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Are we entering a golden age of backbench politics?

25 January 2018

11:16 AM

25 January 2018

11:16 AM

It’s been a while since the young H.H. Asquith told Spectator readers that ‘no third Party has ever been able to stand its ground in England.’ His leader, ‘The English Extreme Left’, appeared in 1876, when the enervated Liberal Party seemed destined to split. His core contention was that Britain would not, in fact could not, brook multi-party politics:

For the last two hundred years there always have been two great Parties, and two only; and though that is in itself no reason why a third should not now be formed, it is a very serious practical obstacle in the way of its success. Parties, like other institutions, at any rate in England, grow, and are not manufactured.

And yet Asquith’s faith in the ‘rude dichotomy of English Party politics’ was misplaced. By the time he became PM in 1908, the Liberals had split and Labour was on the march, destined to replace them. More recent history also weighs against him. For forty years – 1974 to 2015 – the Conservative-Labour duopoly was hard pushed by other parties: only twice (1979 and 1992) did the two secure more than 75 per cent of the vote; in the elections of 2005, 2010 and 2015, their share slumped to two-thirds.

But the events of 2017 have driven British politics back to two-party acquiescence. The largest turn-out in twenty years gave Conservative and Labour their largest vote share for almost fifty years (82.3 per cent). The two parties had not received so many votes (26.5 million) since 1951; in England, their combined total was the largest ever, and the largest share (87.3 per cent) since 1970.

This resurgence of the traditional parties mirrors the striking decline of various ‘third’ parties. The Liberal Democrats contrived to airbrush themselves from the House of Commons, receiving only seven per cent of the vote – their lowest share since the 1950s – and a dozen seats. Ukip, having secured their raison d’être, lost 85 per cent of their 2015 voters, and are now trying every trick in the book to implode. Neither shows signs of revival. Nationalist chatter in Scotland and Wales continues, but is fading as devolved powers increase: last year the SNP lost a third of their seats. In England itself, a practical two-party scenario arrived with the 2010 Tory-Lib Dem coalition: all but two of the country’s 533 seats were held by the government or the Labour opposition.

It would be easy, then to treat 2017 as a return to normality for British party politics. But the reality is more complicated: only twice in the last two centuries has Britain been an unambiguously two party state. From 1859 to 1886, Parliament was almost entirely made up of Conservatives and Liberals. And in post-war Britain, from 1945 to 1970, Conservative and Labour dominated national politics. In both periods, well over 90 per cent of the electorate voted for the pair. Such binary configurations, however, proved unsustainable: pressing political crises led to the emergence of third parties. In 1886, the Liberal Unionists formed in opposition to Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill – and after twenty years of approximation to the Tories eventually merged with them. In the early 1970s, the Liberal party reawoke, tripling its vote in the 1974 elections – before fusing with the SDP in the 1980s and spawning the Liberal Democrats.

But these are different times, and the present relapse of two-party politics seems destined to last. There’s no real scope for the appearance of a third party, led either by the people or by parliamentarians. The time has passed for a centrist party to emerge from the Blairite remnants of Labour: the success of Corbynism in 2017 put paid to any SDP-style breakaway. Nor, for all the understandable clamour, will a Brexit Party emerge from the fields or the heavens. In an era of uncertainty, the established brand of the two dominant parties offers security to voters at the ballot box – and in turn MPs anxious about their future.

Parties, it is true, have been around for longer than most suppose. But party politics has continued to evolve, doing so significantly in the 21st century. The stratospheric rise of social media – especially the burgeoning tyranny of Twitter – has hijacked the traditional modes of communication. Newspaper opinion is rapidly losing ground to rawer passions online. The reach of party campaigns and their thinly-disguised propaganda is now unparalleled. For instance, the hard-Left organisation Momentum – Militant reloaded for the digital age – has successfully unified and flat-packed Labour’s messages for the masses. But in simplifying complex issues for quick consumption, the narrative has become artificially binary and unduly polarising: political posts are liked or not, claims shared or not, activists followed or not. The result is an increasingly dichotomous tribalism among the politically engaged. The Conservatives, astoundingly slow to evolve in a digital world, have little control over this conversation: the division is between those who support an ambitious Labour initiative, and those who do not. This tribalism has become turbo-charged in recent years by the Brexit referendum.

The House of Commons has not been immune from the aggressive polarisation of the times. In fact, social media is enjoying unprecedented influence on parliamentary business. It’s not just calls for urgent enquiries and instant dismissals: take a look at any session of PMQs, where the questions – and answers – are increasingly determined by the vocal minority of the Twittering classes. Scores of MPs spend the session with eyes glued to Twitter.

And yet, for all the fervour online, there’s a growing disparity between popular and parliamentary practice. Although the nation is being increasingly polarised politically, the two dominant parties in the House of Commons, faced with divergent visions for the country, are struggling to contain open and forthright dissent from within. For all the claims of cabinet unity – and the frantic lashing of party whips – there’s a palpable resurgence of outspoken individuals, of conviction politicians prepared to defy or transcend their immediate political affiliation. Millions of Brits believe that it is Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Anna Soubry, or Chuka Umunna, or Angela Rayner who speaks more particularly for them than any party manifesto. Such MPs, driven by ideas rather than party colours, are enjoying a new-found confidence to debate. And not just in the chamber: all manner of digital outlets give them the opportunity to speak boldly and directly to like-minded citizens. This last weekend a tweet from Nick Boles and a hashtag from Sir Nicholas Soames shifted the Tory mood. There’s no doubt that the fallout from Brexit explains much of this fragmentation of party unity, but many more issues – education, the NHS, defence – are increasingly testing formal political affiliations.

In fact, the current climate is tellingly reminiscent of the mid-Victorian period, that golden age of backbench politics when a complex crowd of political dissidents openly traded blows. Alongside the traditional Tories and Whigs, a lively crowd of Peelites, Liberals and Radicals fought to reshape the nation in a fast-evolving world. Are we witnessing the dawn of another halcyon period for backbench politics, where free-thinking politicians can introduce fresh ideas to the people? It’s an appealing thought.

Both the cabinet and the shadow cabinet need to be alive to the times: if they fail to host the wide-ranging perspectives of broad-church parties, the influence and appeal of independent voices may make the two-party system unsustainable once more. What’s more, a glance across the waters could suggest the possibility not of a new party but of a new individual emerging, one who could combine Macronic novelty with Trumpish iconoclasm to transcend the stilted world of party politics. But, then again, this is Britain, and we are constitutionally averse to hero-worship.

If there really is no foreseeable prospect of a third party, Parliament will have to evolve as it has so many times before. Asquith, a lifelong champion of diverse opinion, closed his 1876 essay by emphasising its importance within a party: ‘Yeast without dough is no better than dough without yeast, to a nation which wants bread.’ Indeed, if modern party politics can’t allow genuine scope for debate and manoeuvre within the House of Commons, let alone at Cabinet, bread-loving Brits will be quick to find their food elsewhere.


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