The coming United Kingdom general election, to be held on December 12th, will be like no other before it. To be fair, in these uncertain times, that applies to the political situation in many countries. But for the UK, used to boring, predictable stability, the arrival of interesting times has come as a shock to the system.
Britain operates a first past the post voting system (FPTP) in which each constituency (650 at present) elects a Member of Parliament (MP). FPTP has the benefit of ensuring each constituency has a local MP elected to represent its interests in Parliament. It has the disadvantage, similar to the American system for electing Presidents, that it can only effectively support two powerful parties. It’s true that Britain’s Parliament is diverse, containing MPs from a wide variety of parties. But the great majority are drawn from just two: Labour and the Conservatives (Tories). Although, in election after election, people may be tempted to vote for outsider parties, most voters conclude by polling day that they might as well cast their vote for one of these two parties, if only to prevent the other from gaining power. There are numerous other parties represented in Parliament, but these are relatively small. At best, they can hope to hold the balance of power if neither big party gets a majority.
Traditionally, voting allegiance among Labour and Tory voters is passed down through families like religion. My own family has been mostly Labour-voting for decades. However, this blind party allegiance is changing, and the total Lab/Con vote share is falling election after election.
Though I was once a loyal Labour voter (I always voted Labour for the first two decades of my adult life, until Tony Blair joined the Iraq War), I will almost certainly be voting for the ‘centrist’ Liberal Democrats in this election (although I live in a very safe Labour seat, so this is largely a token gesture). The only reasonable outcome for me is a hung Parliament. Although economic issues are as important as ever, for me there are far more important things at stake in this election. The big issue for me is the collapse of both main parties into populism. Each party has sharply moved away from its own roots as well as from the established centre-ground. And although in style, the two parties are very different from each other, in substance they share some strange common ground.
Linked to this overriding problem are a number of deeply worrying issues, most important of which is Brexit (Britain’s planned exit from the European Union). Additional to this, there has been a rise in nationalist and anti-democratic sentiment in both parties, and a surge of antisemitism within the Labour Party, which traditionally has been strongly anti-racist.
We British pride ourselves on our stability and moderation. Unlike in France, where populists of far-left and far-right can take almost half the vote between them, populism has never made great strides into mainstream politics. This has all been changed via three political earthquakes.
Before 2015, the only populist party of note was the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage. Farage’s stated goal was to win a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union - although he also tended to flirt with xenophobia, and was seen as a hard-right figure. For decades, Britain had been bombarded with anti-EU propaganda by the right-wing media (especially the papers under the control of the billionaires Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond and the Barclay Brothers). Much of this propaganda was simply ludicrous, establishing myths such as the one that Brussels had outlawed bent bananas. While most Brits did not hold strong opinions on EU membership, these anti-Brussels stories created the popular idea that Britain was struggling under the weight of EU regulation. In reality, the EU had created an unprecedented single market across Europe, bringing cross-Europe trade to an unprecedented level. EU citizens also have the right to live and work in any EU country, which increased flows of migration between countries, and led to a moderate level of anti-Polish xenophobia in Britain. Anti-EU feeling was mostly felt on the political right, dividing the Conservative Party between pro-business, pro-EU centrists and anti-EU right-wing nationalists, who were prepared to sacrifice trade in order to cut migration. Farage cleverly exacerbated this divide, leading the Tory Prime Minister David Cameron to eventually call a referendum on the EU - one that he thought he could win, and in the process finally get the annoying nationalist right of his party to shut up. The referendum was scheduled for June 2016.
Then came the first of the three earthquakes. Having badly lost an election in 2015, The Labour Party leader Ed Miliband stepped down and called an internal election. In order to spice up the debate and involve the wider public, he did two things: he invited a representative of Labour’s left-wing fringe to join the race, and he created an Associate level of membership. For only £3, this allowed members of the public to vote in the leadership contest. The left put forward Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran Labour MP and campaigner, who was known for making good protest speeches and going on a lot of marches. Although Corbyn was broadly seen as a decent man, he came from a cultish, eurosceptic fringe of the left. While hatred of the EU was typically viewed as a right-wing thing, people had apparently forgotten that the small, previously insignificant, and deeply divided British far-left also loathed the EU. Corbyn’s anti-EU feelings were widely known among political veterans, but not among the younger people who had been less involved with politics, and who now flooded into the Labour Party to support Corbyn, in what became known as Corbynmania. Ironically, most of Corbyn’s new supporters were strongly pro-EU, but most of them simply did not understand the history of far-left antipathy to Brussels.
