The referendum was the start of a national re-alignment of British politicsby Rachel Sylvester / July 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
If all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players, then politics right now is a bizarre piece of avant-garde theatre—surreal, confusing and unpredictable, with the ending still unwritten. One Conservative minister said: “It feels like when you are at a play and the lights go down. People in black T-shirts come in and start quietly moving the furniture around. Then the lights come up and you see what has happened. The set is being re-arranged around us in the dark and we still have no idea where everything is going to end up.”
After a dramatic first act, in which the British public voted to leave the European Union, both main parties and Ukip are effectively leaderless. Jean-Paul Sartre’s line “Hell is other people”—which comes, appropriately enough, from the play No Exit—could be a slogan for politics right now. The Prime Minister has resigned, and the Leader of the Opposition has lost the support of his MPs, while Boris Johnson has gone from frontrunner to succeed David Cameron to has-been. Nigel Farage has stepped down as Ukip leader, declaring that now he has got his country back he wants his life back. Meanwhile, out in the real world, sterling has slumped, the markets are jittery, business investment has slowed sharply and there has been an increase in racist attacks. In a way that is deeply unsettling for all at Westminster, Britain appears to be divided: geographically, socially, culturally and by age. Peter Hennessy, the historian and veteran Whitehall-watcher said: “The referendum was like a lightning flash which illuminated a landscape that had long been changing. The country is fragmenting and I fear a fuse has been lit under the Union too.” In his view, the UK’s global role has also been shaken to its core. “From being a stabilising country in the world we have become a destabilising one,” he said. “The two major political parties are eating themselves, with all the nervous energy going inwards. I have never known quite so many dials that need resetting.”
Tribal loyalties and class-based allegiances are vanishing from British life, with the result that politics is more fluid than ever before. In 1966, only 13 per cent of voters had chosen a different party in the previous election. Last year, according to the British Election Study, 38 per cent of people switched parties between 2010 and 2015. It’s a trend that was reinforced, dramatically, by the EU referendum. Vast numbers of Labour voters in the industrial heartlands backed Brexit, even though the party’s official position, supported by almost all its MPs and its leader, if half-heartedly, was to “Remain.” In some areas, 70 per cent of Labour supporters voted against the party line. There was a parallel rebellion in the Tory Party, where a majority of activists and almost half the Cabinet defied their leader to support Brexit. People who have lost the habit of unthinking party allegiance will not regain it any time soon.
The old ideological divides of left and right have been exposed as anachronisms. The Brexit vote was far more a rejection of a perceived “establishment” rather than a choice between socialism and capitalism. Even the distinction, favoured by Tony Blair, between “open” and “closed” societies seems inadequate for a new age of identity politics. As social media turns political debate from something conducted, formally, across the House of Commons despatch box into a fractured and fractious cacophony, the old order is breaking down. The culture wars that have long dominated American politics have arrived in this country. Instead of rows over abortion or gun control we have Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” immigration poster and virtue-signalling on Twitter. As the artist Grayson Perry said after the referendum: “Well, that’s taught us peace-loving, country-running money-earning forward-looking liberals a lesson.”
For politicians from all parties it’s a confusing and worrying time. All the old assumptions have been turned on their head, with friendships severed and historic alliances abandoned. The “Leave” vote, which was as much a verdict on Westminster as it was on Brussels, has created an unprecedented crisis of confidence in the political class. Even the Brexiteers seem uncertain about what to do with their victory. For the losing Remainers, a sense of disorientation is mixed with anxiety and anger. Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who successfully campaigned against the British National Party in her constituency of Barking and Dagenham, sees the referendum as a wake-up call for the political class, especially in her own party. “We live in an establishment cocoon where we only connect with people we have dinner parties with or went to university with. Even though we are living cheek by jowl with people whose life experience is very different there are all these metaphorical gates that we don’t see. I’m not sure people get it even now.”
George Freeman, the life sciences minister and founder of the 2020 Group of Tory modernisers, agrees that the Brexiteers won because they tapped into the “insurgency against the unaccountable elites” that is spreading all over the world, from Donald Trump in the United States to the left-wing alliance Podemos in Spain. The normal rules of politics no longer seem to apply.
Neither of the two main parties is in a position to exploit these new circumstances. David Cameron, who once said the Tories must stop “banging on about Europe,” hoped that the referendum would finally put an end to this toxic party divide. But the animosity had not gone away. It had just morphed into a new version of the old spite. As the country burns, the narcissists at Westminster are fiddling with their own careers. The assassination of Boris Johnson by Michael Gove was as shocking as it was brutal—and now the obsessives are finding new battles to fight, spurred on by the rise to prominence of Theresa May, a Remainer. “We’ve got to have a Brexiteer as leader otherwise we will never be able to trust them to get a proper deal for Britain outside the EU,” said one influential MP. Andrea Leadsom, May’s rival in the race to succeed Cameron, drew on that sentiment. When the Brexit negotiations start, the Outers will be watching eagle-eyed for any hint of compromise—especially on the free movement of people. There are so many ways to leave the EU that a “soft” Brexit on lax terms could be seen as a betrayal by the ideologues.
