These are exciting times in British politics. The two party system, dominated by the Conservative and Labour parties for s long, is under threat as never before. Other parties are increasing their share of the vote. But the electoral system will mostly shut them out of parliamentary representation. The real threat to the big parties is that they will fragment. This looks increasingly likely after the General Election in May.
Both main parties are in fact coalitions covering a wide spectrum of political values. This is forced by the electoral system, but a tribal, class-based loyalty provides stability. But class identities in British society are slowly ebbing. Increasingly people support political parties because of their political values, and not tribalism. The initial threat to the two parties came from the Liberal Democrats, whose appeal was largely in the middle ground. This direction of attack proved electorally successful, but the party was unable to build a solid bedrock of support. Entering coalition government in 2010 caused their support to evaporate. Conservative and Labour politicians gloated, hoping for a return to two-party normality. Alas for them, new insurgent parties are proving a much deeper threat.
First came the UK Independence Party, with its appeal to the populist right. This was a direct attack on the Tory bedrock. It has forced that party to tack hard to the right, especially putting Britain’s membership of the EU in play. The party’s more liberal and internationalist wing is under attack, as the party gradually ceases to look like a credible party of government. Ukip threatens Labour too, but the threat is less immediate. The Labour leadership seemed to be successful in holding a moderately liberal line.
The Greens are another source of threat. They are appealing to the hard left, with a tack away from their environmentalist core towards anti-capitalist ranting. But they are at once too anarchistic and too ideological to have a very broad appeal. They may be scooping up some of the disaffected Lib Dems that Labour was counting on. But they don’t look an immediate threat to Labour. It is highly unlikely that they will do much more electorally than hold onto their single parliamentary seat.
It is the Scottish National Party that is proving to be Labour’s existential threat. In Scotland they have used the independence referendum to launch an attack on the Westminster parliament. Labour had long since treated this as an unchallengeable fiefdom. They seem to have no idea how to fight a competitive election in Scotland. Polling consistently shows that they are facing meltdown there, with the SNP on course to win the bulk of Scottish seats.
Unlike Ukip and the Greens, the SNP are a cunning opponent. They have positioned themselves to the left of Labour, with firm opposition to austerity economics and nuclear weapons. They suggest that they could come into coalition with English and Welsh Labourites, and the result would be more left wing than Labour on its own. Labour’s counter argument that the SNP might let the Tories in is a clear nonsense. They only way that happens is if Labour themselves prop up a Tory government. If the SNP and Labour have a majority between them, they can keep the Tories out. Labour are struggling to come up with a stronger line of argument.
But the SNP threat is changing the balance south of the Scottish border. Many English leftists rather like the look of the SNP, and they are talking positively about the idea of a Labour/SNP coalition. Scottish Labour supporters must feel like the first wave of soldiers that have jumped out of the trenches and into enemy fire, who look behind them so see the second wave heading for the rear. English Labourites have written them off and are talking up their mortal enemies.
This poses a serious problem for the Labour leadership. Firstly the party line on austerity economics and nuclear weapons is critical to holding their internal coalition together, and to its wider electoral appeal. Rightly or wrongly they are seen as part of the essential core of a credible British government. If they cave in, then they expect to be condemned to life as a left wing fringe, and all the power and status which comes of being a major party starts to melt away. And yet their most vigorous activists, and their union donors, will be highly sympathetic the SNP demands.
And then there is an even bigger problem. What will all this do to the party’s appeal to English voters? The idea of a Labour prime minister being propped up by the SNP would surely be lethal, especially if Labour had fewer seats than the Tories. English nationalism would rise to the benefit of both the Conservatives and Ukip. The Tories have already brought the idea into their campaign literature. Labour could be right that support for the SNP will increase the chances of a Tory government – but because of how it will play in England, not Scotland.
The leftists who are cultivating the idea of a Labour-SNP partnership are astonishingly naive. The SNP’s goal is to fracture the union by driving a wedge between Scotland and England. Such a fracture will not suit the left’s interests – the left has long since lost its grip on the English middle ground, and is clueless about how to win it back (they demonise the last politician to achieve that for them: Tony Blair). The SNP may not be able to obtain a second referendum on independence this parliament, but that is hardly the point. They have a strategic plan and the left doesn’t. The left needs to create a strong unionist political platform that does well north of the border. If they give up on that, they are lost.
But the Labour leadership, not just the current one, but its predecessors, have done much to create the problem. They have viewed the UK constitution purely through the lens of short-term political advantage. They have suppressed serious discussion of the role of Scottish MPs on English politics. Now it is not just too late, but they have no vision with which to fight back against the looming disaster.
The Labour Party is a tribal affair, with a vicious, partisan face that seeks to crush any idea of political plurality outside their own movement. I will not be sorry to see it collapse. But progressive politicians need to start thinking about how to forge a new political movement.