One way to understand our current political moment
It has become conventional wisdom that we are in the middle of a political realignment in the UK, and the sight of the two major parties tearing themselves apart over Brexit does rather reinforce that impression. But incorrect application of this conventional wisdom can lead commentators to make a number of assertions that I think are incorrect -
That Leave/Remain is the new axis along which politics has realigned
Because of this, that the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party, both having unambiguous positions on opposite ends of the Leave/Remain axis, will be the beneficiaries of this new alignment
Labour and the Conservatives, both being split on Brexit and hence unable to stake out clear positions on the Leave/Remain axis (despite the best efforts of the leadership in the case of the Tories and the activist party membership in the case of Labour), are equally damaged by the realignment.
I’ll take each of these in turn and explain what I think is wrong with them.
Leave/Remain is the new axis along which politics has realigned
The result of the referendum in 2016 has had a profound impact on UK politics, both in Westminster and in the wider country. The country has become politically tribal in a way not seen the early 80s, and the tribes that we have split into are not Left and Right but Leave and Remain. With the issue of the UK’s relationship to the European Union set to remain an issue in our politics for years even if we leave the EU on the 31st October, and with the dial of political rhetoric set to 11, it is hard to imagine that this tribalism will dissipate any time soon.
But whilst it is undeniable that the Leave/Remain split has had and continues to have a profound impact on our politics, it is mistaken to think that it is the sole and fundamental organising principle of the current political scene.
This is because, firstly, Leave/Remain is only a parochial manifestation of a deeper political fault line, which is the Open/Closed spectrum. I don’t want to get too bogged down in detailed discussion of definitions in this post, so for now I will merely indicate the kinds of issues that place a party or viewpoint towards one end of the axis or the other. A favourable attitude towards immigration, towards the social change that immigration brings, towards social change in general, towards ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic variety, towards non-conventional expressions of sexuality - these are the kinds of issues that place one towards the Open end of the spectrum. Concern about immigration, about social change, about the erosion of hierarchy and authority, about diversity and deviation from the norm, these are all issues that place one towards the opposite Closed end of the spectrum. Consider what we may, sadly, have to call the Farage Railway Carriage test. Imagine yourself in a London railway carriage surrounded by people speaking a wide variety of languages. Do you find this situation one to celebrate or to regret? The answer will serve to situate you on the Open/Closed spectrum.
This relevance of this spectrum is not new, of course, but its prominence is. Previously, if you wished to understand politics according to this spectrum, it would have been, broadly, as a slow journey from Closed towards Open, largely shared by the majority of society. What has happened since the financial crisis of 2007/8 is an eruption of a deep and genuine division on the Open/Closed question into the political mainstream.
(It is tempting to transfer this claim to many countries around the world, but we should be wary of ignoring differences. Whilst divisions in the US have intensified in recent years, for example, it never achieved even a broad consensus for its transition from Closed to Open. India, for another example, hardly moved at all in the Open direction before the Closed backlash in the form of Modi’s BJP government set in.)
Austerity was the handmaiden of this prominence, and the Brexit vote its offspring. This is one reason why it is useful to see Leave/Remain as a reflection (albeit perhaps slightly distorted) of the deeper divide. But there is also a more future-orientated reason as well. Almost impossible as it is to imagine at the time of writing (23rd September 2019), with the Supreme Court just about to rule on the legality of the prorogation of Parliament, with what I view as Corbyn’s eminently reasonable attempt to retain a modicum of neutrality between the warring tribes being denounced in the press as nothing but hopeless muddle, and with the news throwing up new and unimaginable scenarios almost daily, the Brexit referendum will recede in the rear-view mirror over time. Whilst discussion and negotiation of our relationship with the EU will remain a fundamental question for many years to come, who voted Leave and who voted Remain will become less important, if only because the whole process will throw up many more decision points. As Leave/Remain fades, we will come to see more clearly the continuing significance of the Open/Closed axis.
So the first reason I don’t think Leave/Remain is the new axis along which politics has realigned is that I don’t think Leave/Remain is the correct way of characterising the axis which does have a newly acquired prominence. The second reason I don’t think Leave/Remain is the new axis along which politics has realigned is that I think the ‘old’ axis is just as important as it ever was.
