Cultural and economic differences exposed and increasingly exacerbated by the Brexit debate have defined new dividing lines within the UK’s traditional parties.
As Brexit has suffocated national discourse these divisions have mutated into deep, dangerous caverns. Caverns which have opened up and hollowed deeper due to the highly personalised nature of post-referendum politics. A debate increasingly based on factors such as identity, geographical location and the fundamentals with which we organise our economic and political life.
These developments are leading to a redefinition of political dividing lines. No longer ‘left’ and ‘right’, but ‘open’ and ‘closed’, a definition showcased to us in the French Presidential Election of 2017.
Ironically, the Brexit debate, a major catalyst for the increasingly rough terrain, remains the last stitch holding the dysfunctional setup together. Once ‘resolved’ in the eyes of the electorate a new political framework will organically flourish, ending the agonising justifications of party loyalty and allowing for a coherent system, one which better represents the political mood of modern Britain. A system based on the new ‘open-closed’ political spectrum.
On this ‘open-closed’ spectrum, ‘open’ can be defined as follows. It is based on the liberal consensus which once seemed to be an assumed feature of mainstream political thought. We had reached the ‘end of history’ after all. This liberal consensus is not to be confused with neoliberalism. It is the defining characteristics of liberal democracy and its politics are an extension of these values in the social and economic sphere. Internationally, it is based on Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalism and believes in the positive power of supranational action. Even the Labour shadow cabinet of today showcases a few remaining subscribers to this brand of politics, namely Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer.
‘Closed’ can be verbalised through its determined focus on the nation state as the confine of domestic political progress. The purification of ideological thought, derived from a socialist or conservative seed on this end of the spectrum, views an international framework with suspicion, the antichrist to the nation state. Labour’s conservative traditions and those aligned with Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group, on the Party’s hard-left, unite around many of these assumptions. Along with the new right radicals in the Conservative Party and Tories who are driven by an interpretation of Peter Hitchens’ Burkean conservatism.
I am not arguing that these divisions are purely witnessed via support or opposition for project Brexit. Yet the issue frequently serves as a good gauge for where one might fall on the ‘open-closed’ spectrum. For instance, theoretical liberal leavers, such as Michael Gove would probably sway toward the open-end of the spectrum.
Brexit could be seen as a proxy war for the legitimisation of those already publicly defining their positions via the ‘open-closed’ structure. The importance of these distinctions, especially in comparison to our heavily relied upon ‘left-right’ spectrum, have been growing for many years, yet remained ignored, in the name of party unity.
A timeline stretching back to 2015 assists us in analysing where the origins of a shift toward the importance of ‘open-closed’ in our public sphere began.
It is evident in each of the mainstream political parties, but first witnessed as a major dividing line in The Labour Party at the time of the 2015 leadership election.
Labour is historically the most complex of political vehicles – as usual, due to its many fissures and strands – but tension boiled over with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015.
Looking at Labour’s pillar-split power structure; the Parliamentary Labour Party, membership and party machine. We can see how the emergence of the ‘open-closed’ definition is causing irreconcilable differences.
The PLP is ideologically diverse in terms of Labour traditions. Corbyn derives from the hard-left wing, or the Socialist Campaign Group, as mentioned earlier. This group is incredibly small within the PLP, representing a mere 18 MPs. With Corbyn’s election victory and the subsequent swelling of party membership, the political outlook of this group emerged as the dominant force in internal Labour politics. Political pressure group Momentum has furthered Corbyn’s power, enjoying a majority on the NEC, with Unite, currently a vehicle for Corbynism under the leadership of Len McCluskey, securing the position of General Secretary.
The instability of this deeply unbalanced situation is increasingly clear. If Corbyn reaches No.10 a constitutional crisis would ensue. A Prime Minister lacking in parliamentary support, yet holding a statistical majority.
Corbynites are factually incorrect to lump any non-Corbyn sympathisers within the Party into the same homogenous group, yet there is an emerging element of truth. The divide is increasingly between MPs devoted to the domestic politics of hard-left reform and those with an affiliation to liberal internationalism and supranational action.
Therefore, the diversity of the PLP with its range of Labour traditions not affiliated with Corbyn’s hard-left no longer matter in the internal Labour debate. Aside from Labour’s conservatives such as Frank Field and John Mann the majority of those outside of Corbyn’s core circle would fall onto the open-end of the spectrum. Thus, the division within Labour is now ‘open’ or ‘closed’ and is wholly unsustainable for a party aiming for unity.
There are outliers, such as Caroline Flint, who devoted herself to following the instruction of her leave-voting constituency, while personally subscribing to ‘open’ politics throughout much of her political career. Yet, similar to Gove, Flint is not wholly defined by Brexit, reinforcing its proxy war status.
A major concern for many Labour MPs is that the Party’s new dominant strand of politics appears to regard internal pluralism as a negative, thus exerting extra pressure on the growing differences within. Yet any breakaway group forming before Brexit has been ‘resolved’, would be tarnished with the Brexit brush, and seen as solely an effort to keep Britain in the EU, as opposed to any meaningful long-term political project. Those, too, such as Caroline Flint, would be particularly wary of any radical political manoeuvres while Brexit dominates the minds of constituents.
It is also believed to be a potential waste of political and personal energy by those Labour MPs campaigning for a ‘People’s Vote’. Any changes should have to wait come what may. These MPs also predict that the current party-political setup is a good vehicle for those coordinating another referendum. A centralisation of pro-European MPs from different parties would stifle their message and limit media exposure.
