There are two fairly inevitable things about two-party systems. First, that there will be perennial discussion of the creation of third parties. Secondly, that in the end pretty much nothing will upturn the two-party status quo.
James Chapman, the former Special Advisor to the hapless David Davies, is the latest in a long line of people to have proposed such a party. Since parting ways with his former boss, Chapman has been announcing to apparently anyone who will listen that he intends to set up a new party – ‘The Democrats’ – which will function as a pro-European centrist party.
Chapman might be a slightly odd character (his Twitter feed suggests a man suffering the effects of too much Mediterranean sun and too little caution) but the concept of a new centrist party isn’t altogether a strange one.
The main stimulus, of course is Brexit, something which has altered – perhaps perpetually – the political calculus of the country. We are no longer a nation defined by our attitudes to economic issues; we are one defined by our position vis a vis globalisation. On one side sit the 52% – against the European Union, immigration and neoliberal politics. On the other are the 48%, supportive of international trade and the free flows of capital and people.
In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, however, a curious thing took place. In their haste to win votes, both Labour and the Conservatives positioned themselves firmly on the side of the thin majority who voted in favour of Brexit. Both parties deposed their leadership in favour of figures opposed to internationalism (Jeremy Corbyn, whatever his youthful fanbase might believe, is and has always been a trenchant nationalist and opponent of the European Union) and have enthusiastically courted former Leave voters.
But if Britain’s political realignment saw the creation of a political coalition united by its opposition to globalisation, the entailment of that was the creation of another one, one which defines itself in terms of a positive attitude to neoliberalism. Yet this demographic has been almost completely neglected by both major parties. Corbyn’s Labour Party professes a neo-socialist programme taken directly from the 1970s, while the Tories have opted to pursue a rock-hard Brexit (though whether they’ll get it, considering the sluggish state of negotiations and the reluctance of the European Commission to compromise, is as yet unclear.)
This leaves a large pro-globalisation lacuna in the political landscape. Who can fill it? Some have suggested the Liberal Democrats, but this seems unlikely. Their brand has been irreversibly tainted by their decision to go into coalition with the Tories in 2010, and the few electoral successes they enjoyed in 2017 came not from their pro-European agitation but from what they’ve always been best at – locally-focussed campaigns won through intense canvassing.
If not the Lib Dems, does this leave room for a new centrist party – of the sort suggested by Chapman – to enter the scene? Contrary to the somewhat febrile speculation of many commentators, some of whom seem in need of something to write about during the long hot summer, this seems unlikely.
Firstly, it relies upon the assumption that all of the 48% of the electorate who opposed Brexit are ideologically internationalist. This is as mistaken as presuming that that all of the 52% of the country who supported Brexit are swivel-eyed bigots. Whilst at least some of those 48% are, many more are the economically cautious; those who voted to Remain out of an innate reluctance to jump into the void. The small cadre of hardcore Remainers do not constitute enough of a pool to form a new party of.
Secondly, it mistakes internationalism for centrism. Indeed, this difference has been elided over by multiple commentators online, who assume that a centrist party is per se going to be internationalist. Genuinely centrist parties in the past have been grounded on economic centrism; that is to say, fairly high government spending and a fairly equitable tax burden.
None of this is compatible with the brand of internationalism being espoused by those encouraging a third party; returning to the European Union would, for a variety of reasons, require adherence to the ‘German model’ of economics, one which would see spending cut and foreign labour permitted entry to the country. Theoretically an internationalist party might achieve limited success in certain areas; but it would be unable to capitalise on the potential that true centrism holds.
This leads to the final reason for the likely failure of a new third party, namely the deeply entrenched political differences that transcend the pro-globalisation/anti-globalisation dichotomy. Profound differences exist between left-wing and right-wing internationalists, both in their attitudes towards internationalism and in their stances on various other issues.
Indeed, it could almost be argued that the gulf between right-wing internationalism and left-wing internationalism is almost as profound and impassable as the one between parochialism and globalism. A centrist party would have to find a way to reconcile wildly different positions on issues like defence, non-European migration, civil liberties and the environment.
This all highlights a problem with the basic premise of Chapman’s; that a party can be founded upon an issue. UKIP tried that, and it didn’t work – after essentially exhausting the mileage that could be made out of Europe, they’ve been reduced to a risible fringe movement of nutcases and Islamophobes. Parties shouldn’t be founded upon policies; they should be founded upon ideologies.
So it is with both the Conservatives and Labour (and indeed, to their credit, the Lib Dems.) The Conservatives are not a party of low immigration or monetarist policy; they are a party which believes in the concept of hierarchy, of the inevitability of inequality, and of the importance of incremental societal evolution. Similarly, Labour is a party which is rooted in a belief in the importance of trade unionism and of egalitarianism.