Again trying not to get too bogged down in definitional details, we might think of this axis in terms of the degree of state involvement in the economy. And again we can indicate the kinds of issues that are diagnostic of one’s position on this axis. A favourable attitude towards nationalisation, towards redistributive taxation, and towards welfare all serve to place one towards one end of this axis, then end that we may call, for lack of a more elegant alternative, ‘statist’. Likewise, a favourable attitude towards free markets, towards deregulation, towards privatisation, will place one at the other end, which we can call, even less elegantly, ‘free market’. (We might have called it ‘liberal’, but we would have meant this in the purely economic sense, and since another sense of ‘liberal’ intersects with issues pertinent to the Open/Closed axis, the word is best avoided altogether in this discussion.)
It is indisputable that this Statist/Free Market axis has been the dominant driver of politics since the Second World War. A broad brush story would see UK politics since 1945 as divided into a Statist ‘before’ and a Free Market ‘after’, with Thatcher’s victory in 1979 the inflection point. But to think that Leave/Remain (or Open/Closed) is now the axis along which politics has realigned would seem to deny the relevance of the Statist/Free Market axis at the very moment that the Statist side has become a genuine political possibility once more. (Whether this ‘moment’ began in 2008 with the financial crisis, in 2010 with the election of the coalition government and the beginning of austerity, in 2015 with the election of Corbyn as Labour leader, or in 2017 with Labour’s strong showing in the general election I will not discuss here.) In many ways, today in 2019, far from fading into obscurity, the Statist/Free Market axis is more relevant than it has been for forty years.
I short, to think of Leave/Remain as the axis along which our politics has realigned is to misrepresent the current political climate, which is instead one where both Open/Closed and Statist/Free Market axes are newly contested and thus vital in understanding the situation we find ourselves in.
Because the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party have unambiguous positions on Brexit, they will be beneficiaries of the political realignment
If Leave/Remain is the one axis along which our politics are now aligned, we should expect to see a wholesale change in the party system from one orientated along the Statist/Free Market axis, as Labour and the Tories are, to one orientated along a Leave/Remain axis. It is not only conceivable that the Tories position themselves as an unambiguous Leave party, they are taking active steps to do so, happily shedding pro-Remain MPs to the Lib Dems whilst jealously guarding their right flank. It is also conceivable that Labour, as per the wishes of many activist members of the party, eventually position themselves as an unambiguous Remain party, although at the time of writing, conference has just voted down a motion to do so, at least in the campaign for a putative second referendum. But there are two parties who are already clearly positioned on this axis, and that is the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party.
Both the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party are indeed doing well at this point in time, and in part because of their respective positions on Brexit, which at least have the virtue of clarity in comparison to the more convoluted (Labour) or disputed (Tory) positions of the two major parties. But this clarity is the clarity of the fanatic, and to see why it is insufficient (in both its Leave and Remain versions) to capture the complexity of our political moment, we might note that electoral success for either party would automatically and unapologetically alienate more or less half the electorate (different halves of course for the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party). (I make a parenthetical prediction that, whatever the fate of Corbyn in the tumult still to come, in six months time his attempts at neutrality will seem prescient and courageous, and if they haven’t paid off electorally, which they may well not do, mainstream opinion will spend much of their time ruing the lost opportunity.)
Note too that, although both parties are perfectly aligned on their respective takes on the Brexit issue, they are both split on economic matters. Disagreement on economics amongst the Lib Dems is well known and long-standing, with a wing of the party firmly committed to liberalism in economic as well as social matters, and another wing of the party quaintly convinced that the party is fundamentally left-wing and so an appropriate home for their interventionist economic instincts. The Brexit Party is trying to finesse economic disagreements by refusing to stand on any platform beyond delivering a ‘proper’ Brexit, but should the electorate ever decide that they would like to know what a Brexit Party government (perish the thought) would actually do, such disagreements would come out into the open. In such an event, the party would no doubt end up adopting a Farage-inspired extreme free market platform, in which case a small number of Brexit Party members and a larger number of supporters and potential voters would jump ship.
In short, what the Lib Dems and Brexit Party do not offer is the replacement of two irredeemably split parties with two perfectly united parties. And so, even though both the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party do very well in polling, and do well precisely because of their clear positions on Brexit, it is not obvious how robust or long-lasting that support will prove to be.
(The Brexit Party also faces the problem of maintaining their purpose if and when Brexit actually happens. I suspect the temptations of influence weigh far too heavily on Farage for him to simply wander off the political stage once Brexit is done and dusted, but his party would have to develop some other identity, probably around maintaining the ‘purity’ of Brexit in ongoing interactions with the EU, which would also seem to inevitably lead the party in a firmly free market direction.)
