The nature of Britain’s voting system means that the winner has pretty much always been one of the Tories and Labour. Uncertainty over who doesn’t change the certainty that it’s definitely these two.
The tumultuous nature of British politics lately, in the age of weak governments, minority governments and coalition governments hasn’t altered that. The Liberal Democrats whipped up a storm of frenzied progressive energy but lost five seats. In 2015, Ukip got nearly four million votes but still only the one seat.
The barriers in our politics has always been the First Past the Post voting system. It’s been criticised as unfair, leading to a sense of stale democracy where a voter may feel their voice isn’t valued because of the nature of the system. Others have defended it as being efficient and filtering out the extremists. Certainly, Parliament is arguably a healthier place without the fringe groups becoming part of the mainstream.
This is largely why breakaway parties have never really been taken seriously. It also explains why the current dissatisfaction in Labour amongst swathes of MPs is treated with scorn for providing ammunition to the Conservative Party.
There are numerous MPs who are considering their positions, including Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna, if rumours are to be believed. They have been criticised for this on the basis that the nature of our voting system means it will simply lead to a split on the progressive vote. Their frustration is with the direction of the party on Brexit, or lack of one. Another MP is Luciana Berger, but her likely motivation is justified given the relentless abuse she has suffered as a Jewish woman to the point of requiring security at the Labour Party Conference. That is a shocking indictment on the party.
Taking Berger out of the equation for the moment, there has long been talk of an anti-Brexit party formed from the disillusioned rumps of Labour’s moderate wings and the liberal Tories, echoed approvingly by the likes of Tony Blair and others. It’s a party that calls for an anti-Brexit settlement, decided by a People’s Vote it thinks Remain would win. On the surface, it seems to be a party with a markedly liberal stance both economically and socially.
Firstly it illustrates many things: people really have no faith in the Liberal Democrats. Secondly, it also underlines why Remain could lose another referendum, and why this new party could get hammered in a General Election without having the voting system to blame for it. Crucially, it exposes how both parties haven’t yet understood the national mood fully.
Brexit highlighted a fundamental point to the Conservatives: austerity breeds anger. The housing insecurity, the fragility of the labour market and lack of regional investment outside London has seen inequality grow; wealth and power has been increasingly concentrated in the capital. Post-industrial Britain has been the story of abandoned towns and cities, left to rust after the closure of jobs that previously provided communities with a sense of longevity, stability and social solidarity. Theresa May upon arriving into leadership seemed to have consolidated her strength with an iron fist and the right messages. She spoke about the social responsibility towards each other, of stronger rights for workers and how globalisation had created a class of those who had been left behind.
That she failed was largely because she allowed herself to get swiftly outflanked on the narrative of economic protectionism by Jeremy Corbyn. Her campaigning became lifeless and as scaremongering as the Remain campaigners many deemed to be elitist and trying to scare voters during the EU referendum.
If a new party were to form, or even one of the current parties were considering how to surge clear, economic liberalism would not be the answer. Further atomisation of societies is not the antidote to the problems facing Britain.
Yet Labour would also be narrating a story of half-truths if it were to portray Brexit as simply the manifestation of anger regarding inequality. If resentment to austerity was the simply motivation then Labour would have won in 2015 and 2017. There’s a risk of treating the financial crash and the subsequent austerity as causes of grievances rather than issues that have exacerbated them. After all, even in the 2005 general election, Ukip still had over half a million votes.
The height of paternalistic socialism is to tell a voter that their concern with immigration isn’t really about immigration but housing, healthcare, schools and jobs. And sure, those are definitely facets of the grievances people have with immigration. There are ways to perhaps deal with that such as redirecting more funds for working-class areas with higher rates of immigration, strong support for local businesses with many years of roots in the community and holding a powerful social value.
But what if their concerns with immigration are just about that? Is a voter suddenly racist for feeling as though their cultural institutions and values were being quickly lost? Is airing concerns about the social fragmentation of towns, facilitated by treating migrants as tenants and workers undeserving of security, suddenly a racist discussion? Communities are tied together by social bonds built on shared economic statuses, so that everyone is a stakeholder with real worth. But it’s also about a sense of cultural solidarity, one of shared values, mutual reciprocity, history and language.
It’s not racist to be concerned about potential neighbours having poor English. In fact, it’s quite insulting and exploitative to think that is a fine livelihood for both the migrant and the local. It simply isolates people, which is the antithesis of a communal life. It’s also not helpful of councils to allow cultural segregation to quietly form in neighbourhoods. And while that doesn’t mean a no-go-zone as some idiotic conservative commentators have implied, it does mean divided communities.
If Labour wants to win the next election, it has to tackle this. Immigration after Brexit is not something it can just solve through higher wages and renationalisation.