Deprived of such an animating spirit, a centrist or internationalist third party cannot hope to thrive. At best it will succeed in agitating enough to make its voice heard – which may well be enough to accomplish its goals – but in reality a third party of this sort has no hope. If James Chapman wants to stop or to mitigate Brexit, a new party isn’t the answer.
The votes have been cast, the ballots have been counted, and the verdict is in. After an eight-year absence, a Labour mayor is back in City Hall. Sadiq Khan will be the first Muslim (and indeed the first ethnic minority) to occupy the seat formerly held by Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, and his mandate is highly respectable, garnering 56% of the vote. Sadiq has promised to govern as his own man, and to distance himself from the rapidly-disintegrating Parliamentary Labour Party; there is no reason yet to doubt him.
So why did Zac lose? Some cynics might argue that he’s simply fallen victim to demographic realities – the middle-class voter base that the Tories have relied on are now moving out of London, to be replaced by working-class and/or ethnic Labour supporters. That’s true, to an extent; whereas ten years ago middle-class families were moving within London to areas like Richmond, Hampstead or Northwood, a mixture of declining living conditions and rising prices have meant that many are no longer London voters, having fled to the green and pleasant lands of Hertfordshire, Surrey or Kent. This is definitely going to have an impact upon the Conservative vote.
But it isn’t quite so easy as that. These demographic changes didn’t happen overnight; they were well underway when Boris Johnson won in both 2008 and 2012. Zac’s loss might have been exacerbated by these factors, but it’s certainly not reducible to it. Nor can the loss be explained merely by playing the ethnic card. Whilst London is indeed a majority-minority city – White British voters make up only 40% of the population – that conceals a huge amount of variation. Muslims only make up 12% of London’s population, and even if every single one were to vote for Sadiq – which is patently untrue, with many famous Muslim Tories hailing from London – it wouldn’t be nearly enough for him to gain victory.
The answer, then, is that Zac lost because he was a weak candidate. That’s not to malign him as a person – I’m assured that he’s a very decent fellow and a damn good constituency MP. But his campaign was decidedly poor, especially in comparison to Sadiq’s well-thought-through one. For much of the race, Zac simply didn’t seem to have much passion or energy. Instead, what the public saw was a rather anaemic and listless man, with none of the verve that had characterised his Conservative predecessor Boris Johnson.
Zac’s campaign lacked a ‘big idea’, a grand overarching theme that could have tied together all the other elements of his platform. Instead, he opted for the trouble-shooter approach, offering common-sense solutions to individual problems, one step at a time. In many ways that’s the sensible thing to do, and in terms of solid policy proposals Zac was far ahead of Sadiq. He offered well-costed, logical ideas which would have gone some way towards solving the problems being faced by Londoners; the housing crisis, rising transport fees, and community cohesion concerns.
But that wasn’t enough. Sadiq had very effectively branded himself as a ‘mayor for all Londoners.’ He leveraged his background to appeal to the traditional Labour base, but was never obnoxious or overtly racial. Equally important in his pitch to his ethnic background was the fact that he was ‘the son of a bus driver’ – a working-class boy done good. He went into overdrive reassuring groups of his desire to unify the city; for instance, he spoke convincingly of his support for the financial services sector, an area traditionally leery of Labour.
He also made this race about him, not his party. He put clear water between him and Jeremy Corbyn, emphasising that he would not merely be an extension of the dysfunctional national Labour Party. Zac’s campaign attempted to play the Corbyn card, suggesting that Sadiq would turn London into a testing-ground for Corbynite policies, but this narrative never really took off – mainly because there was never any good evidence for it.
In the latter stages of the campaign, I think Zac’s advisors realised that they were suffering as a result of their lack of an overarching theme. This could have been their chance to find a strong narrative for the party to rally round, and might have swung the race in Zac’s favour. Unfortunately, they then made one of the largest mistakes of the campaign, turning it into a viciously personal attack on Sadiq.
There’s no proof for this, but Lynton Crosby’s fingerprints are all over this. Crosby is the master of using spectacular tactics to shock (and often scare) voters into plumping for the Conservatives. In 2015 his stroke of genius was to convince the electorate that a vote for anybody but the Tories would be a vote for Nicola Sturgeon. It doesn’t seem beyond belief that he attempted to use this trick again; convince the electorate that Sadiq was a friend of terrorists and extremists, hence making Zac the only choice.
This isn’t in character for Zac, which is why I suspect it was a strategy foisted upon him by figures higher up in the Party. It was also a strategy which bombed catastrophically. This was for two reasons – and racism isn’t one of them. In fact, I’m somewhat disappointed in many Labour activists who labelled the Tories racist during the campaign; it’s an ideologically dishonest way of shutting down debate.
