them. ‘This lot are no good; so let’s try an even tougher lot.’
And then there’s Brexit. Which has given birth to a rare joint effort by three of the main pro-Remain parties – Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru – to maximise their chances of electoral success. So in nine English constituencies, the Lib Dems are standing down in favour of the Greens; the Greens are doing the same for the Lib Dems in 40 English constituencies; and in Wales, Plaid are being a clear run in seven.
It might help a handful of Lib Dems in the most marginal seats where they came second last time round – and that, in turn, might increase the chances of sending Boris Johnson packing. But as every commentator in the land keeps telling you, no one really has a clue what’s going to happen. One thing, though, is certain: if you want to make your voice heard, you need to be on the electoral register. You have until 26 November: here’s the link if you haven’t registered yet.