Parliament will be a hotbed of discontent. It is unclear what legislation will be introduced to help Britain disentangle itself from the EU, but most experts think that the Prime Minister would hold a vote in the Commons before triggering Article 50 and starting the Brexit process. Although MPs would be reluctant to be seen as rejecting the will of the British people, they could challenge the timing and detail of any proposals, or try to set conditions on the renegotiation. Pro-European MPs from different parties, including Labour, the Liberal Democrats, SNP and the Tories, as well as Caroline Lucas, the Green MP—have discussed how to handle the legislative aspects of Brexit. For them, Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe is more important than any political party. Some Tories are already discussing the prospect of “doing a reverse Maastricht”—a reference to the rebellion by Eurosceptic backbenchers in the John Major years—to block proposed laws that they believe go against the national interest. In the House of Lords, unelected peers would probably reject Brexit by a margin of six to one if they were given a free vote.
“The vegan teetotal Islington North MP epitomises everything that alienates Labour’s core vote”
After the bitterness of the referendum campaign, and the back-stabbing of the leadership contest, the Conservative Party remains riven by disunity and dysfunction. Labour, however, is facing an existential crisis. The party has seen a catastrophic fragmentation of the coalition between the party’s middle-class voters and its traditional working-class base. In 1966, 69 per cent of manual workers voted Labour, but by 1987 it was only 45 per cent. Between 2005 and 2015 support for Labour among ABC1 voters (those in the upper socio-economic brackets) has barely changed, but among C2 voters (skilled manual labourers) it fell from 40 to 30 per cent and among DE voters (unskilled workers) from 48 to 37 per cent. Michael Dugher, the Labour MP for Barnsley East, said: “It’s about security and identity. People look at the political leadership and say ‘I thought you guys were supposed to look after us.’ Sensing our inability to change things they drift away from us. Many no longer feel that Labour is their party.”
The trend has accelerated under Jeremy Corbyn, who has piled up new members among some sectors of society while haemorrhaging the support of the white working class. The vegan teetotal Islington North MP who is hostile to the armed forces, despises the Queen, and has a metropolitan liberal attitude to crime, epitomises everything that alienates Labour’s core vote. One Northern MP, who lost 10,000 votes to Ukip at the last election, said: “We could easily see a Scotland-style wipeout in our northern heartlands.” The devastation of Labour in Scotland—where the party had taken its traditional supporters for granted for too long—was sudden and total. In Motherwell, North Lanarkshire, the SNP overturned a 25,000 Labour majority at the last election despite having no councillors. Many MPs now believe that Labour will not be in a position to form a government at Westminster unless it makes a pact with the SNP—a confidence and supply motion if not a coalition. Although the perception that Ed Miliband was in Nicola Sturgeon’s pocket damaged the party at the last election, one former minister said: “For Labour the only way we are now going to succeed in power is by doing a deal with the SNP. If Scotland becomes independent, we could have Conservative government in England for a generation.” The SNP’s determination to hold a second referendum on independence could further alter the balance of power in the country.
English nationalism is also on the rise, and this presents a threat to the party’s position south of the border. Tristram Hunt, the historian and Stoke-on-Trent MP, compares the St George cross to the Confederate flag used in the US south to signal defiance—“we are proud of our roots” it says. For Labour, he also detects an underlying threat—“and don’t you dare forget us.” Jamie Reed, the Labour MP for Copeland in Cumbria, takes the analogy further, suggesting that, just as in the US where there are “red states” and “blue states” that are loyal to either the Republicans or Democrats, there could be whole swathes of England where Labour is obliterated unless it can connect “culturally” with a socially conservative white working class.
In his book Listen, Liberal, the American journalist Thomas Frank argues that working-class voters’ growing sense of disillusionment with the Democrats in the US has been fuelled by the rise of a politics of professionalism that fetishises higher education over manual labour. In the new liberal meritocracy, it is perceived that people “are where they are because they are so smart, not because they’ve been born to an earldom.” But the flip side of this is that the disadvantaged must deserve to be poor. “For successful professionals, meritocracy is a beautifully self-serving doctrine, entitling them to all manner of rewards and status because they are smarter than other people,” Frank writes. “For people on the receiving end of inequality… this ideology says: you have no one to blame for your problems but yourself.” The Democrats, he argues, posture as the party of the people, but get bogged down in ever-more middle class concerns. There is a “liberal-class virtue-quest” that is more interested in showing off its own saintliness than in making a difference to working people’s lives. “This is not politics. It’s an imitation of politics… It’s highly moralistic, it sets up an easy melodrama of good versus bad, it allows you to make all kinds of judgments about people you disagree with, but ultimately it’s a diversion.” There is something similar going on in this country within the Labour Party, which has descended into rows about anti-Semitism, and posturing over the future of Trident.