However, the accusations were for the most part untrue or exaggerated. The most damning evidence seemed to be that Sadiq had argued for radical Islamist Yusuf Qaradawi to be allowed to enter the country. Here I feel that we’ve scored an own goal. As a Tory I celebrate free speech in all its manifestations. I support the right of Nick Griffin or David Irving to speak whenever and wherever they’re invited, because I believe it’ll discredit their ideology; in the same vein, I feel that a man like Qaradawi shouldn’t be prevented from speaking in Britain. Yes, much of what he says is medieval and offensive; but unless it can be proven that what he says will directly precipitate violence, he should be allowed to say it. Hopefully, an open platform will expose how asinine and barbaric his views are. Sadiq shouldn’t be criticised for enabling free speech, something which we Conservatives have fought long and hard to preserve.
The other issue which Zac pressed Sadiq on was the fact that he’d shared a platform with various dubious characters. Yes, that’s true; but what of it? There was never a suggestion that he himself had espoused those views, and that’s because (to the best of my knowledge) he hasn’t. Indeed, he may well have exerted a moderating influence upon more radical individuals. In hindsight they weren’t the brightest things to do, but Sadiq proved he can move beyond them.
That’s the other problem; Labour foresaw this angle, and by the time the inevitable assault came Sadiq had already established his bona fides through a series of well-choreographed speeches and meetings which put clear water between him and the radicals. He denounced Ken Livingstone as the repulsive anti-Semite he is; he assiduously courted the Jewish vote without coming across as artificial; he put counterterrorism at the heart of his campaign. As such, Zac’s broadsides against him ended up seeming weak and ill-considered.
So what next? What’s clear is that we need to wage a stronger and more coherent campaign next time. This election was a bit of a mess, to be honest; lacking in an ideological direction, and far too negative and pessimistic. There’s a lot Zac could have said about the vision he had for the city; instead he chose to run a campaign based on what he didn’t want. For 2020 we need a campaign which clearly expresses a Conservative vision for the city, and which is clearly ideologically different to our opponents. At times Zac seemed to be playing catch-up with Sadiq; not a good position to be in.
Furthermore, we need a more electable candidate. Zac is a splendid fellow, but he simply didn’t have the charisma necessary to convince people of his passion. This isn’t a question of class; Boris has been an exceptionally popular mayor, despite being eminently upper-class. But where Boris embraced his ‘poshness’ and made it a loveable quality, Zac tried to mask it behind an at-times risible Everyman persona that convinced nobody. We need a candidate who is confident, affable and who appeals to all Londoners; a candidate with a narrative. That doesn’t necessarily mean picking an ethnic minority or a female candidate, as some have rather cynically suggested. But there needs to be an awareness of how any candidate will play with those groups.
The final factor is out of anybody’s hands, to an extent. 2020 will be the first time that a mayoral election coincides with a general election. As such, success or failure in City Hall will be determined by No. 10. If the Tories go into the election as saviours of the economy, united and confident, they’ll make the job a lot easier for whoever’s contesting London for them. On the other hand, if the results of the referendum force a collapse in the party, and if Labour have found a more electable leader than the present idiot-in-chief, life will be tough for a Conservative mayoral candidate.
Three months ago, the Labour leadership race seemed like a shoo-in. It was almost inevitable that Andy Burnham, the erstwhile Education Minister and Establishment-approved choice, would sail to a comfortable victory over an otherwise unremarkable crowd. And so the slow decline of New Labour would continue.
But it appears that some people thought differently. The sudden entry of Jeremy Corbyn into the race has transformed it from an otherwise unremarkable transition process into a debate as to the nature of what Labour stands for in the 21st century. The reaction of the Labour establishment has spanned the gamut of emotions from delight to fury to disbelief to – increasingly – panic, as it becomes clear that Corbyn has a very good chance of winning the contest.
Until this year, Jeremy Corbyn was considered by most as an amusing oddity. Avuncular and bearded, he inveigled himself into a Labour safe seat (Islington North) more than thirty years ago and had spent much of that time carving out a niche for himself as an outspoken leftist indulgently tolerated by the Labour leadership. He was aware that his views precluded him from higher office, but the freedom afforded by possession of a safe seat gave him the opportunity to use his voice in Parliament to espouse various eccentric left-wing causes. Amongst these were House of Lords reform, animal rights and advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians – the bread and butter of the left.
But now we are in a position where Jeremy Corbyn may well become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Firstly, how on earth did we get to this place? It seems that after eighteen years New Labour has finally run out of steam. The other three candidates – Burnham, Cooper and (in particular) Kendall – are products of New Labour to a man. All Oxbridge-educated and all nestled within the bosom of the Labour establishment, the ideology they espouse is in essence a restatement of Blairism with a few modifications. They are all believers in a Labour Party appealing to the middle classes and which reflects their concerns, aspirations and hopes. This ideology governed the party from 1997 to 2007 in an unadulterated form; even from 2007 to 2015 it underpinned the direction of the party.
