Why there should be a political party realignment after Brexit – an argument

25th June 2018

Until fairly recently there was a natural political home for those in the UK who sincerely believed in certain things.

If you believed in the supremacy of parliament, and traditional constitutional thinking generally, there was a political home.

If you believed in the union with Northern Ireland and with Scotland, there was a political home.

And if you believed in UK membership of the European Union, or even just of the Single Market, there was a political home.

That home was the political party which had its origins in the opposition to constitutional changes of 1828 to 1832, and had since then had promoted the importance of Parliament and a balanced constitution; the political party which had united with the Northern Irish unionists and defended the union with Scotland in the twentieth century; and the political party which had taken the UK into the (old) EEC in 1973 and had shaped the Single Market in the 1980s.

That party was, of course, the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Then Brexit happened.

And now there are those, who call themselves Conservatives, who want to believe parliament less important than prime ministerial discretion and the “will of the people”; who would rather have Brexit than the union with Northern Ireland and Scotland; and who want to reverse the European policy of both Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher.

There is nothing wrong in any of this – parties and polices change over time, and that is a healthy quality in a democracy.

But one would be hard-pressed to find many lines of continuity, at least in terms of high principle – between the pre-Brexit Conservatives and the current government.

If it were not for the entrenched party formation caused by the UK electoral and party system, there would now perhaps be a realignment of British parties such as what happened after the Corn law Repeal of 1846, the Irish Home Rule crisis of 1885-86, and the electoral rise of the Labour Party after 1906.

If we were starting a party system from scratch, few would propose the current party divides.

More sensible would be a “Hard Leave” (or Leave) party and a “Soft Leave” (or Remain) party, just as the “Tories” and “Whigs” emerged as political groupings in the 1680s.

And then party politics would perhaps be become meaningful again.

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38 thoughts on “Why there should be a political party realignment after Brexit – an argument”

  1. We know exactly what sort of leave we’ll have. It will be the one the EU decide to let us have.

    You know this, I suspect the government (despite their bluster) know this. Even the most committed remainers have resorted to wishful thinking and marches now.

    If we have a political realignment, it will be a deeply unpleasant one. Be careful what you wish for.

  2. I can imagine at least two other realignments:
    1. A party proposing evidence-based policies (AKA liberals) vs a party proposing emotion-based policies (AKA populists)
    2. A party proposing equality of opportunity (liberals again) vs a party proposing equality of outcome (for the left-behind)

  3. Until the referendum I had always believed in FPTP. The outcome caused me to think about whether had we had some form of PR, we might never have had a referendum in the first place? Under such a scenario UKIP and its fellow travellers would have been accorded the political legitimacy they were due and possibly saved the Conservative party I used to know (and vote for) from the folly of embarking on a referendum in the mistaken belief it might result in its self-preservation. As it is, the only positive outcome I can see arising from the referendum is the possibility, however remote currently, of a reordering of the political stage in the UK as the Conservatives and Labour respectively crumble under the weight of their internal contradictions, hopefully followed by a move to PR to secure the new political edifice which might emerge. For the first time in my life as a 63 year old I am politically disenfranchised with nothing other than the, possibly deluded, hope, so dire have things become in the UK, that the pressure for radical change will at some point become impossible to stifle any longer.

        1. “Arrow’s theorem.the validity of which is disputed by many mathematicians”
          Speaking as a mathematician, I can tell you that its “validity” really isn’t disputed at all: that’s the thing about Mathematics — it has agreed standards for establishing the value, or otherwise, of a line of argument.

          The “dictator” of the theorem indeed is not the figure which the general usage of such terminology might suggest, but the theorem is certainly not irrelevant to real-world voting: it tells us, for example, that achieving satisfactory political compromise can be rendered difficult to impossible by the presence of strong political parties; it warns that ballots can result in an alternatives nobody really wanted in the first place, and (if sufficient intelligent politicians were only available) could help to design voting systems to reduce this danger.

          Indeed, Arrow’s Theorem has informed the excellent work of Amartya Sen on social choice theory — Sen writes:
          “it should be clear that a full axiomatic description of a particular method of making social choice must inescapably lie next door to an impossibility — indeed just short of it. If it lies far from an impossibility, then it cannot give us an axiomatic derivation of any specific method of social choice. It is, therefore, to be expected that constructive paths in social choice theory […] would tend to be paved on one side by impossibility results.”

          Further investigation along these lines could well reveal that the end result of hankering after a system which produces strong and definitive decision-making with little opportunity for ongoing opposition, negotiation, compromise (e.g. the UK’s “elective dictatorship”) will ultimately be to produce outcomes which are inimical to the interests of the majority of the population.

