UK Politics

Is this election the end of the catch-all party?

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As the climax of this general election approaches, it is clear that Westminster is the epicentre of the Eurosceptic earthquake which has caused seismic shifts in the British political landscape.

One year on, the aftershocks of last year’s Brexit referendum can still be felt. Whilst the political x-axis has long been the right-left barometer, the y-axis which may well control British politics for years to come is now based on whether voters be internationalists or nationalists. The ideological foundations of the UK’s parties continue to quiver with the mounting gravity of the Brexit question, and the populist pendulum has swung from the right towards the left. Fractures within the Labour and Conservative parties, too, over the nature of the UK’s unilateralist turn, have made the nation’s key political structures increasingly brittle.

When Theresa May declared her intentions to seek a mandate in April, she must have thought that victory would slip easily into her hands, with Jeremy Corbyn only just clinging onto the political scene amidst internal Labour party strife and backlash from the electorate over recent months.

But now it is obvious that the gap has narrowed. Either Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May will set foot in Number 10 tomorrow, navigating the treacherous ridge of the British political peak which has a sheer drop at either side.

Today’s snap vote, which many believed would erode the foundations of the Labour Party for several years to come, has instead had the opposite effect. A victory for Theresa May still seems the most likely result, but this election has brought to light new corners of political opinion within the two biggest parties, fragmenting the once clear-cut right and left wings. Can the leaders of the UK’s two biggest parties really speak for the entirety of each of their movements?

The Labour Party isn’t, and hasn’t been since Blair’s 1997 landslide, categorised simply by one strong shade of scarlet. Neither can the Conservative Party be characterised by one tone of light blue. The Labour tapestry now includes a multiplicity of pinks, crimsons and Burnt Siennas, and a look through the Tory lens reveals a kaleidoscope of turquoise, aquamarine, royal blue and teal. The left is split between Jeremy Corbyn’s more traditional socialism, Tony Blair’s third way, and a great deal of pro-Brexit lefties. The right, in turn, exists as a patchwork of more centrist free-market liberals, pro-Europeans, and May-supporting Brexit stoic.

Over the campaign, both main parties have tried to pick up as big a portion of the electorate as possible, reelinh in voters regardless of class and background, having realised that party affiliation isn’t as simple as it once was some decades ago. With May’s focus on strength and stability, and Corbyn’s impetus on governing for the greater good, both campaigns have sought to operate beyond class divisions, out to capture the human sentiments of holding either national or European identity, and playing to the hopes and ambitions of the general public for the future of their British nation.

In this election, Theresa May has attempted to prove that Brexit is a transformation which can benefit all – the disenchanted working class, and those who look to abandon the red tape of the European Union. Similarly, the Labour Party, with its campaign based around ideas of an all-encompassing society, with a more internationalist approach, has tried to attract both voters on average incomes, and even the most high-end of champagne socialists. But the reality is, however, that leaders now have to piece together smaller, more specific factions of opinion within one diverse party construct. Support is no longer simply a question of where you work, how much money you earn, and what food you put on the table.

Arguably, as parties have sought to capture all voters, within a society which has become more culturally, socially and economically diverse, the parties themselves have had to fit into new moulds and broaden their appeal. It is now increasingly hard for governments to please everyone and for parties to appeal to all. Perhaps, therefore, large parties which once had simply formulated political motives which spoke to the masses can no longer speak to all types of individuals found within a more varied society.

Many would, of course, argue that it is impossible to please all and that this is just a fact of the democratic and, more specifically, majoritarian, system. In this election, both parties’ manifestos have aimed to appeal to all, but in reality, the leaders and their governmental gameplans only represent one part of the party’s multifaceted opinion base.

The Labour and Conservative parties arguably have chosen to run with just one form of their respective left and right opinion this election, in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s traditional socialism, mixed with a streak of revolutionary populism, and Theresa May’ anti-EU strategy which champions ideas of UK national feeling and emphasises a need for uncompromised national sovereignty. Corbyn does not come across well to the Blairites, politicians who are sure to flex their muscles in the next parliament. Similarly, May, who was, until the departure of David Cameron, a remainer, fails to win over more centrist and European Tories.

But perhaps the UK revolves around a majoritarian system which, in fact, does not work for the majority. With two large parties aiming to please all at campaign level, whilst truly only being able to adopt one type of left-wing and right-wing thought within a party which contains many more specific pools of opinion, surely not all can feel satisfied with politics.

