Parties

In the twenty years post Margaret Thatcher (broadly 1990-2010) there was a general acceptance, whether Major, Blair or Brown was Prime Minister, that Britain had to be led from the centre ground of politics. David Cameron broadly continued this – not least because his coalition with the Liberal Democrats required it. Arguably that consensus has now been challenged – partly from the Left but quite dramatically from the Right.

Back in the 1950s the UK resembled the United States in that it had a two-party system. In the 1951 General Election the Conservatives and their (then) Ulster Unionist allies gained 48% of the vote and 321 seats, Labour had 48.8% and 295. 96.8% of the vote and 616 of the 625 seats went to the two main parties. Since then this two-party dominance has largely disappeared. The Unionists broke away from the Conservatives. There was a rise in Scottish and Welsh nationalism which translated into votes and seats. And a Centre party emerged from the roots of the Liberal Party and the short-lived but very significant Social Democratic Party (SDP). By 2010 the Liberal Democrats had reached a high of 23% of the vote and although they lost a few seats the 57 they won still got them into Government as a part of the Coalition. The two Party system of yore had now become a three-party system – or so it seemed. A problem with this analysis is that although there were indeed three Parties outside Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland these parties did not represent three discernibly different political philosophies. The charge that they are “all the same” and its linked epithet “LibLabCon” was one that could quite legitimately be levelled. Cameron’s Conservatives were not that different from Blair/Brown’s “New Labour” and the LibDems were right there in the centre of the mix.

Since 2010 there has been a significant change in British politics and, if we concentrate on England, four distinct political alternatives have emerged. (I think that they were always there, but buried by the “Broad Church” that had historically been a feature of both the Tories and Labour). These political streams are as follows:

Socialist Left (Green)

In 1945 Labour was an unabashedly Socialist party but gradually over the years the strength of the socialist element was reduced until by the formation of “New Labour” by Blair it had virtually disappeared. The Gaitskellites and the Gang of Four (SDP) had finally won.

The enthusiasm on the Left for the fact that Labour was at last back in power in 1997 papered over the cracks for a while but although some on the Right still attacked Labour for its “socialism” the fact was that Blair/Brown were at “best” Social Democrats and arguably a bit further to the Right than that. The ground vacated by Labour on the hard left was never really filled. The Tony Bennites were seen as eccentric and old-fashioned and their influence was minimal. More recently, however, there has been something of a revival of the Left. Ed Miliband is seen by some as being more of the Left than his recent predecessors and we have also seen the some progress being made by the Green Party who on most issues are well to the Left of Labour. Some who once supported the Liberal Democrats because of their stronger Left wing stance than New Labour on some issues (the Iraq and Afghanistan wars especially) have moved away from the LibDems and are attracted not just by Labour but by something further to the Left – like the Greens. A more recent phenomenon has been in Scotland where Labour has lost ground to a broadly Socialist SNP. The near success of the SNP in the Independence Referendum was at least in part about objections to a perceived “conservative” hegemony of Westminster. This is not a objection confined to Scotland by any means.

I would guess that the “Socialist Left” tinged with some environmental concerns from the Greens and some anti-war refugees from the LibDems could command around 20% of the vote in England – if there was a Party to represent them! It could also include the Eurosceptic Left – a not insignificant subset of the broader Left wing family. They would believe in renationalisation of certain services such as the Railways and Energy. They would reverse some of the public/private mix in the NHS. Currently the Green Party is the only candidate to do this and while a 20% vote in 2015 is certainly beyond them they could use a decent performance next year to build themselves as a credible Left wing alternative to Labour. A not insignificant percentage of current Labour party activists and members – as well as some Trades Unions – could also be attracted. Whether this could develop into a full blown split of Labour is doubtful but some siphoning off of traditional Labour votes (etc.) looks feasible. (Left in the photo above Green MP Caroline Lucas)

Social Democrats (Labour)

As we have seen the social-democratic wing of Labour captured the party in the 1990s under Kinnock, Blair and Gordon Brown. The traditional positioning of this Group had historic roots – Hugh Gaitskell, George Brown, Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland and Denis Healey (amongst others) were all pragmatic rather than doctrinaire socialists. The Labour Party today is broadly unchanged from that of Blair/Brown and Ed Miliband is hardly the “Red Ed” of popular Right Wing legend! Labour has the organisation, the brand name and the core support to be the main standard bearer of the (soft) Left for a long time ahead. To their core support can be added most if not all of the Liberal Democrats. For many this will be returning home for if the positioning of the SDP is broadly consistent with New Labour and its successor (it is) then what is the point of the LibDem party at all? (Other LibDems will find a home with the Conservatives as we will see). 