      1. We don’t need an elected Lords. The Americans have an elected Second Chamber, and look at where it gets them. What we need is a Lords that isn’t crammed full of party stooges and political donors.

        Here’s a selection alternative reforms we could consider; Pick one, some, or all

        * End all Hereditary Peerages
        * Cap the number of Lords, instititute a one-out-one-in policy
        * No automatic peerages for Bishops
        * All future appointments to be on merit, at the discretion of the Monarch upon being advised by a crossparty selection committee. ‘Being a party-line MP’ is not enough to qualify.
        * Anybody who donates more than a token amount to any political party is barred from ennoblement for a period of X years (use of underhanded techniques, such as cut-outs or shell companies, to circumvent this restriction would be grounds for removal and permanent disqualification)

      2. Sorry, I’m not familiar with some English abbreviations. Would anyone be so kind to explain what PR stands for? Thank you.

    1. With respect, when you were enfranchised (as you thought), why did you not consider the plight of those who were the opposite?

      1. Fair comment. I always thought that the inexorable rise of the SNP and their extraordinary electoral success, FPTP notwithstanding, made a fairly robust case for the system. However the fact that UKIP collected 4 million votes in 2015 and only gained 1 seat, and that only as a result of a Conservative MP defecting, gave me pause for thought. Prior to that I cannot in my lifetime really remember a movement coming to such striking such prominence and yet being denied representation.

        1. In the 1989 European Parliament election the Green Party received 2.3 million votes, constituting a 15% vote share, but *no seats at all*. Since 1999 the previous FPTP system has been replaced by a closed list proportional system.

    2. As a socialist, I was disenfranchised for the last 30 years :) Which centre right party should I have supported? Or should I have wasted my support my vote/time/energy on some marginal red or green grouping?

      Now, with the rise of the Left pushing Labour somewhat towards their old political stomping grounds, I find myself ambivalent.

      I’m not sure that either Karl Marx or Adam Smith had any inkling of, or way of addressing the remorseless rise in either human population, or the exponential growth of energy and resource use that population has generated.

      Yet as we push against the limits to what our planet can sustain, we hit an unprecedented discontinuity. To me, Brexit, Trump, Corbyn, are all symptoms of a bigger issue. When conventional politics (who would dare suggest we need less growth?) hits those hard limits, people are indeed going to start looking for both radical solutions, and scapegoats.

  4. I have been a life long conservative but it is not the party it once was. Or perhaps it is and I have become..more human?
    I look at those who support Brexit and many of them also think Trump is a good guy. They appease the bankers whilst choking minorities and those who are not managing. I am disgusted by the gains made by those who were able to play the Brexit markets and I despair that my kids will have less opportunities than my generation. Perhaps I am no longer a Tory. I certainly want to stop Brexit and gained enormous support from those who walked with me on Saturday. Dismiss us as losers but I sense that we have more heart for this battle than those who are in it for financial gains. Time will tell.

    1. I found as I got older that I seemed to be getting more and more left wing, without really having considered myself to be more than just a bit leftish. I’d always thought that people got more right wing, as a generalisation, as they aged so I couldn’t understand what was going on, what was wrong with me. I live in N Ireland, so we don’t have the usual Tory/Labour split, with the LibDems as add-ons; we have our own, very unique, varieties of politicians, where the more usual left/right ideas are irrelevant.

      I questioned this elsewhere; the response was illuminating. I wasn’t getting more leftish. Rather, (all) political parties were getting more right-wing. I was more or less in the same position as I’d always been. What was once a bit off centre was now quite far to the left. Think of Supermac and his one nation Tory ideas; today, they might be Labour-lite.

      I’d guess that you, Shaun, haven’t changed that much; the surroundings have. I find this rightward, populist change very disconcerting, and well, not very human at times. And I’m pretty sure that this has been driven by neo-liberal political and economic ideas.

  5. The point about “the will of the people” is that parliament voted 6:1 to have a referendum and said they would implement whatever it decided. For parliament to now overturn that would fatally undermine parliament as an institution that deserved the respect of the population.

    Of all the worrying developments since the referendum, the emergence of hard-core EU fanatics refusing to consider anything wrong with their beloved institution and desperate to do whatever it tells us to do to show to their foreign masters what loyal EU citizens they are is the most disturbing. Whoever it was who said the first time fascists came they called themselves fascists, but the next time they come they will call themselves social democrats clearly had this lot in mind.

