The Conservative and Labour parties are in trouble

After the general election of 2010, and the Liberal Democrats entering a coalition with the Conservatives, I remember the cognitive dissonance that overwhelmed the party. It was the centre of sustained media attention, for the first time in its history, and with all the trappings of being a significant political force, with MPs and cabinet ministers. But its support amongst the public had died. Many insiders talked themselves into thinking that voters would return in time for the next election, using swathes of statistical evidence from past elections. But the party was as good as finished and was nearly wiped out in the 2015 election. Something of the same dissonance is now being experienced by the Conservative and Labour parties. Opinion polls put each of them at only about 20% of the vote, alongside the new Brexit Party (TBP) and the Liberal Democrats returning from the dead. The duopoly which is so much party of both parties’ raison d’être is facing its most serious challenge ever.

This collapse in support of the two parties that have anchored Britain’s political system for getting on for 100 years follows a global trend, especially here in Europe. It has happened in France and Italy, and is in the process of happening in Germany and Spain, not to mention several other countries. But it is a shock to the British political establishment. The duopoly had its best election in 40 years in 2017, when they Ukip followed the Lib Dems into collapse and they collectively took more than 80% of the vote. They even managed a significant recovery in Scotland, where both had been crushed by the SNP. You could almost hear the sigh of relief, not just from those parties’ luminaries, but amongst the tribe of civil servants, think tankers and journalists who yearned for the old familiar ways of the two-party system. Britain seemed more like the United States or Australia than its “Continental” neighbours.

But in America the political parties are democratic, with processes of open primaries to select candidates, allowing new ideas and people to take hold in alignment with wider popular attitudes. Instead of being replaced, the Republicans and Democrats are being transformed away from the traditional conservative and labour based models to being modern reactionary-nationalist and liberal-green parties – like the parties that are doing well in Europe. The Labour Party flirted with a more democratic and open party structure in 2015, which resulted in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. But it has quickly reverted to the closed, cadre-based organisation as the hard left sought to consolidate its hold on the party machinery. The Tories abandoned their brief flirtation with open primaries long before. Party activists, and to a lesser extent paid-up memberships guard their privileges assiduously. That is the European way. The Lib Dems similarly rejected the injection of democracy earlier this year, amid much scoffing by activists.

The immediate problem for both parties is easy enough to see: Brexit. This issue divides parties formed on traditional lines, but unites nationalist and liberal forces on opposite sides, with greens joining the latter. Whether the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU really should divide liberals, greens and nationalists like this is an interesting question. There are some good liberal and green arguments for being outside the EU. But both loathe the reactionary nationalists with their illiberal and anti-environmentalist beliefs, and this doubtless suppresses any reservations; the conversion of the Greens to EU membership is much more recent than many realise.

For the Tories the problem has been that they have quite reasonably sought a version of Brexit that achieves its main objectives with the minimum of disruption. But this has ignited the anger of the rising tide of nationalists in their ranks, who see this as a sell-out, and have thwarted its attempts to get legislation through. TBP then arose from the ashes of Ukip as a much more disciplined and coherent organisation, having learnt much from Donald Trump’s techniques, and a major threat from the nationalist right. This has tapped the zeitgeist of the party’s bedrock support better than its own party leaders. The European elections showed that TBP posed an existential threat to the Tories, and so both candidates for the party’s leadership are trying to take their party into TBP’s ground, especially with support for a no-deal Brexit. That angers their liberal supporters who are deserting the party for the Lib Dems. By dealing with one threat they are opening up another. This is likely to get worse if the party either delivers a no-deal Brexit, or, indeed, if it fails to deliver Brexit at all.

Conservatives clearly hope to win their liberal supporters back by frightening them with the prospect of Labour coming to power. The problem with that is that Labour support also is in free fall and the party no long poses such a credible threat. A key ingredient of the success of the duopoly is stoking up fear of the other party. But as Times columnist David Aaronovich recently wrote of prospective Tory leader Boris Johnson:

If anything “vote Boris to stop Corbyn” has less resonance than, say, “vote Lib Dem to stop both of them”.

David Aaronovich, The Times 3 July 2019

Labour have reached their sorry state because the leadership is understandably worried by the popularity of Brexit amongst their traditional white working class supporters, especially in many northern towns. They do not see Brexit as the defining issue of the times, but rather they say it is “austerity”, or the struggle of the less well-off against a system rigged against them. They hope to paint a messy Brexit as Tory incompetence and rally a backlash drawing in both supporters and opponents of Brexit. For a long time this looked like a clever strategy, but now it looks like a fatal weakness. As Britain approaches an autumn of political crisis, the party is without a coherent political message on the most important issue of the day. If the party had followed through on its democratic revolution of 2015, it would be leading the struggle to fight Brexit, and suffocating the Lib Dems and Greens in a journey towards being a modern liberal-green movement. To follow through on their strategy they needed the government to get its Brexit deal through parliament so that they could try to change the subject – but when it came to it they were too scared of a backlash from their anti-Brexit supporters.

Doubtless activists in both parties, like Lib Dems during the coalition, think that the ship will right itself by the time the next election comes. Labour supporters remember the surge in their party’s support in 2017. Tories think that Boris Johnson will puncture Nigel Farage’s TBP and generate a surge of support with his charismatic personality. A poll back in June suggested that just this might happen, albeit with a low poll share for the party.

But it is hard to see how events can unfold that will make these wishes come true. If the next election happens before this Autumn’s scheduled Brexit date, the Tories will be undermined by their support for a no-deal Brexit, and Labour will be undermined by their ambiguity on reversing Brexit. If the election happens afterwards, either after a no-deal or a failed Brexit, both parties risk being swept aside in the public backlash. And if a Brexit deal of some sort manages to be concluded, the process is likely to fatally fracture both parties – as a large number of Labour MPs will be required to get it over the line. The situation is becoming so unstable, however, that it is not impossible for one of the parties to still triumph – but this would require a quality of leadership that neither Boris Johnson (certain to be the Tory leader) nor Jeremy Corbyn possess. Strange times indeed.