If this be the case, surely much of the British population remains perplexed. How, therefore, can big parties manage to speak for all? Perhaps the big social class-driven aggregate party structure is now dead, and can be rendered impractical. Arguably, the two big parties have attempted to please all in campaigns but this is ineffective for many, as they adopt just one small portion of their own left and right wing party’s thought.

There are several possible solutions. The first is that the catch-all, all-encompassing party becomes successful in pleasing all. This has, however, proven to be a rather utopian idea, based on this campaign and the politics of previous years.

Another option is that the UK political landscape would break down, heralding a wider range of political parties which each reflect more specific divisions of political opinion, welcoming a new proportional system of voting.

Furthermore, if Theresa May pushes on with her Brexit agenda, and the Labour Party continues to run with its staunchly traditionalist, left-of-centre socialism, British politics could become increasingly polarised, generating a gap in the market for a new centrist movement. Perhaps a more balanced force like French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche will soon come to the fore.

No matter who wins this election, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn now have the tricky task of healing the divides within their large parties, as they veer towards more specific directions. If the parties fail to unite their supporters, great constitutional change for the UK could be next on the to-do list. Perhaps the clear-cut, class-driven party structures which have for so long defined the UK’s political landscape are breaking down, no longer able to speak for all.

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society, UK Politics

The Westminster system is halting UK political progress

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It doesn’t take the most keen of political junkies to tell that British party politics is reaching a frustrating stalemate. The Labour party, since the growth in support for – and election of – Jeremy Corbyn, has become the arena bearing witness to fierce internal strife over its position on many issues. But the current debate over Britain’s membership of the European Union has smashed the complacency of many Conservatives who believed they were safe from the epidemic of divide. A huge rift has developed between staunch supporters of David Cameron and other hard-line Eurosceptics. If anything, this is a stark message alluding to the evidently out-of-date Westminster Establishment.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party last year marked a significant turning point in Labour policy. Torn between the Blairite ‘third way’ and Corbyn’s by-the-book socialism, vast numbers of MPs are struggling to find much common ground. The Tories have proven to struggle with similar issues of their own, with a camp strongly in favour of ideas from further right, and war over the quandaries in relation to immigration and EU status.

This is worrying for a democracy like Great Britain. If parties fail to wholeheartedly unite and allow such instability to thrive, the future of British government looks bleak. The current Westminster structure is outdated and old-fashioned, unable to adapt to the specificities of modern day voting behaviour. There is simply no way that Britain can be forced to mould itself into such an uncomfortable structure which takes only a few indecisive policy options into account. Without change, governments will become ineffective, oppositions feeble, and the electorate switched off.

This issues lie with the Establishment and its pace alongside a fast-changing society.  Our main political parties of Labour and the Conservatives were once formed with the target of aggregating their respective working and middle class citizens. But nowadays, our political society cannot operate in this way. Social class is now far less important for voters than it was during the war-time and post-war periods.

Thus, the factors of gender, political personality, age, location, and simply the precise issues themselves have gained in astounding importance over the past decade. The attempts of many ‘catch-all’ parties in Britain, and further around the world, to gain the support of the average voter may be somewhat genius abroad, but is seemingly not practical in the UK. The diversity of our nation’s society today means that each person is looking for something different from politicians, and our leaders are failing to inspire each and every one of them. The Westminster parties in Britain are struggling to adapt to the new challenges of the 21st century, and aren’t succeeding in raking in the trust of all sorts. The British political system is stuck in the past in its old social class boundaries, and needs new rules.

So how can Westminster become the dynamic environment for engaging political debate that it once was? The people and the society are in place, but the institutions aren’t keeping up with the electorate’s transformation. The fact that both of the largest parties must deal with somewhat eternal internal splits, and juggle two very different pools of policy, must hint that the political framework of the UK needs to be taken a part and put back together again.

PR is the answer. Many reports have shown that if proportional representation had been used in recent elections, the share of seats in parliament would be markedly different. In 2015, the SNP in Scotland would have seen substantially less seats, UKIP would have achieved a whopping increase, and the Liberal Democrats would gain a position as fourth party in parliament with a 7% share. The key advantage with PR, is that it is a modern system designed for a modern society, which takes the growth in issue voting into account. The most important thing is, however, that PR would nurture Conservative and Labour party splits which are much needed for any form of progress. PR would not mean instant death to one of the parties’ internal camps, but would build a separate party stage allowing them to truly proclaim their message, instead of begrudgingly succumbing to their inner opposition.

