Brexit and the Two Party System
I can’t believe I’m about to say this but…. Peter Hitchens is right: we have a political establishment which suffers a serious disconnect with the UK population. To call ourselves a “representative democracy” is a joke at this point (although a rather unfunny one, I might add).
Whatever your normative position on whether Brexit was a huge cataclysmic mistake or a glorious reclaiming of independence, it’s clear that we have a real problem when the British public voted 52/48 to leave the EU whilst our “representative” chamber in Westminster is split 74/26 in favour of remaining within the EU.
It seems new political divisions are revealing the growing insignificance of both major political parties. And while the EU is the most salient division, it isn’t the only source of political disunity, and often serves to shed light on deeper political problems.
The debate in the lead up to the EU referendum demonstrated Labour’s blatant unwillingness to tackle the problem of immigration, and the fear by many in its working-class base of loss of national identity due to the growth of cultural pluralism. Jeremy Corbyn’s lacklustre support for Remain was emblematic of a party which didn’t know whether to pander to the middle-class champagne socialists who supported the EU or the poorer segment of the party who held legitimate fears about the economic impact of uncontrolled immigration and felt the EU wasn’t doing anything for them. Not to mention the barely suppressed animosity between the Blairite faction of the party and the hard-left Corbynites which has been brewing since Jeremy’s election last September.
On the Conservative side of things, it seems that Brexit has highlighted, in the same way as it did with Labour, serious internal divisions. It seems true, patriotic social conservatism no longer has a place in the party since Cameron began his project of modernisation to appeal to floating voters, whilst positions on Europe have torn the party asunder. The fact we now talk about “Pro-Brexit Tories” or “Pro-Remain Tories” suggests the emergence of two opposing factions who fundamentally disagree on issues such as de jure sovereignty, globalisation and Britain’s role within the European community.
Marx said in his Manifesto of the Communist Party that we are more united by class than by nationality, meaning the proletariat in Britain and France had more in the ways of a common political and social identity/purpose than a factory worker and a factory owner of the same country. I think something similar is happening in Britain. Political parties are failing to offer people a sense of cohesive identity; more and more they seem to be lose collection of people who disagree on a whole host of issues, kept together only due to abstract notions of party allegiance and/or tradition. A moderate social democrat who believes in a strong state and opposes the EU on democratic grounds could belong to either the Conservatives or Labour in this day and age. At least 20% of the members in the House of Commons could switch sides of the chamber and nobody would notice the difference.
Moreover, the growth of third parties in recent years is testimony to an unrepresentative and disconnected two-party political establishment.
The Lib Dems rose to accommodate social liberals who felt out of place under a Blairite Labour party, combined with soft Tories who disagreed with some of the party’s more authoritarian policies such as the Snooper’s Charter. In fact, as Europe has become a mainstream political issue, the Lib Dems have used it as a USP by branding themselves the party of Europe, in distinction to Labour or the Conservatives whose membership, and even leadership, have had historically a love/hate dynamic going on when it comes to our political relationship with the EU.
The Green Party is composed of eco-socialist Trotskyists; the older members probably subscribe to Old Labour values of nationalisation and common ownership which the party left behind when it departed from socialism after the 1970s, while the new social justice youth are attracted to the party’s stance on post-material issues such as race, environmentalism, war and Trident, none of which seem to be the concern of the modern Labour Party (until Corbyn of course).
Finally, the rise of UKIP and Farage represent the desperation of a working class which was trampled over by Thatcher’s attack on industry in the 1980s, fell into poverty and is currently suffering the brunt of the current Tory party’s austerity program. Many were lifelong Labour voters, but now feel ignored by the very party meant to stand up for the ordinary worker. Globalisation and immigration, two cornerstones of the EU, don’t seem to have benefitted these people, who have bought into Farage’s narrative of patriotic nationalism, anti-establishment rhetoric and xenophobic foreigner-blaming. The EU debate was the nail in the coffin in terms of any chance Labour had to win these voters over.
And so we come back to Peter Hitchens, who was completely correct when he said, in a Channel 4 interview with Jon Snow, that “the two main parties don’t reflect the main divisions in this country anymore. They reflect ancient, dead divisions.” The party system needs a complete overhaul. Both main parties need to seriously consider what their values are and what their vision for this country is. First and foremost, they should be united, because divided parties cannot effectively serve their representative function. Adversarial politics results in strong accountability (in the UK at least; the USA is another story for another time), something which is essential to a healthy, functioning, liberal democracy.
There are divisions in this country, as there always will be, and we must accept this as fact. But the job of politicians and parties is to articulate these divisions and beliefs to the best of their ability, and the current system fails in this fundamental political obligation. We need change fast or anti-establishment sentiment is going to rise, to the detriment of politics and, more immediately, to the detriment of this country.