Growing up, I believed if one was on the ‘left’ you inevitably held a liberal world view. That was the nature of British politics during the liberal consensus of the late 90s and 00s. Yet Labour’s leadership and the PLP demonstrate how this is not the case in its fragmented and confused state as a political entity.
Tory problems surrounding the party-political existential crisis were far less obvious pre-referendum. The 2016 plebiscite and the proceeding Brexit negotiations have exposed deep cultural splits among Conservative MPs, highlighting sharply contrasting views on social, cultural and international politics. For example, Heidi Allen recently stated she’d ‘quit’ the party if Jacob Rees-Mogg were to become its leader, citing his views on abortion.
These differences have always been present yet the post-referendum political world seems to require a greater definition of difference on an individual level.
The Party’s leadership, weakened after its misguided Campaign in 2017, continually finds itself mediating between socially liberal and conservative MPs. The gulf between these groups is growing wider as the Brexit divide sets precedent for almost all debate.
Brexit, in this sense, can again be seen as a proxy issue, used as a neat identification system for those on opposite ends of the ‘open-closed’ spectrum.
Anna Soubry, Justine Greening and Heidi Allen are authentic representatives of the liberal, metropolitan-minded strand of thought on which David Cameron cosmetically viewed himself.
Peter Hitchens’ book The Cameron Delusion can aid in understanding those Tories who view this brand of party politics as fraudulent.
Within Parliament itself there is increasingly heated debate on the government’s own benches. The ‘naughty corner’ – containing Conservative ‘Remainer rebels’ - regularly finds itself in passionate to-ing and fro-ing with members such as Peter Bone and Bill Cash. It is a visible reminder of how divided the Party of government has become.
The Brexit process has also uprooted the political norms on which the Liberal Democrats relied.
Pre-2015 Lib Dems were reliant on its south western heartlands. Constituencies in this part of the UK voted to leave in 2016, at odds with the current Lib Dem platform of ‘Exit from Brexit’. The post-referendum Lib Dems have sought to build the party’s platform almost solely on this issue.
The liberal traditions in the south west were based on values such as; decentralisation, localism and Euroscepticism. The south west was a Liberal Party stronghold prior to its merging with the SDP in 1987.
These south western political tendencies were represented in the 2010-15 Parliament by Lib Dem MP for Taunton Deane, Jeremy Browne. Seen as a classical liberal, inspired by the ‘Orange Bookers’, he sat on the party’s centre-right. Yet Browne was also a self-described Eurosceptic.
The evaporation of fertile turf for the traditional UK-wide third party adds to the likelihood that a complete breakdown in the existing framework post-Brexit will occur. The Lib Dems’ current core message will emerge redundant and possibilities for future political thought will be opened up for homeless MPs looking for ideological space.
Developments which reinforce the assumption that this process is developing at rapid speed, include the increasing power of external pressure groups.
This has introduced new mainstream cross-party campaign efforts, subscribing a set of overarching values – in the fashion of a traditional, big tent political party.
For instance, during the 2017 General Election, cross-party effort More United came into being. The group crowdfunded £500,000 and assisted MPs such as Anna Soubry, David Lammy, Caroline Lucas and Jo Swinson. More United stated it would support MPs who sign-up to its values of opportunity, tolerance, democracy, environment and openness.
A group which openly linked candidates working within a framework assisting rival parties would have been unthinkable within our tribal system a few years ago. Yet these candidates were happy to publicly embrace such an organisation, along with 100,000 enthused supporters. A sizeable number, demonstrating an awareness among the electorate to the changes occurring within the political system.
More United isn’t the only start-up encouraging the acceleration of these new political relationships. Hard-Brexit group Leave Means Leave unites Conservatives such as John Redwood, with Nigel Farage and Labour’s Kelvin Hopkins. This group operates alongside organisations such as the successor to Vote Leave, Change Britain, which Gisela Stuart, former Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, now chairs.
MPs are increasingly defined by their affiliations to these groupings, and often appear far more at ease with colleagues whom they find themselves alongside, compared to those in their party at large.
Looking at the emerging political allegiances it is far easier to categorise these developments along the ‘open-closed’ spectrum, as opposed to ‘left’ and ‘right’. Today’s issues are fought along these lines, demonstrating just how dated the status quo has become. Brexit has exposed this. We are still at the stage where passions run highest in the ‘stop Brexit’ or ‘get on with it’ camps. Members on either side of this debate believe their chances of succeeding are strengthened by remaining affiliated with their party brand. Yet once the issue has been ‘resolved’, there will be little incentive, or desire, to remain loyal to these increasingly defunct political bodies.
While writing, the news this evening is covering a potential leadership challenge by Boris Johnson. Within the last few weeks Heidi Allen and Dominic Grieve have made it explicitly clear they will quit the Tory party if he is to become leader. Earlier today, Tory MP George Freeman hosted the Big Tent Ideas Festival, backed by Emmanuel Macron and attended by moderate MPs from the three main UK-wide parties. These events reinforce the sense that the tectonic plates are shifting.
The emergence of the new external political groupings are better suited to the context of today in comparison to the party-political system to which we are accustomed. This is due to the simple fact that they are formed along the lines of ‘open-closed’, whereas the party system is wholly reliant on the ‘left-right’ spectrum.
MPs are closely aligned with those they meet in these pressure groups and are increasingly invested in the ‘open-closed’ division. It is only a matter of time before they decide to stick with their new-found friends.