Perhaps the Tories and Labour would be reluctant to split currently, eager to cling onto their inevitably greater share of power through the First Past the Post system. But in the next ten years, unless both sides unite, the crevasse will grow deeper and a parting looks inevitable. Separate parties with pacts on their similarities, giving a degree of leeway for their differences would revolutionise the Westminster system and make the party system considerably more workable.

We need a change. Through a complete overhaul of the Westminster institution via voting system, politics would become fairer and more true. Certainly, large sections of Britain would become more politically engaged, waving goodbye to the blockaded politics we have witnessed for too many months. Many societies worldwide have made the change, including Germany, New Zealand, and, of course, Scotland. It is time for Westminster to follow suit. If the London Establishment continues to trudge on in Westminster – the abyss of torment and interparty battles – Britain’s democracy will become decayed and society will grow bored of the nation’s dysfunctional decision-making.

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UK Politics

Inner party rivalry is widening the gap for more united centrists

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Last May’s general election delivered a surprising result, with the potential for refreshed British politics. For many, though, the two largest Westminster parties have grown increasingly tiresome. Their petty infighting has continued to dominate headlines and manifest political stalemates. Despite a clear leadership mandate from Labour’s members, Jeremy Corbyn and his socialist team endure a seemingly eternal tug of war with hardcore Blairites, clashing over spending, defence and cuts. Moreover, the complacency derived from the Tories’ May result has come back to kick them. Its right-wingers who long criticised Labour’s disarray have now become aware of their own party’s disharmony. In much the same way as Labour, David Cameron’s Conservative party has become increasingly fragmented, jarred in dispute over Brexit, Boris and budget cuts. The surprise resignation of Iain Duncan Smith has further highlighted such divides. The next few weeks, which centre around the Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and Greater London Assembly elections, as well as the pivotal EU referendum, could pose problems for both main party leaders.

If anything, the months following May’s election have shown that British politics is becoming increasingly polarised, and is perhaps in need of new players. The disillusion with Labour and the Tories has opened a gap in the political market. An alternative is needed, and a political entity which has solid policy and loyal supporters could exploit this opportunity for an effortless advance. A force willing to drop strict ideological rules, and instead stand as a united, pragmatic movement could come to the fore.

One particular force does come to mind. In May, the Liberal Democrat party was dealt a blow by the electorate for indecisiveness and coalition pitfalls – a development that many would consider just. The decline the party has suffered since 2015’s general election must now have hit home. After months of lamentation, it is time that the near-destroyed party arrived re-energised at the political scene, ready to exploit the gap in British politics created by endless rivalry by Labour and the Tories. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats could become the true party of welfare, promoting a more centrist, balanced policy for which much of the electorate seemingly yearns. A decisive Tim Farron could start to command unity, strict policy and wholehearted support. With these qualities and intelligent strategy, Farron’s party could, if he chooses, turn into the movement of welfare and social justice that both Cameron and Corbyn’s parties have failed to become.

And what about the possibilities of such an hypothesis becoming a reality? Staunch divides over Brexit, a damaging budget, striking junior doctors, and quarrels over Cameron’s successors may well pave the way for an alternative party like the Lib Dems. Similarly, Labour’s tribulations over nuclear weapons and public spending, making it a dysfunctional force, could soon contribute to the fall of Corbyn. Political discontent is growing, as shown by one stark Ipsos MORI survey carried out recently. It was revealed in February that a surprising 60% are dissatisfied with the Conservative government, and that 51% feel the same with regard to Jeremy Corbyn. These numbers can only have increased by now, given recent developments, and show that the small Conservative majority government has failed to stabilise British society.

The nation’s archaic voting system will also continue to block a centrist revival. First Past the Post has fallen short of adapting to the effects of issue voting and personality politics which may otherwise give voice to smaller political entities. With Britain’s two main parties in a mess, an SNP whose Westminster voice seems marginalised, and modest Plaid Cymru, DUP, Green and UKIP forces, it is time that Westminster became pluralistic and representative.

Perhaps the electorate will soon give way to an alternative after such disorganised politics from all areas of the political spectrum. Maybe Tim Farron’s cleared-up Liberal Democrats are ready to reclaim their positions as kingmakers and moderators, placing themselves closer to the centre of political gravity. Ignoring this chance for political reincarnation would be a missed opportunity. Whilst not at all numerous in parliament, and let alone in government, operating from the sidelines by positively criticising current disarray would be a highly intelligent move. Amidst such chaos, a more coordinated movement, which the Liberal Democrat party has the opportunity to become, could make it a genuinely representative voice within UK politics.

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