On Wednesday 5 October, the political correspondent of Channel 4 News reported Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative party conference as an appeal to UKIP voters. The same evening, the political correspondent of the BBC reported the same speech as an appeal to Labour voters. If the Prime Minister’s objective was to cover the political spectrum, she may have succeeded. What her speech most confirmed was the void, outside her own party, that now exists in British politics.
We’ve been here before as, indeed, we have been to most places. The last time was in the early 1980s, when the SDP was formed to break the mould of British politics, but in the end succeeded mainly in ending the active political careers of its founders. Astute political commentators have been saying for a while that the time is again ripe for a realignment of British politics, and it now looks as if they are right.
In the 1980s, the Labour party was in less desperate straits than it is now. It still more or less owned Scotland. It was still largely controlled by its parliamentary party. UKIP did not exist, whereas now the millions of votes it has garnered (despite having a solitary MP) are there for the taking, possibly by itself. The Liberal party was then strong, with good leadership, able to buttress the fledgling SDP. Now it is weak, with weak leadership, apparently unable to buttress even itself.
The starting point of the problem, then as now, lies within the Labour party, where also lies the probable solution. Since its foundation, Labour has been a coalition of the left-leaning intelligentsia and the working class – the former mostly supplying the leadership, and the latter the votes. The situation is now more complicated.
The Labour party being moulded by Jeremy Corbyn and his allies cuts across the solidarity of the previous coalition. Although the same two elements are combined, the extreme and extra-parliamentary nature of the party’s new core has alienated the middle-class support so assiduously courted by Tony Blair as well as much of Labour’s traditional working class support. It has, admittedly, led to a surge of political activism among young left-wingers, but that is not necessarily to the party’s immediate advantage.
The problem for the bulk of Labour MPs is not simply that they are irrelevant to their own party. It is not simply that, with the mandatory reselection of sitting MPs by the people’s tribunes now a probability, many are like sitting ducks on the eve of the shooting season. More than either of those things, they are not necessarily any more representative of their own voters than the Corbyn faction.
Much of the parliamentary party is liberal in its outlook, metropolitan in its background, temperamentally suited more to modifying the landscape than to reshaping it. Those who represent constituencies in London and the South will continue to reflect popular opinion. But those who represent the old industrial seats in the North and parts of the Midlands, and there are many of them, increasingly do not reflect the attitudes of their electors.
These voters are not liberal. They feel betrayed by the metropolitan elite, of whatever party. On key issues, of which immigration and EU membership are the most obvious, they could not be more angrily divided from their representatives. Again, we have been here before. Some will remember the mass marches by London dockers and other working groups in support of Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration tirades in 1968. The strains between the liberal elite and the populist masses (and not only in the Labour party) have often been evident. Now, they seem unbridgeable.
So, what will happen?
The schism in the Labour party is surely too deep to be mended. Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election has not healed wounds in the parliamentary party, nor resulted in any substantial return of former luminaries to the front benches. Whether they refused, or he never offered, is not clear. Meanwhile, the Corbyn faction has taken control of the National Executive. However, as I argued in a previous blog, the Labour party still possesses the brand name and this alone will enable it to hold many existing Labour seats. Its share of the vote may plummet, but Labour is not about to disappear as a parliamentary force.
What is presently impossible to say is the degree to which UKIP will benefit from lost Labour votes. In theory it ought to, as the SNP has in Scotland, but if the current comic opera continues, it will be unable to. The party could just as easily implode.
In the meantime, the fact that nothing has so far been said about the LibDems says almost all there is to say. But not quite all. Like UKIP, the party holds millions of votes, if few seats. Post-referendum, these voters have nowhere else to go and will gradually be augmented by centrist supporters of Labour. The LibDems are not out of the long term equation, any more than UKIP. In a political realignment, any party with several million votes at its disposal is in play.
The temperamental dislike of the British people for extreme governments, together with the first-past-the-post voting system (neither of which seem likely to change), means that there needs to be a party of the centre right and a party of the centre left, each capable of forming a government. As there usually has been.
There is no challenge to the Conservatives as the party of the centre right. What, in the future, will be the party of the centre left, and how will it be able to form a government? Will it emerge from the range of opinion represented by most of the parliamentary Labour party combining with the range of opinion represented by the LibDems? This alignment would possess the Liberal brand name and also, potentially, that of the SDP – neither as powerful as the Labour brand, but more powerful than a new name.
One can argue that this has been tried before and won’t work. But what will work in a situation where the chances of the official Labour party, or its disaffected moderate wing, or the LibDems, or UKIP, forming a government of their own are remote? What other solution is feasible, especially if a rump Labour party – with which none of the others would want to work – continues to hold a significant number of seats?
Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum. There is a vast vacuum on the centre left of British politics. However long it takes, and it could be years, someone, at some time, will fill it.