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A dire warning for our old political system

Credit: Rob Stothard/Getty

September 12, 2019   5 mins

Far more political parties get their obituaries written prematurely than actually pop their clogs. That’s not to say that the worst never happens. We do have the odd example of a so-called extinction event. The paradigmatic case in point being the sudden and virtually simultaneous collapse of several of Italy’s biggest parties in the early 1990s, during the perfect storm created by the end of the cold war and a spate of corruption scandals.

But it’s worth reminding ourselves, especially when we’re talking about parties that have been around a while, that they do tend to limp and linger on. They fade slowly into obscurity and obsolescence, rather than dying a dramatic death.

That’s partly because the barriers to entry for anybody aspiring to replace them are pretty damned high, particularly in plurality systems such as the UK’s. Historically, anyway, it’s been somewhere between difficult and impossible for any party that can’t manage to score around 30% of the nationwide vote here to break through — unless, like the Scottish and Welsh nationalists or the Northern Ireland parties, they can claim to speak for a particular part of the country with a particularly strong identity. Nigel Farage, in offering the Tories some kind of electoral pact with the Brexit Party, isn’t so much doing them a favour as trying to prevent a re-run of 2015 when Ukip won nearly four million votes and only one solitary seat. 

Britain’s big two have been so dominant for so long that they are more or less dug in in a slew of safe seats. That means that, unlike their competitors, they can actually afford to slip some way below the magic 30% and still win a reasonably respectable (and often fairly proportional) haul of constituencies.

Infrastructure keeps them in place too. They hold significant capital, whether it be physical (such as constituency offices), financial (assets and the ability to raise loans and donations), or human (members, know-how, experience, and even cosy relationships with the print and broadcast media).

Clearly, none of that stuff lasts for ever. But only very rarely does it disappear overnight. And if you don’t already have it — and new entrants by definition often don’t — then it can take time to get it together. Nor, unless success comes reasonably rapidly, can you guarantee that it’ll last long enough to consolidate for the long term what you’ve managed to build up in the first flush.

Members, in particular, may be pretty easy-come, easy-go. And the technology that new parties nowadays use to help hook them in the first place can easily be turned against them. Social media will make it obvious that an increasing number of rats are leaving the sinking ship, perhaps precipitating even more of them to do so. Even direct debits, which used to be something of a godsend to parties by making membership renewal the default, have turned into a potential liability: most people can cancel them in seconds by swiping left or right.

Older parties, of course, can’t completely avoid some of the same problems. As we show in our new book, Footsoldiers, members’ loyalty can be tested beyond breaking point, especially by leaders who take the party in a direction they fundamentally disagree with. We’re seeing that more than ever during our Brexit cleavage.

But many of those members have been around an awfully long time, are socially as well as politically embedded in their local branches, may well represent them on town or county councils, and have stuck with it through thick and thin. As a result, they are significantly less likely to abandon or jump ship quite so rapidly.

What established parties do find difficult to escape, however, is being rendered increasingly irrelevant by social, economic and cultural change. Most of them will have come into being by mobilising identities that once upon a time were not only widespread, and made a lot of sense, but were also institutionally reinforced by relationships with big external players that both anchored them ideologically and supplied them with valuable resources.  

On the Left, for example, you had social democratic and labour parties which mobilised class consciousness and were supported by trade unions. They demanded the state do more to look after workers by regulating the economy and maintaining a welfare state. 

On the Right, in many west European countries, you had Christian democrats, mobilising religious adherence and supported (albeit at arm’s length) by the Catholic church. They put more of an emphasis on international integration and the market and were underwritten by a densely-woven, civil society-run safety net that promoted traditional, family values.

But class, even though it continues to play a huge role in deciding our life-chances, is no longer such a big part of people’s identities. Unions are pale shadows of what they once were as economies, at least in the liberal-capitalist West, have shifted irrevocably away from industry towards services. Conventional wisdom — partly thanks to the centre-left itself giving up the fight — has moved away from the idea that the state can and should do everything.

On the other side of the fence, church attendance and religious observance has also declined significantly in most European countries. The Catholic church has been badly undermined by scandal, and the consumerism and nationalism it has traditionally frowned upon abound. Meanwhile, the welfare state, even if it’s fraying badly at the margins, has become something of a given, meaning parties of the mainstream Right and Left have to some extent become victims of their own post-war success. 

It is no accident, then, that it is parties in those traditions which (with a few honourable exceptions) seem to be suffering a slow (and, who knows, possibly in the end terminal) decline: what’s happened to both the Labour Party and Christian democrats in the Netherlands provides possibly the direst warning. This decline has been exacerbated in recent years by a failure to come up with convincing answers to widely-felt cultural anxieties brought about by mass immigration and its exploitation by arguably less responsible, but supposedly more responsive (and often more entrepreneurial) politicians – in their case, Geert Wilders and now Thierry Baudet.  

Whether we will inevitably see the same happen to both the mainstream Left and Right in the UK, however, is at least debatable. This is not necessarily the chronicle of a death foretold – for the Tories, anyway.

The Conservative Party, with its own long-lasting nationalist, nativist and populist traditions, and its reliance not on God but on Mammon, has far less compunction — as it’s proving at this very moment — about running down the radical right route than its continental, Christian democratic, centre-right counterparts. As such, its chances of surviving the near-death experience represented by the European Parliament elections this summer are probably (famous last words!) reasonably good.

The Conservative party can adapt and cater to these new times – an era where belonging, as self-styled conservative communitarians like to put it, seems to be assuming more and more importance. Although doing so might (as Sajid Javid’s recent spending review seems to recognise) also involve spending more money than ‘the gods of the copybook headings’ would like on things which are seen as a vital part of that community: schools and hospitals and law and order. 

Labour, for all its own enthusiasm for such spending, might have more of a problem, however. Its romantic attachment to the working class (however outdated its conception of it) and its reliance on the trade unions make it tricky for it to transition seamlessly into the kind of internationalist, socially liberal party that would suit many of its (overwhelmingly middle-class and well-educated) members. Moreover, that space is also occupied by the Lib Dems, who also have the advantage of a clear rather than a muddied message on Brexit.

Indeed, Labour’s dilemma over the latter is in some ways its larger strategic and electoral dilemma writ large.  Does it try and hang on, perhaps nostalgically, to what some of its supporters still insist talking and (worse still) thinking of as ‘their’ people?  Or does it cut its losses, believing there’s more to be gained on what traditionalists like to stereotype and sneer at as the cosmopolitan side of town. 

Some will argue – with a fair bit of justification – that the divide between the two groups of potential voters isn’t quite as significant or, indeed, quite as zero sum as others insist. But few would deny that it exists at all. If so, can and should Labour continue to try straddle it? Or, is it about to fall — and fall fatally — between two stools?

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and Director of the Mile End Institute.


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