    One party in this re-emergence will be the “people don’t vote to become poorer party”. This party will believe that the only consideration in domestic politics is maximising the short-term forecast of GDP given by a consensus of economists even when said economists have just demonstrated a complete inability to even get the sign right on their predictions. No other considerations such as distribution, representation of parts of society losing out in the hunt for GDP to be considered.

    The conservative Party isn’t really about policy, it is about a way, a process, that society can usefully adopt to evolve as society evolves; hence it is now the party of gay marriage and promoting immigrants. They will continue to be a, possibly the, major force in politics precisely because of the lack of hard-line ideology.

    1. Perhaps abdicating its responsibilities in favour of a populist referendum on a yet-to-be-formed policy is what really undermines Parliament as an institution? There’s a serious conversation to be had about the role, place and function of referendums in the British constitution, and I suspect that in years to come the Brexit referendum will be held up as an Awful Example of How Not To Do It.

    2. See my comments about the Conservative party elsewhere in this thread.
      This is simply my feeling, no more than that, but I think we may already be in the first stage of a significant political realignment.
      I went on the march on Saturday. It was a cheerful affair. There was anger about Brexit, but a lot of good humour. The small counter-demonstration was by contrast angry and aggressive (I’m not for a moment suggesting it was in any way representative of all Leave supporters).
      The marchers included Lib Dems, Greens, Labour supporters and some Conservatives. I was struck by the similarities in the language used by the speakers in Parliament Square, who came from all the main parties. I am perfectly well aware that, for example, Anna Soubry and Caroline Lucas don’t share a common policy agenda (although are the differences within Labour and the Conservatives any narrower?), but they and others had the same appeal to the audience which went beyond the issue of the EU. There was certainly a “hopey-changey” feel to the occasion. In America most of the marchers would have been Democrats. In France most would have supported Macron. Are the cultural tectonic plates shifting to produce fundamental change in our political system?

    3. “hence it is now the party of gay marriage”

      That isn’t true. If only Conservative votes counted, the bill wouldn’t have passed: a majority of Tory votes opposed it. It only passed because the consensus of other parties outweighed them and the DUP.

      You can give credit to a Conservative PM for bringing it forward, but not the Conservative party since they tried to stop it.

  6. Why, if Parliament said that they would implement the decision was the referendum not binding? The problem seems to me that people project their own beliefs and needs onto the referendum and its mechanisms and outcomes.
    In law it was advisory, and therefore not implementing the decision is not a betrayal of democracy, no matter what people might want to believe.

  7. One thing that stands out about the referendum is the failure of the Remain groups to put forward a positive view of the EU. Faint praise is all that could be said. However, with the loss of the EU that has changed. You don’t know what you have lost until you have lost it.

    The Remain campaign is now looking far more of a positive force than it ever did before. One plus is that it has pulled free of the Conservative party and largely of the Labour party. It therefore has the capability of becoming itself a new major party.

    The task before it is to formulate proper political aims. The construction of a European federal state with a constitution should be the first.

    It would not be the first time that a political change that appears to be going one way has produced its opposite.

  8. It is a crying shame that the EU did not remain as the EEC and that we were never given a meaningful vote on the way it evolved (as promised several times under ‘New’ Labour and Major?).

    We would never have got to this point, unfortunately the EU has succeeded in disenfranchising voters from democracy and has never shown a willingness to reform. Likewise with our very own House of Lords.

    My crystal ball tells me that we will ride to the rescue of our European friends one day in the future, the rise of the left and right and lack of any credible alternative is disconcerting to say the least.

  9. The Conservatives are not the party for the young, as numerous opinion polls and their elderly membership attest. They are not the party for the growing ethnic minority communities, as voting figures show. After last week it seems they are not the party for business either. Since John Major’s day they have ceased to be a party for winning overall majorities in elections. They are no longer a mass membership party – they have fewer members than the number of people who went on the People’s Vote march through London on Saturday. Their approach to Brexit suggests they are no longer the party for pragmatism or maintaining the UK’s strategic alliances. There are disturbing signs that they may not even be the party for the Irish peace process. They are trying to be the party for the NHS, but it’s unlikely they can beat Labour at that. And Brexit will demonstrate that they are no longer the party for economic competence.
    All that is holding things in place for them are:
    (1) the extreme weakness of the opposition – a John Smith or Tony Blair in his prime would have had the government on the ropes over Brexit by now, and
    (2) the extreme reluctance, through fear of fatally wounding May or of their own consituency parties, of Tory MPs to rock the boat.
    This can’t last forever. Someting will give.