Labour and the Conservatives are both equally damaged by the realignment
Mainstream analysis has it that we are headed for a four party system. If this is to count as a realignment rather than a temporary way station on the way to something else, then this fur party system would have to be reasonably stable. The fact that the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party are split along the economic axis whilst the Tories and Labour are split along the Brexit axis leaves room for doubt as to the stability of the particular four-party system that contains Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, and the Brexit Party.
We can analyse this situation in a little more detail, and begin to see why I think that the Conservatives are actually in a far more dangerous position than Labour, by recognising that the two axes that I have identified as governing our current political situation create four combinatorial possibilities, Open+Free Market, Open+Statist, Closed+Free Market, and Closed+Statist. Given the factors in play, a system which provided a party for each combination would be stable in the sense that, despite the relative popularity of each option, there would be a party for each possible combination of factors that the electorate cares about, and the programme of each of those parties would be relatively constrained by the grid.
The two party system was remarkably stable for a long period of time, from the electoral emergence of the Labour Party in the 1920s until yesterday more or less. This stability can be explained by the fact that the main parties have remained broadly united in their positions along the Statist/Free Market axis. Due to the fact that our first past the post electoral system makes it hard for other parties to emerge, both Labour and the Tories were thus free to contain substantial differences on the Open/Closed axis. (The actual position is more complicated, with Labour being more obviously split with regards to Open/Closed, and the Tories, at least until the Cameron years, united around a far more Closed position, all against the background of a slow but remorseless drift from Closed towards Open across time.) As the population became more polarised around Open/Closed, they sought a way of expressing their views at the ballot box. The referendum gave them their chance, whilst the subsequent political chaos has raised the profile of other parties and raised the genuine prospect of a change to our party system. (It may still be the case that the first past the post system prevents this tendency from achieving full electoral expression, although I think the pressures for electoral reform will not be able to be resisted very far beyond the next election.)
But if I am right, any four party system will not contain Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems, and the Brexit Party, at least as each party is currently constituted. Labour is currently a coalition between Open and Closed Statists, the Tories between Open and Closed Free Marketeers, the Lib Dems between Open Statists and Open Free Marketeers, and the Brexit Party is a policy vacuum, but its support appears to consist of a mixture of Closed Statists and Closed Free Marketeers.
The transition required for a stable four party system is then obvious. The current coalitions which constitute the four parties in the running to make up a four party system need to transmute into stable non-coalitions (at least as far as the four possible combinations outlined above are concerned - in reality, differences in emphasis and precise position on the two axes mean all actual parties will be coalitions of some kind).
In fact, these transmutations are also fairly obvious (this is not to say they will be easy). The Lib Dems would transmute into the Open Free Market Party it already largely is, with disaffected sandal-wearing woolly liberals defecting to the Open Statist Labour Party. The Brexit Party, as soon as it adopts an actual policy platform, would no doubt become the Closed Free Market Party.
There are two things to notice about this. Firstly, there is no existing party that fills the Closed Statist Party slot. It is interesting in this regard to hear Labour MPs like Stephen Kinnock saying that he has no issue with Corbyn’s economic agenda, but thinks what is lacking in the current Labour leadership is a sense of patriotism, a classic Closed trope. Put this together with mutterings about the fundamental difference between ‘metropolitan Labour remainers’ in cities such as London, Bristol, and Oxford, and ‘working class voters in the Labour heartlands’ (typically construed as less ‘metropolitan’, ie Closed) and I would not be surprised to see Labour split between Open and Closed Statism, and if it did not happen as a split, in any case I expect to see the emergence of a Closed Statist party that would, on the evidence of Kinnock and his ilk, attract some number of current Labour MPs, and perhaps indeed a fair amount of support in the heartlands. (And in London and Bristol too of course - not everyone who lives in a city is ‘metropolitan’.) Put that together with the fact that there has already been a number of defections from Labour to the Lib Dems, with the expectation of more to come, and Labour would appear to be in serious trouble.
I certainly do not expect the coalition of interests that is the current Labour Party to survive the political transformation that we are going through, and whilst this is, no doubt, trouble of a serious kind, it is not trouble of an existential kind. I don’t propose to argue about whether the ‘real’ Labour party is Open Statist or Closed Statist; either way, there is a clear place for a party which is recognisably Labour (since the Labour Party, despite Tony Blair, is defined by its statism).
But the situation is entirely different for the Tories. As things currently stand, with the Lib Dems occupying the Open Free market slot and the Brexit Party the Closed Free Market slot, there is nowhere distinctive for a rump Tory party to sit. This is why the crisis facing the Conservatives is existential. It would appear their best hope for survival is in the implosion of the Brexit Party, which at least provides some kind of rationale for Johnson’s concentration on his right flank.