Filling the void: is there any room for hope?

Britain’s politics, and not just its political parties, is coming apart. Divides have opened, positions have polarised, gaps have opened up. The consensus underpinning our debate and our institutions is under immense strain. Antisemitism, and the elections to Labour’s ruling National Executive, have brought that into sharp relief.

Neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party have any unquestionable, absolute right to exist in their current form and as one half of the political duopoly. That the SDP and the Lib Dems failed to break the hold of these two parties over the last thirty years is no definitive guide to the next thirty years, or indeed the next thirty months.

In late 1981, at a time when party loyalty was far greater than it is now, the SDP commanded the support of between 40 and 50% in polls. The SDP/Liberal Alliance came within 1% of Michael Foot’s Labour at the 1983 General Election. The electoral system prevented an Alliance breakthrough in seats, but Labour itself demonstrated in the 1920s that the duopoly could be challenged, not by adding a third party but by replacing one already there. Ultimately the SDP failed because Labour under Kinnock and his successors moved Labour back to the territory they had ceded almost a decade earlier, and away from the Militant left wing groupings he famously and passionately denounced in Bornemouth.

With current polls showing the Tories on around 40%, Labour a few percent behind, and the Lib Dems in the low teens, a potential new party could in theory shave 10% from the Tories, 10 to 15% from Labour and the majority of Lib Dem support, to put it on around 30%, level pegging with the two established parties. That in itself would probably not be enough to win enough safe Tory or Labour seats to challenge for power at a General Election. It would certainly be enough to secure a parliamentary presence significant enough to be a likely coalition partner.

What may be harder to quantify or predict, but which may be crucial to the success of any potential new party, would be the degree of support from those currently choosing none of the options presently on offer. 36% currently give “don’t know” as their choice for preferred Prime Minister. How many voters are expressing a reluctant choice, hoping for something different? Of course they are unlikely to be a homogenous group looking for the same thing in a political party. We saw that with the appeal of UKIP.

Sceptics of a new party say it is doomed to fail without a distinct and positive offer; I would agree up to a point. However thirty years of knocking on doors has taught me that many voters make a “negative choice”, often placing their cross in the box not because they are devotees of that party’s ideology or platform, but to “keep the other lot out”. The 1987 General Election question posed by the SDP/Liberal Alliance on leaflets was “caught between the (red) devil and the deep blue C?”, and there is little doubt many voters feel the choice is at present one between the lesser of two evils.

Most voters are not political devotees, statistically few are party members. They may agree on priorities though not necessarily solutions. They are likely to shy away from ideology, and are unlikely to identify as “working class” in a way the Morning Star might like. They want their kids educated and given better opportunities than they were, they want their parents cared for and the health and social care system to deliver when needed. They want bins collected, streets kept clean and the transport systems to function at least adequately. They want to get on with their lives in the knowledge that somebody relatively trustworthy, reliable and competent is keeping things going and, where possible, to make things better. The utopian ideal is not in our national psyche.

With Labour now firmly in the grip of the Left and essentially now a narrow Socialist Party, and the Tories increasingly in thrall to the hard-Brexit right of Johnson, Rees-Mogg and the UKIP entryists, a significant gap in British politics is opening up. It is wrong to describe it in terms of left wing, right wing and centrist. This is a battle between populists and pragmatists, between closed and open politics, between ideological prescriptions and a belief in “what works”.

To illustrate the gap in terms of politicians you could say it is a space occupied elsewhere by Macron and Merkel, or in the past by Blair and Obama. Popular but not populist, principled but not dogmatic. A Trudeau not a Trump. You don’t have to support every policy of these leaders or their parties to see the political space they occupy, not in the left/right spectrum but the progressive/pragmatic/popular versus reactionary/ideological/populist one.

There is now a clear space in British politics for a party offering opportunity for all regardless of background, fairness in our society and our economy, with taxes funding the services and infrastructure that both individuals and businesses rely on to exist and prosper. One that can deliver practical solutions on challenges like social care and local government finance, and clear but fair rules on migration. It would be open to European and global relationships, not fearful of them.

It would support intervention and investment by the state in health, education, transport and more with a clear vision on why and how that investment benefits all. Markets would be supported and encouraged to allow maximum opportunity and fair competition, with a vibrant community, co-operative, mutual sector. It would be robustly anti-racist with a foundation in British values of respect and again a clearly communicated message on how different communities add value to the nation and are an essential part of it. It will need a clear position on Brexit, but not be defined by it.

Managerial? Perhaps, but don’t underestimate the appeal of “what works”. Ideologically rootless? Not necessarily, there are many traditions other than hard-boiled capitalism and doctrinaire socialism to draw from. It wouldn’t capture the UKIP vote, or inspire the devotion of Corbynism. Like En Marche it may succeed because it was neither the status quo nor the unplatable alternative on offer. Whether Macron’s movement survives is another matter.

There’s no doubt that the global crash ten years ago has given rise to populism. That said, the argument that Corbyn’s Socialist Labour is the only party of the left doing well in Europe, because it has taken a more radical shift, is not borne out by the evidence. Similar left wing parties in France under Melenchon and Germany’s Die Linke poll at around Lib Dem levels of support. More social democratic-style parties hold power in Spain and Portugal.

I joined the Labour Party and have devoted half my life to it because I was persuaded it offered these things, could deliver on fairness, equality of opportunity, and social justice. It occupied that progressive, not centrist space. It’s clear now it no longer does. Labour now defines itself as Corbynites or Tories, Socialists or “neoliberals”, anti-imperialists or “globalists”, pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel. Binary choices rather than a broad church. Faced with these absolutes, I can no longer actively support Labour in its current form.

I wish Labour were again able to offer broad appeal. The people who need a progressive, pragmatic, popular government can’t afford to wait ten or twenty years for Labour “sensibles” to regain control of the party, if they ever can. Challenges and crises, domestic and foreign, none more so than the impact of Brexit, are urgent and immediate.

If these things were once again on offer from Labour, a new party, or by some grouping from within the Labour Party (and possibly others) in Parliament, then it would have my support, for what its worth. I think the potential for much broader support is very real. People want answers relevant to the challenges of the modern world, not a return to old solutions, be it renationalisation or “taking back control”. Some hope for a forward-looking, progressive politics; is that too much to hope for?

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Author: Warren Morgan


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