Sunday, 28 February 2016
Are the big parties coming to pieces?
Tories at war. Labour at war. Whichever way you look, our traditional parties are in trouble. The Conservatives are caught up in their own internecine struggle over Europe, something they seem to have been firing at each other about for about the past thousand years. No doubt they'll be warring over subsidiarity and sovereignty as the sun boils and burns up the solar system. Labour? Well, the People's Party are caught up in what looks to be a long-running war between the party's left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the increasingly left-wing leadership, and party activists, staffers and MPs (most of whom frankly regard their titular leader as something between a bad joke and a terrible nightmare).
All of which means that people are asking whether our old parties are no longer fit for purpose. Whether they are going to break up, in the end, splintering into many, many pieces under the stress of social and ideological change. And you can see why. There's lots of evidence for it. Lots of Conservative MPs have been going around this weekend apparently threatening their leader, David Cameron (above), with a coup whatever the result of our forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. One of his best friends in politics, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, has apparently knifed him in the back - and by so doing, encouraged others to do so. The Prime Minister has responded in kind, lashing out with barbed words and scarcely-veiled taunts at London Mayor Boris Johnson in the Commons. Rather effectively, it has to be said, reducing that shadow of a fake of a fraud of a ghost of a politician to just folding his arms and looking crestfallen. But it's not a good look for any party, really, and it shows just how much binary constitutional issues - rather than social and economic questions that can be compromised on, elided and parsed all you want - really split parties.
Labour's ongoing crisis is probably more deep-seated. While we've been declining to chronicle the party's decline into irrelevance, it has been subject to a whole load of allegations about far left anti-seminitism in (for instance) the Oxford University Labour Club, had a Young Labour Conference descend into red-on-red bitterness and farce (followed by demands for a recount and yet another rash of bullying allegations), seen the Shadow Chancellor muse about abolishing the unit that weeds out entryism and extremism, and watched Mr Corbyn march against his own party's policy on nuclear weapons - on the same day that Labour was trying to mount a big campaigning push to argue that we should stay in the European Union. The party is entirely dysfunctional. It is more of a soap opera than a functioning political movement that seeks to govern. It is so far behind in the polls that it would need the Hubble Space Telescope to see any actual power.
Let's face it: neither party is in great shape. So you're inevitably seeing commentators muse about the deeper sociological roots of their travails. The gradual tides of social change are probably making the fixed markers of class ever less relevant in Britain today, undermining Labour's sense of identity where challenged for instance by the United Kingdom Independence Party, but also breaking up the broadly 'respectable' and bourgeois sense of togetherness that held the Conservatives together (within and around the Church of England, for instance) for so long. The progress of what social scientists term 'glocalization' is also helping to undermine state narratives at the level of the United Kingdom taken as a whole. Each nation and region that makes up the UK seems to be doing its own thing, disintegrating the idea of a 'national' debate and swingometer. The Scottish National Party, in particular, does seem to have dealt a death-blow to Labour's dominance of the Scottish political landscape (which, given how long they took that country for granted, may be no bad thing in and of itself), while Labour actually seems to be doing pretty well in London - and, to be honest, London alone. National newspapers' dominance of the intellectual scene seems to have been on the wane for a long, long time, breaking up every General Election into six hundred skirmishes on social media rather than a single daily press conference pitted one against the other.
But will the Conservatives and Labour really struggle, buckle and break up? It seems unlikely, for three or four reasons. But the biggest one is that we've been here before, in both cases. The Conservatives defenestrated a powerful sitting Prime Minister over Europe in 1990, pushing Mrs Thatcher out in a nasty and contested coup that has resonated down the political ages - and done them immense damage, all the while. Labour spent most of the early 1980s fighting itself in a battle that (so far) makes today's hand-to-hand combat look like a bit of an echo rather than a shout. Momentum and other Corbynite movements are many things, including nastily and messily divided among themselves, but they do not at the moment particularly resemble the 1980s Militant Tendency: a single, organised, hidden party of sworn adherents trying to blow up the Labour Party and replace it with a Trotskyite sect with more voters than the comrades would then have known what to do with. Some of the rhetoric is the same, sure, but most Labour members who voted for Mr Corbyn are not entryists or hard left activists: they just wanted a clearer and more consistent opposition to economic austerity. These are the soft left - the persuadables - and eventually they will coalesce around a more presentable standard-bearer: a Neil Kinnock for our times, you might say. Labour might in the end have to conduct a proper, in-your-face, let's-be-having-you civil war. But things are still relatively genteel. So far.
Most of this has all happened before. And, on both occasions when it did, the two dominant players picked themselves up and then just got on with existing, with being - the great standing facts on the political battlefield. Inertia is usually more powerful than change. That looks the most likely outcome this time, too.
Where would all the dissident Conservatives and Labour people have to go, in any case? UKIP would be the natural home for furious Conservative refuseniks if Mr Cameron does secure a 'Remain' vote in June, but the purple 'people's army' are giving off the unmistakable smell of crankdom and decline as their party, too, wars with itself at the top. And will Labour centrists really break off and try to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats? No, probably not. Our first past the post electoral system should stop anyone in their tracks before they thinking about setting up a new political party - a Social Democratic Party Mark II - and it seems increasingly clear that the Liberal Democrats' parliamentary representation may be cut to as low as just two or three MPs after 2020 (we should note in this respect that they are currently struggling to hold on to any representation at all in the Welsh Assembly). Boundary reforms, less publicity, a sheer paucity of representative critical mass and the eminently targetable nature of most of their parliamentary majorities says one thing: there's no point Labour's self-styled 'moderates' breaking off to join up with them.
We've been musing a lot really about the role of structure and agency in political history. Here, again, there's likely to be more agency - more deciding consciously to stick together and try to defy some of these so-called big battalions of social change - then there is going to be the structural transformation of our politics (and the inevitable decline of the 'big two') at the hands of economic post-modernism and the rise of nationalist, regionalist and localist politics. Those forces are definitely in play, but will they really blow up the Conservatives and Labour? Reader, we doubt it.
So the answer to the question in our header is probably this: no, the big parties are not about to come apart. They are under immense pressure, from inside as well as outside, but they are almost certainly going to hold together. That conclusion might not last forever, but it will probably last us for this Parliament. Accept no big old talk to the contrary.