12 September 2019
The Middle Way
Or trouble ahead(?!)
There is a rather good story, said to be told by Julian Amery, about his driving down the Kings Road and narrowly missing a well-known figure standing marooned in the middle. Mr Amery had time to wind down his window and shout at Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party, (for it were he) “Standing in the middle of the road you’re guaranteed to get run over!”
Mr Thorpe’s career was savaged by a dog rather than a car, but it seems to be the fate of middle of the road parties to be crushed by the political juggernauts passing on either side. Until, many commentators and some politicos tell us, until now. This time it is all going to change. In the Labour Party there is increased disillusion with the leadership of Comrade Jezza, and the Tories are peeling away from Boris’s side like bark off a London Plane tree. Latest is Amber Rudd, leaving in what looks suspiciously like a carefully and long calculated move, rather than a spontaneous outbreak of principle, and she joins the 26 who have left since the 2017 election – of which 21 were expelled for defying the three line whip, 3 were founders of Change.UK (who?), plus Ms Rudd, Mr Johnson (not that one), and Dr Lee. This puts the Conservatives well ahead of Labour (who lost seven MP’s to Change.UK) and a couple dewhipped such as Chris Williamson, and also Frank Field who resigned from the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Practically all those members have left because they felt their chosen party to be too extreme, either on Brexit, or to the left. So on the swingometer view of politics, which sees extremes at either end and moderates of convergent views in the centre, those 40 or so resigners could form a new political party of moderation and common sense. (Cynical note intended.) Indeed, they constitute the third largest group in the Commons, equal with the ScotsNats, and well ahead of the LibDems, although there is a slow trickle turning Yellow.
So at the next election, might there be a seismic change in British politics? A big bloc of middle of the roaders, of broadly sympathetic views could be, will be, say some bold observers, the basis of a new grouping stealing moderate Tories and gentle Labourites which will force the extreme wings of both big parties out of office for ever. It is possible, but it is very unlikely. The only true regrouping of political parties was after the First World War when the Liberal Party faded away, to be replaced by Labour after twenty years of turbulence on the leftist side of the Commons.
And there is one simple fundamental reason why this will not happen, one well entrenched in LibDem nightmares. The UK voting system prevents such a realignment. The first past the post constituency system means that only one set of votes matter. If, in an extreme example, your candidate polls only 25% of the vote, but his four opponents split the rest evenly, that one with a quarter of the vote becomes MP for that constituency and the other 75% of the crosses are wasted. And on a national scale, the party that wins say 36% of the vote in many seats would have a massive majority if there were two other parties and in those seats they split the vote evenly. That structure has caused political parties to evolve into coalitions of similar (fairly similar) interests and they win if they can align those coalesced interests with what the voters happen to want. It is possible, as happened in the 1920’s, that the party coalitions could change, with large numbers of MP’s moving from one party to another – and of course, persuading their voters to follow them. At that time the Liberal Party was thought to be so out of touch by many and varied voters that there was a wholesale switch, both from the working class and from the radical intellectual class, to Labour. At the end of the nineteenth century it had seemed that Unionism, driven by Irish Home Rule, might cause such a realignment, and in the 1840’s the free trade split, had Peel been a different character, might have destroyed the Conservative Party. But in both cases, the causes were not of such appeal to the electorate, and the moments passed.
The cause now is, on the face of it, Brexit, and perhaps also a deeper concern about politicians being seen again as out of touch with what troubles their electors, that latter given as the reason for the rise of populism in democracies across the world. It must indeed be part of the disenchantment of the led with their leaders, but patriotism, or nationalism, is probably more at the heart of it than many commentators want to admit. The sophisticated commentariat see patriotism as defunct, nationalism as a force for evil. The smart sets are citizens of the world, or at least of Europe; national boundaries are bunk, and a loyalty to the flag is outdated, positively bizarre in a time of globalism. The problem is that many voters, especially those with lighter education and lower incomes and in some countries (but not all) of greater age, don’t think like that at all. They want government to be relatively local, in familiar accents, responsive to their needs.
But those politicians who want to realign the parties, create a third force or replace one of the main parties, are not pro-Brexit. They are, as it happens, against the very cause which they could use to force the change. Mr Farage spotted this and it has taken him a long way, though on both his journeys he has failed to convert his single issue parties to a broader cause which could overturn the Tory hegemony of the right.
Those who would realign politics have also misunderstood something else. Their strategy politically might be broadly described as widening the centre. Pull in enough moderate voters from either side and you have your unassailable force to give you your parliamentary majority. There are times that might work – Tony Blair spotted that he could ignore Labour’s left and move centrewards to pick up Tories disillusioned with John Major’s perceived right wing controlled party. But there are times it does not work at all – Atlee moved Labour far to the left in 1945 and picked up the radical dreams of postwar reconstruction; Thatcher moved the Tory Party smartly right in 1979 to appeal to those who had enough of semi-socialist controls and incompetence (and taxation).
It is not clear what Boris’s leanings are, perhaps liberal on social matters and economically interventionist, coupled with low tax and support for basic social needs. But none of that matters much at the moment. What the PM is capturing in his political strategy is a judgment that the majority of the country want out of the European adventure and don’t care that much how it is done. His assorted opponents are in a whirlpool, crewing a boat helmed to Remain, but with every sail set to a different wind. They may have the advantage at the moment, but Boris is making sure he is on the side of the people. How this may pan out is a mystery to us all, but if the people do not prevail, there could be trouble ahead.