  10. Before even thinking about a realignment, MPs, both individually and collectively, need to decide why they are in Parliament. Are they representatives of their constituents, with their own publicly-declared principles and values, or are they representatives of a particular version of a national party’s ideology? Some regrettably seem to act merely as promoters of one or other special interest group.

  11. A useful analysis, but there’s one fundamental flaw in your argument; you talke about the Conservative Party and “high principle” in the same breath. As a former colleague and long-time member of that party explained to me on more than one occasion, the Conservative Party (particularly the parliamentary party) has only had one principle within living memory – Power. They’ll do whatever it takes to win power, and the first requirement for that is to avoid a split in the party.

    That’s why the referendum was called in the first place, to stop the erosion of the party’s right by UKIP which culminated in the defection of Carswell and Reckless, and now the party has to either deliver a “real” Brexit or be split. The Brexit wing will destroy any leader who opposes them in a bloodbath that’ll make John Major’s problems in the 90s look like an argument over scone recipes at the Chipping Sodbury WI, while the Remain wing have nowhere to go – the Liberal Democrats have become an electoral irrelevance since the coalition, and Labour is as divided as the Tories.

  12. People have talked for a long time about a ‘realignment of the left’. Brexit also suggests a need for a ‘realignment of the right’. Neither of these will happen: firstly because the current electoral system doesn’t allow for more (or fewer) than two-and-a-half parties; and secondly because we politicians stick to our groupings. This has often been described (negatively) as tribalism, but it’s actually loyalty, to individuals, friends and colleagues nurtured over many years. Contemplating ‘realigning’ that is as personally traumatic as divorce. In many cases the ripping apart of long-standing families is only provoked by the most dramatic of circumstances – and we’re not there yet.

  13. While membership of Europe is clearly vitally important, it is by no means the one thing around which all politics should resolve.

    I am vaguely hopeful that at some point Europe will stop being front page news and return to being part of the background hum of the running of the country, and we can focus on how redistributive a party is, or civil liberties, as defining features of a party.

    1. Andrew, we are members of Europe but have chosen not to be members of the European Union.

      The notion that the only way for European nations to work together is through a federal superstructure of shared currency, legal system, regulation and open borders or not at all is a dangerous one. We have been here before and it didn’t end well. One of the many continuing mistakes of UK governments is to fail to promote a vision of Europe which is of co-operating nation states. The government should be putting forward a positive alternative to a federal Europe.

      1. Couldn’t agree more – why not do something novel and set up a free trade agreement across Europe that is free from bureaucracy and politics, we could call it the “European Economic Community” or something like that…

  14. Jack, you say “That home was the political party which had its origins in the opposition to constitutional changes of 1828 to 1832”.

    I am not sure why you mention 1828 (do you mean 1928?), but anyway the 1832 Great Reform Act occurred before the Conservatives even existed – they were Tories and indeed (I think) opposed this Whig reform. More important, the Conservatives under Derby and Disraeli actually effected the second Reform Act of 1867, which further widened the franchise, and the final extension in 1928 was also done under the Conservatives.

    1. If you are “not sure” about why I mentioned 1828 then I fear I cannot place much weight on the rest of your opinion. Sorry.

      1828 was when a political crisis started developing which led directly to Roman Catholic emancipation, an issue which split the fragile Tory-led coalition which had prevailed in British politics since union with Ireland. (And so in turn allowed the Whigs into power in 1830 to pass their Reform Act.) Many on one side of the issue (Melbourne, Palmerston) went over to the Whigs and supported reform; those on the other (Wellington, Peel) had to reinvent their rump Toryism into the modern Conservative Party. Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto and organisational changes were the basis of the modern Conservative Party.

  15. It would be worth looking up Roy Jenkins proposals for a better voting system. I recall it would have produced similarly decisive election outcomes but better representation of minorities. A great pity Blair didn’t implement it.

  16. I’ve given this some thought and you will all be pleased to here that I’ve cracked this.

    Consider a situation where the negotiations result in BINO – SM, CU, FOM, payments, ECJ. What will the reaction be?

    One group of people will say this is pointless. We have gained nothing and lost a seat at the table. The policy is what matters and this is a bad one. These people are what Chris Dillow calls “Centrists against freedom” and he has just written an excellent post on this.

    Another group of people will say we have gained a lot. This puts the UK government on the spot to deliver benefits from this deal, and if they cannot deliver benefits then we need to prepare to walk away or renegotiate properly. I would call this group a “power to the people” group.

    What I cannot figure out is where the Corbynist Labour Party fits into this.

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