Are the Tectonic Plates of British Politics Shifting?

Jonathan Calder thinks nobody knows anything about British politics any more.

In April I wrote:

“That party membership is such a minority taste now suggests that the 19th-century model of political parties we still embrace is hopelessly outdated.

Yet no politician has the vision or overweening ambition to wrench it apart and allowing something more attuned to our needs today to take its place”.

Party membership is growing again, so I was wrong about that. But maybe the tectonic plates really are moving.

Already, Remain and Leave across the UK, and Yes and No in Scotland, seem more vital and more coherent identities than the old party labels.

There is a high probability of a significant realignment happening within the next few months, and not just on the left. “Left” and “Right” no longer describe the real political faultlines in England, the big divides are more cultural than economic.

Labour is fundamentally split between its middle-class activist base and its working class roots to the point where there is no reason to exoect white working-class small-c conservatives to vote for a party more concerned with middle-class identity politics. And that’s before you throw the cultish behaviour of the old-school hard-left into the mix. Do you really expect people in Rotherham to support a party who seem to care more about Palestine and Venezuela than the north of England?

The Conservatives are just as split, between neo-liberal internationalists and little-England social conservatives, with cultish Randite libertarians mirroring Labour’s Trotskyite left. It may be that Theresa May will win the leadership election and hold the party together in the short term. If Andrea Leadson wins, all bets are off, and the chances of the party splitting are high.

The Liberal Democrats are seeing a surge of membership as one party who do still have a coherent idea of what they actually stand for. But in the longer term will liberal values be served by a small dedicated party, or as a faction with one of the new parties that may emerge from the breakup of Labour and the Tories?

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8 Responses to Are the Tectonic Plates of British Politics Shifting?

  1. John P. says:

    Ban all political parties and make all politicians stand as independents without any national party machinery. They have to campaign to the local electorate to get there. No toeing the party whip, they can just make/break alliances on any issue.

    Or how about selecting MP’s by lottery from the voting population? Like jury service. Couldn’t do worse than the current career politicians I reckon and you’d get a wider cross section of the community. To allow some continuity between parliaments, maybe they can select a proportion of their number to stay on another term.

  2. Ian Stock says:

    The Swiss system seems to work well – lots of devolution so that people feel their local interests are being looked after. Then one chamber representing the cantons roughly according to population and the other (with veto powers) on an equal basis by canton. That way the smallest are not overlooked.

    The government is elected from within the chamber and even the president is a fixed-term rotating position. Few egos as a result.

  3. Synthetase says:

    At the very least, I find it hard to believe the House of Lords is still a thing. The idea of having an unelected house in parliament in this day and age is anathema to me.

    In Australia, we have a proportional voting system, with proportional representation in the upper-house Senate only. The lower House of Representatives (== the House of Commons) forms a government in the Westminster tradition, and the Senate represents the interests of the people in each State in the upper house of legislative review.

    It’s not a perfect system, but it does allow for people to ‘protest vote’ against the majors and actually achieve something by not ‘throwing their vote away’ on a third party. So-called ‘micro-parties’ can and do win seats in the Senate, and will form a considerable cross-bench for the narrowly re-elected conservative government after our recent election.

  4. Michael says:

    I would draw to people’s attention that a great thing about the old way the House of Lords worked involved people only turning up because they knew about the subject under discussion and could make a worthwhile contribution.

    The House of Lords was a reviewing chamber which produced high quality work worthy of the respect of the House of Commons. They had little formal power, but if they said something needed fixing it generally got fixed.

    The House of Lords now has too many political appointees. They are there for the wrong reason. The so called cross-benchers should be the majority in the Lords and they are not.

    I don’t really mind how you get experts into the House of Lords, but it must not be an elected house, because if it is elected it will have the same level of authority as the House of Commons and that way lies deadlock.

  5. Synthetase says:

    “I don’t really mind how you get experts into the House of Lords, but it must not be an elected house, because if it is elected it will have the same level of authority as the House of Commons and that way lies deadlock.”

    That is not necessarily true. Just because the house is elected doesn’t mean is has the same executive powers, it would depend on the constitutional role placed upon the house and the laws governing its operation. The Australian Senate has many of the powers of the lower House of Representatives (in that members can introduce bills, etc, to the parliament) but it cannot form a government because that is not its purpose.

    With respect to deadlock, that can happen, but it needn’t follow that it also block supply (this has happened very rarely in Oz. If the situation is really bad, it can be resolved by dissolving parliament and holding elections). I would point out that the opposite essentially gives the government of the day a ‘rubber stamp’ to pass whatever legislation it wants.

    On the whole, the Australian public distrusts a party with majorities in both houses and rarely bestows this dubious honour. The last time that happened, the government passed quite a lot of very unpopular legislation, were promptly thrown out of office (even the PM lost his seat) and the balance of power in the Senate was returned to minor parties and independents.

    In reality, what usually happens is a compromise situation, where the government must negotiate its legislation through the senate.

  6. I agree with Michael’s comment. The notion of an unelected panel of experts providing “checks and balances” actually makes sense in a democracy. When you’re not keeping one eye on a public who might vote against you in a couple of years, you can say unpopular things that need to be said.

    At its heart, the principle of the Lords isn’t that much different from the principles behind the Supreme Court in the US (and indeed, part of its remit was as the highest court of appeal against unfair legislature, which is why it’s ludicrous that we now have an actual Supreme Court also). The Lords don’t have any powers to make laws, but can fill an important role in making sure that proposed laws are fair and just.

    If the second house becomes partisan, whether due to appointment of the members by the majority Commons party, or due to elected members drawn from the same pool of party politicans that fill the Commons, it becomes pointless. You might as well abolish the second house entirely if you’re just going to elect it in the same way you elect the first house, and save yourself the expense and effort.

  7. Ian Stock says:

    I would like to see more emphasis on expertise in the Lords, or whatever it might become. It is good that the hereditary principle is gone but is patronage any better? The problems come with how you define ‘expert’ and who decides who should be put in place.

  8. Synthetase says:

    “If the second house becomes partisan, whether due to appointment of the members by the majority Commons party, or due to elected members drawn from the same pool of party politicans that fill the Commons, it becomes pointless. You might as well abolish the second house entirely if you’re just going to elect it in the same way you elect the first house, and save yourself the expense and effort.”

    The House of Lords is hardly non-partisan, though. Just because they may not officially belong to any particular party doesn’t mean they don’t hold political views and that those views won’t influence their decision-making. Given the fact they are lords, there’s an obvious selection bias in favour of certain political view-points.

    I very much agree with the latter point, though. This is why the Australian Senate was created as a representative chamber of the states (mostly former colonies) that Federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Representatives are not elected in the same way as they are in the lower house. It’s kind of a cross between the Westminster system and the American system, with proportional voting thrown in.