I remain one of the few who predict that, following parliament’s spectacular rejection of the government’s deal to leave the EU, Britain will crash out on 29 March. Most MPs oppose such a no-deal, but until they can coalesce around an alternative, no-deal it is. And would the EU agree to an open-ended postponement of the Article 50 date? And as long as Theresa May leads the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn leads Labour, no such convergence will take place. Britain’s politics has become dysfunctional. How did we get into this mess?
This week’s Bagehot column in The Economist suggests that Britain might be about to undergo a great realignment, equivalent to that in the 1850s, following the Corn Laws, a free trade measure. Such great figures as William Gladstone changed sides, as believers in free trade were no longer welcome amongst the Tories. And yet people have been talking about realignment since 2015, when Mr Corbyn became Labour leader against the wishes of most Labour MPs. But since then not a single MP has changed allegiance. Instead MPs who can bear their party no longer quietly retire from politics. A new “centre” party has been plotted by MPs for a year at least. I was told by an insider that it would emerge last Autumn. But nothing. MPs feel strongly about Brexit but the chance of this leading to a serious realignment is negligible. At most a couple of dozen will resign from their parties and stand down at the next election.
The parallel with the 1850s is misleading. The Bagehot columnist suggests that before the realignment politics was split between the Conservatives and the Liberals. And yet neither party was established until after the realignment, partly to consolidate it and partly to bring in more of the public as the electoral franchise was being progressively widened. Instead there were two loose tribes: the Tories and the Whigs. That is a critical difference. In those days party organisations mattered little. Now they matter more than anything.
Parties bring many advantages. The first is organisation: the foot soldiers and donor networks that are the raw materials of political action. These days this includes data on voters gathered by canvassers and protected by ever stricter data protection laws. This is often critical. When Zac Goldsmith resigned temporarily from the Conservatives to fight a by-election (over Heathrow airport expansion), he was at a decisive disadvantage against the Liberal Democrats, even though he had the not so tacit support of the local Conservatives and was defending a huge majority. He was not allowed to have the Conservative data and he lost, only to regain his seat at the following general election when he had rejoined the party. A second advantage is a national brand, which reduces the need to explain to voters who you are and why they should vote for you. In modern politics this is even more important as the spending limits on national propaganda are much looser than those for individual candidates: even when this propaganda consists of individually addressed mailings just delivered to marginal seats. A further advantage is tribal loyalty. Political parties, especially those that are close to power, are fractious affairs, riven by bitter rivalries. And yet come an election, differences are sunk and all pull together. The far left Labour group Momentum sent its members to sympathetic and unsympathetic candidates alike in the 2017 election, judged solely by how close the contest was with the other parties.
All these things are very hard to build from scratch. In my part of London a new “centre” party was formed last year to capitalise on disillusionment with the established parties. Not only did it perform dismally in the local elections that year, but afterwards it collapsed into rival factions. The most successful new party has been Ukip, and yet the more successful it was, the more fractious it became; it has now collapsed into farce.
Add to this picture something else. Political parties are by nature voluntary organisations. For them to work you have to offer members and supporters something. Gone are the days when the simple honour and excitement of working alongside senior politicians was enough. So modern parties offer participation rights: a say in policy and, especially, the selection of candidates. Misleadingly the parties call this participation “democracy”; the form may be democratic but there is nothing democratic about decisions taken by a self-selected group of the more or less like-minded. Political parties were once controlled by their MPs and other senior elected representatives. That is no longer true, though the Conservatives have not gone as far down this route as far as the others – but then they have a membership crisis.
So realignments led by MPs are very hard to do. You either go through the long hard and uncertain process of setting up a new party, or you join another one. But those tribal loyalties make the latter difficult too.
And that is why it is very hard for MPs to take control of Brexit. Mrs May and Mr Corbyn are about as unstatesmanlike as you can get, but they both place a very high priority on keeping their respective parties together. That is why neither will make a decisive move towards either a referendum or a soft Brexit, the two most viable ways of avoiding a no-deal, though Mrs May got as close to the latter as she thought she could.
Mrs May feels she has to stick to a series of “red lines” that her party has unified around. These preclude any viable resolution to the crisis. Mr Corbyn fears (not without reason) that any decisive move in any direction would weaken his party, so he simply wants to get through the process and blame the mess on the Tories. To make matters worse, this focus on party rather than the interests of the country is not just a British thing. It affects how Irish leaders are dealing, or not, with the risk of a no-deal. Other European leaders are also showing inflexibility.
Party leaders take the view that what is good for their party is good for their country. For them a catastrophe is not the worst outcome – provided somebody else can be blamed, and that their own party isn’t split asunder. That is no basis for working though a crisis that splits the big parties so badly. Don’t expect our MPs to get us out of this mess.