Ed or Jo? The Lib Dem leadership race

While the race to become leader of the Conservative Party dominates the news, another leadership contest is running in parallel: that of the Liberal Democrats. Both parties are polling about 20% currently, but there are good reasons why the Lib Dem contest is not receiving anything like the same level of coverage. The new Tory leader is guaranteed to become Prime Minister, even if only for a few days; for the new Lib Dem leader to be Prime Minister it will take an unprecedented political upset at a general election that may not take place until 2022. But it isn’t just that: the Lib Dem contest is as dull as ditchwater. But it is important.

That is for two reasons. Firstly the government does not have a majority, and a number Conservative MPs are being driven to rebellion. A chaotic phase of parliamentary proceedings is about to start, and the Lib Dems 12 MPs could be decisive. And secondly the Lib Dems are on the up, and could do well in the next general election, which may well produce a hung parliament in which the party plays a decisive role.

The contenders are Jo Swinson and Ed Davey. There is little to choose between them on what they are saying to party members. Both want to make the party the natural home for liberal-minded voters; both want to raise the profile of environmental policy; and both want to rebalance the economy in favour of the left-behind. Jo is supposed to be more sympathetic to working with other parties to achieve liberal aims, but what difference this actually makes in the real hard world of politics is very hard to tell from what they have said. That leaves us with judgements on personal qualities.

Unlike previous Lib Dem leadership contests I have worked directly with both candidates. I know Ed the better. I first saw him in action in the mid-1980s when, alongside Chris Huhne, he led a seminar for the SDP on economic policy. He stood out as one of a small number of people in the party that were economically literate, amid the lawyers, teachers and social workers. He then moved into my constituency, Putney, when I was a party officer (alternating Chair and Treasurer). I remember arranging to meet him for a drink at the party’s Harrogate conference in 1992, but having to cancel because it was Black Wednesday, and he was advising the then leader Paddy Ashdown on economic matters. We both stood as paper candidates in Southfields ward in 1994 (when I was agent); I actually outpolled him in spite of the slight alphabetic disadvantage, as the surname “Green” seemed to confer a slight advantage, perhaps from people supporting the Green party. Not long afterwards I was called on the give a Chair’s reference as part of his approval process for becoming a parliamentary candidate. He was shortly adopted by Kingston and Surbiton, which he won by 56 votes in 1997, in spite of it not being one of the party’s primary targets (though I did deliver a few leaflets for him). Much later, after he lost his seat in 2015 I worked with him on the London Assembly campaign for 2016, where he was lead fundraiser (his wife Emily was second on the party list for assembly seats) and I was London Treasurer.

What stands out from all this is that I have found that his views very closely matched mine. He joined the SDP, but with the merger embraced the new party’s Liberal traditions. Nowadays I consider myself more Liberal than Social Democrat. He is interested in economics, and is a passionate pro-European. He loves politics and politicking, embracing doorstep politics as well as international deal-making. But he is also open and transparent: what you see is what you get. His biggest political achievement was a Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the Coalition, when he successfully pushed forward the country’s drive into renewable energy. There is plenty of controversy about his record here, and some hard Greens regard him as a disastrous sell-out. In particular he was prepared to embrace nuclear energy at a high cost. This hasn’t attracted any comment that I have seen in the leadership contest, though. To me it shows his pragmatic side, and how he prioritised getting results over taking the moral high ground.

I know Jo much less well. Though we have met a number of times, I don’t get any more than a “I know that face from somewhere” look from her. I first met her shortly after she was first elected in 2005 as Britain’s youngest MP, and she (along with another newly-elected Scottish MP Danny Alexander) was a guest speaker at a Burns Night dinner, and I sat opposite her. She was part of the policy working group in 2011-2012 on wellbeing, on which I served. I also applied for a job as her parliamentary researcher not long afterwards, and was interviewed by her. I didn’t get the job, but I don’t hold that against her: my memory is that I did a lacklustre job of selling myself. I find her more reserved than Ed, and more likely to lapse into formulaic answers to questions (something which shows in some of her interviews). But she has a strong record in grassroots campaigning (like Ed, but unlike too many Lib Dem leaders), and is a believer in wellbeing economics, as I am (Ed is less clear on this). She was a junior minister in the Coalition, when her main achievement was in developing parental leave. While she is unsurprisingly keen on developing women’s rights, she has the imagination to see this from the male perspective, and has been careful to promote male rights too (in parental leave, in particular). Ed, incidentally, was an early “New Man” and has been a model in promoting and encouraging diversity in his local party.

Jo has three things going for her. First she is female. For all the party’s embrace of feminism, its record in taking women through to senior positions is weak. It would also be good to leave Labour as the only major political party (or even minor one, come to that) not to have had a female leader, not counting the brand-new The Brexit Party. Second is her relative youth: she is 39 to Ed’s 53. She symbolises a fresh start for the party, and its embrace of younger voters. Thirdly she is Scottish, representing a Scottish seat. English politicians are in perpetual danger of underestimating the Scottish dimension to British politics, and its importance is growing. Also in the last two elections Labour and Conservatives have targeted the Lib Dem leader’s seat, causing resources to be diverted and other seats to be lost. This tactic will be much harder if the party leader has a Scottish seat.

For all that I will be voting for Ed. I feel he is kindred spirit somehow, and I like his grasp of detail, where Jo tends to drop into generalities. But there really isn’t much in it.