This has allowed a new generation of Tories to begin wooing the voters who have been abandoned by the left. Robert Halfon, the Tory MP for Harlow, talks of “white van conservatism” and wants policies such as a Royal Society for Apprenticeship to give manual workers the prestige of doctors or lawyers. Having set up a forum for Conservative Trade Unionists, he even thinks the Tories should be renamed the “Workers’ Party.” His aim is explicitly to march onto Labour territory. “We should seize the language of the left, talking proudly about redistribution, and have an all-out assault on crony capitalism,” Halfon said. “We should be more NHS than BHS.” With the Tory Party backing Brexit, Ukip is now an almost entirely Labour problem. Conservative MPs are already reporting an influx of new members, who are leaving Ukip and returning to the Tory fold following the referendum. As the party tries to reinvent its image to lend it broader appeal, Farage’s successor will ruthlessly target the northern constituencies where traditional Labour voters supported leaving the EU. Ukip’s role has changed after the Brexit vote, but it has not been destroyed.
An astonishing political realignment is under way. If the hard left remains in control of Labour, a new party of the centre left becomes a possibility. Labour MPs are haunted by the failure of the breakaway Social Democratic Party in the 1980s and have always been reluctant to consider a splinter party. But now the idea is being actively discussed by MPs, peers and advisers who are increasingly convinced that it is the most likely—and even possibly the best—outcome. The failure of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the Brexit vote only precipitated a crisis that was already brewing. Peter Hennessy said: “People will cling to the old left-right divide because they grew up with it but it’s quite possible there will be a Labour split and if Scotland goes that becomes highly likely.”
If the mood in the party becomes even worse, Labour MPs could make a “Universal Declaration of Independence” setting themselves up as a separate grouping in the House of Commons. There could then be a fight for the Labour brand, infrastructure and constitution, with MPs in both the new and old Labour party insisting that they represent the party’s true identity. A growing number believe, though, that it may be better to set up an entirely new party, working with the Liberal Democrats and possibly some Conservatives who feel alienated by the increasingly Eurosceptic tone of their own party. It would, they argue, be “liberated” from the trade unions, and free from the old-fashioned Labour Party hierarchies, allowing it to develop a new policy platform. Matthew Taylor, the former head of Tony Blair’s policy unit who is now the head of the Royal Society for the Arts, argues that the Labour Party’s structures, governance and culture are “fundamentally unfit for purpose” in the 21st century. “It’s a paternalistic and hierarchical party whose offer to the people of Britain is ‘elect us and we will run your lives for you.’ A modern progressive party needs to be a social movement that works directly with people.” He points to the Five Star Movement in Italy, and Podemos in Spain as different models. “It looks increasingly as if a new party is the only way that those who want to remake the Labour Party as a 21st-century party can do it. There is a catch-22 because you need to be in control to change things and it seems unlikely that those with a different model of political action are going to be in control of the Labour Party in the the short to medium term.”
Although no name has been decided for a new party, financial backers are being discussed. “Money would not be a problem, you need £8m—and you could raise that in a week,” said one of those involved in the discussions. The search is on for a leader. “The fantasy is that David Miliband discovers his roots in Batley and Spen [the constituency left vacant by the murder of the MP Jo Cox] and stands in the by-election,” said one insider only half in jest. Another senior figure argued: “If the Tories tack to the right and Labour stay on the left, there is room for a pro-business, socially liberal party in favour of Europe.”
The interesting question is whether a new, or reclaimed, party should try to win back Labour’s industrial heartlands, by for example, talking tough on immigration, or stick to a purer liberal message that would have a more middle-class appeal. “What the referendum showed is that the core vote is not a core vote,” said one senior figure. “You have to reinvent the electoral coalition. That means being pro-European but you need to do more and recognise the problems of globalisation, more redistribution, public services.” All agree, though, that Europe is the glue that would bind the new grouping together. A former Cabinet minister described it as a “party of the 48 per cent” that would have a clear defining mission on Europe following the EU referendum.
Alliances formed during the “Remain” campaign have been sealed by the result of the referendum. Paddy Ashdown, who has been talking to politicians in other parties about a new alliance of the centre-left, said: “There has been a populist reverse takeover of political parties—Trump in America, Corbyn in this country, it’s just about to happen with the Tories. The people who are left homeless in that process are the centrists. It’s not just politicians and political activists but vast chunks of the electorate don’t know who to vote for.” Although Conservatives have less incentive to abandon their tribe, one Tory minister who voted for “Remain,” said a new party has to be “on the radar as a possibility” now. “Personally I could be in a party with Labour people. We have a task of holding the country together in a time of incredible uncertainty. Mainstream politics has got to come together. The coalition already broke the mould.”
As the drama unfolds at Westminster, the shapes are shifting. When the lights come up, fresh forms will emerge from the shadows. On stage, new stars are being born, old veterans taking a bow. There have been political assassinations and stirring soliloquies. It is an extraordinary spectacle, tragedy and comedy, history and mystery. But the political actors are turning inwards, thinking only of their own futures in an extraordinary example of displacement activity. Out there the audience is angry.