The Social Democrats (aka the “Labour Party”) will offset their losses to the Socialist Left by their gains from the LibDems. This should give them as a minimum 30% of the electorate, possibly more. This modern Labour Party would be Social Democrats in all but name and would be closest to European Parties like the German SPD. They would be firmly pro European and broadly believers in the Social market as the preferred economic model. They would eschew any renationalisation and probably not significantly change the current public/private mix in the NHS. Their relationship with the Trades Unions would be problematic but mutual self-interest would probably ensure that links (albeit weaker) are maintained. (Inside Left on the Photo Ed Miliband)

 

One Nation Conservatives        

The battle for the soul of the Conservative Party, unlike the not dissimilar battle in Labour, has not yet been won. Whilst David Cameron can be seen to be in the “One Nation” tradition of MacMillan, Butler, Heath, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke this is not entirely clear cut. No comparable defeat of the Right to Blair’s defeat of the Left has happened under Cameron’s nearly ten-year leadership of the Conservatives. But the “One Nation” positioning is credible and has substantial support, existing and potential, in the country. The positioning of this Conservative stream is based on laissez-faire economic liberalism , and a degree of libertarianism – on private enterprise and lower taxes. It is popular rather than populist and has more in common with the Conservative Governments of the 1950s and early 1960s than it does with the Thatcher years. In European terms it is broadly Christian Democrat and would ally itself logically with Angela Merkel’s CDU.  An important source of support is from the “Orange Book” wing of the LibDems – indeed there is little difference between these LibDem’s “liberal solutions” which favour competition in public healthcare, pensions, environment etc. – and the middle of the road Conservative (Cameroon ?) position on these matters.

The One Nation Conservatives would be the inheritors of the Conservative brand and to some extent that of economic liberalism of the LibDems. The Party would be socially liberal as well as firmly pro-European. It would be strongly in favour of the mixed economy and would be more likely to privatise than to renationalise anything. It would be united – at least in theory (!) because the more left wing elements of the LibDems would have departed for Labour and the more Right Wing elements from the Tories would have gone to the “Independence” Party (see below). Its core support would perhaps be around 30% in England. (Inside Right on the photo: David Cameron)

 

Independent party

To the Right of the Conservatives there is a gap for a democratic party of the Right which would share most, if not all, of the positions of UKIP and of the current (substantial) Conservative Right wing. The word “Independent” would incorporate more than the “Independence” from Europe which is UKIP’s main policy position (though it certainly would embrace the idea of the UK outside the EU). The word would also refer to an economic philosophy which is predicated on a greater degree of self-reliance for the individual, a much smaller State, less of a Welfare society and more Anglo-Saxon than European. It would have much in common with the Republican Party in the US – especially that party’s “Tea Party” wing. In the same way that Labour would lose some support to a credible Socialist/Green Party so the Conservatives would lose some to a credible Independent Party. It would be the least socially liberal of the four political streams/parties described here. The Party would campaign for a reduction in the national debt and in the budget deficit and would also argue or reductions in government spending and taxation.

The potential vote for the Independent Party is at least 20% based on current opinion polls – more if it attracted many high profile recruits from the Conservatives. It differs from UKIP in more than just the subtle variation of name. UKIP is essentially an insurgency with a couple of high awareness issues (EU withdrawal and anti immigration) in its portfolio. A new Party of the Right would have a costed, intellectually strong, consistent and  broad-based Right Wing set of platforms that would attract not just the extreme Eurosceptics from the Tories but also those who owe their allegiances to Margaret Thatcher. (Right on the Photo UKIP MP Douglas Carswell)

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