It is hard for people born after 1995 to comprehend the magnitude of the shift from Old Labour to New Labour. Old Labour was a statist party, a party with a profound mistrust of capitalism and the private sector. It was a party which appealed to the working classes and was fundamentally focussed on creating a socialist paradise for them. In short, it was everything which Blair’s New Labour was not. Blair (correctly) realised that Old Labour was a discredited ideology, and transformed the party into a brand-new movement sharing only the name. Fundamentally it was a middle class party, and as such it modified its’ positions hugely. Out went the trade unions, and in came the private sector. Grammar schools became acceptable once more, whilst privatising the running of the NHS via PFI contracts became de rigeur.
Kendall, Cooper and Burnham were all moulded in this intellectual milieu. Cooper and Burnham were both devotees of Gordon Brown, and as such their variant of New Labour is somewhat more to the left – their opposition to tuition fees, for example. Kendall is about as orthodox a Blairite as one can be, hence her vocal championing of the private sector and her concern to market Labour as friendly towards small businesses.
However after eighteen years of New Labour, it appears that the country has tired of it. New Labour derived its’ success from selling out Old Labour’s core constituency – the working classes. Blair calculated that they had no choice but to stick with Labour, and hence ignored them completely in favour of policies clearly designed to curry favour with the middle classes. This strategy worked as long as its core assumption held true – that the working classes would always remain with Labour.
Oddly enough it was the rise of UKIP which scotched that particular myth. There was a rather paternalistic assumption amongst Labour elites that the lumpen proletariat were congenitally left-wing. What they failed to realise was that they were in fact simply populist. Whichever party offered them enough goodies, they would vote for. This precluded the Tories, and to a great extent Labour. But in UKIP the working classes found a party which seemed to speak for them. It was a party which seemed antithetical to the elites, and which offered simple solutions towards a putative ‘Great’ Britain. The working classes left Labour in droves for UKIP.
Until recently, the assumption was that UKIP was a party appealing primarily to disaffected Tories – Colonel Blimp types who still hadn’t gotten over the Napoleonic Wars or the loss of the Empire. 2015 revealed that in reality UKIP was doing hugely well in Labour strongholds. By offering an anti-elitist platform and preying on the fears of the working class, they succeeded in stripping enough Labour votes from their core constituency for Labour to fail to engage in the ultra-important swing seats that they were targeting.
This combined with the fall of Scotland. In the same manner as with UKIP, the working classes – who Labour chiefs had previously assumed would never desert the party – migrated almost en masse to the SNP. This is not for nationalistic reasons (as has been claimed by overeager SNP politicians) but because the SNP offered a credible far-left policy that outflanked Labour. For more than a decade now Scottish Labour voters have felt alienated from a London-centric party that seems foreign to them; privately educated, socially liberal and affluent. The populist SNP was able to feed off this resentment and ride to victory.
All this explains why Corbyn seems on the verge of victory. He is a representative of Old Labour par excellence. With his beard and his flat cap, he looks and sounds like a member of the working class. His rhetoric is anti-elitist and his policies are populist. Whether he’s talking about renationalising the railways, or prosecuting Tony Blair for war crimes, Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in capturing the attention of the working classes. After almost two decades of inattention, Corbyn has managed to convince them that Labour might still speak for them.
Ironically enough, in many ways Corbyn is uncomfortably close to UKIP. Both are bitterly anti-elitist, and both Farage and Corbyn pride themselves on their accessibility and ‘common touch’ (hence the pint that seemed superglued to Farage’s hand for most of the campaign.) Their policies are also remarkably similar in many ways – both call for grand solutions and localisation as a panacea. Though there are significant differences, most obviously on Europe and immigration, these are not as serious as they are made out to be. For voters, all that is needed is a scapegoat, and they can switch between them with remarkable ease. UKIP succeeded in scapegoating immigrants and casting them as the cause of the country’s ills; Corbyn seems set to do the same with the rich. In both cases they are hugely wrong; in both cases the public will connect with the message.
The truth of the matter is that Jeremy Corbyn is not a messiah. He is a rabble-rouser who plays on peoples’ fears to peddle a brand of far-left rhetoric that was outdated in the 80s. His rise to power is indicative of his ability to feed off the fears and paranoia of the working classes, and he is able to make farcical promises through his not having to worry about the limitations imposed by the vagaries of the national finances. Jeremy Corbyn is totally unelectable and would be a disaster for the country…
…which is exactly why I (as a Conservative) am rooting for him to win.