Labour Party membership more than doubled in advance of the vote, and Corbyn took care to play down his euroscepticism. He won the vote by a landslide, presenting himself as the people’s candidate vs the other grey-suited ones, who all suddenly looked alike in comparison to the offbeat left-wing character. For the first time, Labour had a leader who wanted to leave the EU; and Cameron’s referendum was only nine months away.
Cameron’s assumption in calling the referendum had been that all the major party leaders (Tory, Labour, SNP, Lib Dem, Greens and Plaid Cymru) would have united in the Remain campaign, and this was dashed by Corbyn’s lukewarm attitude towards the EU and his refusal to share a campaign platform with other party leaders. His office reportedly undermined the Labour Remain campaign.
The second populist earthquake came with the unexpected loss of the EU referendum. David Cameron’s reputation was shattered. In an attempt to unite his party, he had plunged the country into uncertainty, and split it into two warring tribes. Remainers were typically younger, more middle-class, lived in cities and were warm towards Europe and immigration. Britain’s culture war was now based on similar lines to America’s, with older, more working-class Leave voters taking the place of Trump supporters.
David Cameron stood down and was replaced by Theresa May, who (foolishly) believed she could find a compromise Brexit that would please leavers without hurting the UK economy too badly. She also (wrongly) believed she might be a competent campaigner, and called a general election in order to increase her majority in Parliament. In fact, in the 2017 election she lost seats, and found herself running a minority government with the support of the hard-right Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. Although she did negotiate her compromise Brexit deal with the EU, she lacked the support in Parliament to push it through. MPs were being asked to pass a deal that would make the country (and their constituents) poorer with no clear upside. Unsurprisingly, they refused to do so. Populist politicians and the right-wing media cast Parliament as blocking “the will of the people”, a classic populist position aimed at discrediting the democratic system.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn had been dragging his party into a more hardline anti-EU position, and making quite openly nationalist speeches, in which the EU became a neoliberal enemy of the British working class (although in practise, Labour had been losing working class support for some time). His shine began to dim, and Corbynmania faded.
Simultaneously, there was an unprecedented upsurge in antisemitism within the Labour Party. A small minority of the many thousands of new Labour members had come from extremist fringe positions, and now attitudes that had been largely foreign to the Labour Party became embedded. Jewish party members began to report hostility and abuse towards them at meetings. Many Jews (including myself) began to face abuse in left-wing Facebook groups and on Twitter. Although I had always been on the left, and had often marched in support of Palestinian rights, I now found myself called a “Zionist” simply because I was Jewish. I also found myself told that I was an unwitting agent of a right-wing Zionist conspiracy against Jeremy Corbyn. This narrative comes within a hair’s breadth of far-right claims of a “global Jewish conspiracy”.
Jewish Labour MPs reported a torrent of antisemitic abuse from within the party. The MP Luciana Berger (granddaughter of one of Labour’s great historic figures, Manny Shinwell) left the party with a harrowing story of being abused, and later Louise Ellman left the party after 55 years, writing in her resignation letter: “Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, antisemitism has become mainstream in the Labour party. Jewish members have been bullied, abused and driven out. Antisemites have felt comfortable and vile conspiracy theories have been propagated.” The BBC screened a Panorama documentary that showed antisemitic attitudes were tolerated at the top of the party. For the first time in history, a major party is under investigation for racism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Only the neo-fascist British National Party had previously been investigated in this way. For the first time, the Chief Rabbi (Britain’s most senior Jewish leader) has spoken out, warning of a Labour victory. He has been backed in this by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Muslim Council of Britain has added its support, and also pointed out the scale of anti-Muslim prejudice within the Tory Party. We are in uncharted waters.
The third and final populist earthquake came with the resignation of Theresa May and the election of Boris Johnson on a populist promise to “Get Brexit Done”. Just as Labour’s hard-left was doing, Johnson began a purge of centrists and internationalists from the Conservative Party. Just as Labour MPs were watching the rapid transformation of Labour in shock and bewilderment, so the Tories have suddenly become a more right-wing, nationalistic force in British politics.
In the space of five years, Britain’s two main parties have been transformed from pro-EU, pro-migration, pro-trade positions to populist, anti-EU forces. The Tories are now openly hostile towards migration, and even historically pro-immigration Labour is now split in a struggle over the issue, with regular flip-flops in position over whether it supports free movement of European workers. Like many people, I see both parties as deeply toxic, and believe our best hope is for another hung Parliament that denies Johnson the power to implement his promises - though this too could have negative consequences for British democracy.