In my lifetime, no British Government can sensibly be described as having been extreme. Most, of course, have been accused by their opponents of extremism, but that is not the same thing. Now that we are starting to see, in Europe, in America, what extreme politics really look like, our own historic moderation is brought sharply into focus.
Three factors have underpinned this moderation. The first is that most British people have had no temperamental liking for extreme politics or politicians. The second is that the first-past-the-post electoral system has proved no more conducive to extreme government than its alternatives elsewhere. This is partly because the Liberal Party, now the LibDems, has acted as a safety valve in the system, syphoning off support from Labour or Conservative if either moved too far to the left or the right, and compelling them back to the centre. The third factor is that both main parties have been sufficiently hungry for office that they have always (sometimes after a brief hiatus) elected leaders capable of appealing to the centre.
The second and third of these factors are in the course of changing. And the lack of resistance to these changes calls into question the first factor. Is it really possible that Britain’s historic aversion to extreme government is now at an end?
The unsung role in the political process has been played by the party organisations of the Conservative and Labour parties, and in particular the methods by which party leaders and parliamentary candidates have been chosen. This process is now breaking down.
In the Labour Party, the leader was chosen exclusively by its MPs until 1981. Then, a new electoral college was formed, splitting the electorate between MPs, party members and trade unions. Since then, there have been seven further rule changes. Now, the leader is elected by a ballot of the entire party membership. The only parliamentary safeguard is that a candidate must be nominated by at least 15% of Labour MPs.
The Conservative Party arrived at a broadly similar system slightly earlier. Until 1965, its leaders simply ‘emerged’: there was no vote of any kind. Then they were elected by the party’s MPs. Since 1998, as in the Labour Party, the Conservative leader has been directly elected by the party membership, from a choice of two provided by the MPs.
In both parties, parliamentary candidates have been, and still overwhelmingly are, chosen by the local party membership. Both parties have made occasional attempts in recent years to by-pass the process and impose their own candidate or choice of candidates centrally. This has been unpopular with local members, and neither party has had much success in moving towards a centralised selection of candidates.
The changes to the system in both parties have been made in the name of democracy. A process in which both the leader and the candidates are chosen directly by party members is assumed to be fairer and more democratic than one in which the central party, or its MPs, make the decisions. But is it more democratic? Only, in my opinion, if the party has enough members, and if they represent a broad range of the party’s voters.
At present (not always in the past), the Labour Party can be said to have enough members. Are they representative of a broad range of the party’s voters? No. The surge and purge of Momentum, ruthlessly planned, has resulted in a membership, both nationally and in many constituencies, that represents mainly the far left of the party. The effect is increasingly to ensure that only candidates from the far left, and a leader from the far left, can be chosen.
There is nothing that moderate Labour MPs or members can do to change this situation except to change the rules. And, now that Momentum controls the party, there will be no change to the rules. The Labour Party has been hijacked by an extreme faction.
The same thing is now in danger of happening to the Conservative Party. The party’s membership is pitifully low – close to non-existent in many parts of the country. The members are mostly elderly. Their views seldom bear much relationship to attitudes in the country that the party needs to reflect if it is to be elected. The party is ripe for hijacking, and the process has already begun.
Arron Banks may have been barred from membership of the Conservative Party, but he cannot be prevented from using his own money to try to procure the deselection of moderate Tory MPs. Neither can he be prevented from using his extensive mailing lists for previous Ukip and Leave campaigns to encourage an influx of new Conservative members who will promote a Ukip agenda.
The Conservative Party has left itself wholly vulnerable to this process. It is now largely at the mercy of Banks and of the lengths to which he might go. It is by no means inconceivable that moderate Conservative MPs will indeed be deselected en masse, with the eventual result that the parliamentary party will move sharply to the right, as will the leader that MPs and party members elect.
It is no longer a fantasy to conceive that, before long, the Labour Party will effectively have become Militant Tendency, and the Conservative Party will have become Ukip. And the principal cause of this will have been the failure of MPs from both parties to keep control of the process by which leaders are chosen. In the name of democracy, democracy will have been slaughtered.
By all historical precedent, this should be where the LibDems come in. But where are they? Even allowing for an uninspired leadership and a decimated parliamentary party, they should be experiencing a huge surge in popularity. Yet they are not. This is one of the great mysteries of contemporary British politics.
It is not entirely too late for the moderate centre of British politics to reassert itself. Yes, it might be too late to save the Labour Party from its extreme. But it is not too late to save the Conservative Party from a Ukip take-over, so long as decisive measures are taken soon. Nor is it too late for a LibDem revival.
If one or both of these things does not happen, the two main political parties will soon have been taken over by extreme factions, and the centre party will have failed to fill the void. I shudder to think of the consequences. But maybe that is what the British public now wants.