Recently British politics has seen more drama than usual. Alongside the continuing struggles over Brexit, and indeed as an aspect of that, a series of MPs have left both the Labour and Conservative parties. One (Ian Austin) has left his party without joining anything else, but the other 11 now form The Independent Group.
Most observers expect this gathering to soon evolve into a fully-fledged political party, a prospect its members have done little to play down. What though is going on and how to understand it?
Much of the current analysis focuses on the specific personalities involved and the particular circumstances of the moment. That misses both the real nature of what is happening and the likely impact of these events. A better approach is to take both a deeper and longer term view. What we are seeing is part of a political realignment, something that has happened before in British politics, and those previous episodes can help us to understand this one better.
An MP resigning their party whip and membership or even ‘crossing the floor’ to another party is not a frequent phenomenon, but it still happens on a fairly regular basis. In such cases it makes sense to look at the particular circumstances and quirks of the particular politician and their local party to understand why they have done this, and to make sense of what is going on (not a lot is the usual answer). This time, however, it’s different.
The MPs who have formed the Independent Group are acting as a group with common reasons for their decisions that are not purely local or personal. In other words they are driven by a shared set of beliefs about major intellectual and political or policy questions. They have a shared outlook and an emergent ideology. They also appeal to a specific demographic, a particular kind of voter in terms of location, social and class identity and outlook. All this explains why they are more than a collection of disgruntled or disappointed individuals but can be reasonably be seen as an embryonic party. This clearly is how they see themselves, so there is a shared political project.
This has happened before. There are several occasions in British political history when a significant number of elected MPs have left their own party and either joined another as a bloc or set up their own party – often the actual process is setting up a new party that then effectively merges into another after time. In 1886 a large number of Liberal MPs and almost all of the Liberal Party’s supporters in the Lords broke with the party over the question of Irish Home Rule and followed their leaders (Joseph Chamberlain and the Duke of Devonshire) in setting up a new party, the Liberal Unionists, which then combined with the Conservative Party.
In the 1920s and early 1930s there were a succession of splits in the Liberal Party, with MPs going over to both the Conservatives and the newly emerged Labour Party. In the early 1980s a significant group of Labour MPs (including four former cabinet ministers) left the party and set up the Social Democratic Party, which in alliance with the Liberals narrowly missed out on second place in the popular vote (though not in seats) in the 1983 General Election.
These major splits and reformations tend to happen every forty years or so. They are the visible sign of something more profound, which is a political realignment. In any political community there are typically two broad sides or poles to politics. In a first-past-the-post system these tend to be represented by large portmanteau parties, in a proportional representation system there are more parties but these are usually grouped into two large clusters. This bipolarity reflects the ultimate reality of politics: you are either in power or out of it — there is no halfway house.
The two sides are electoral and ideological coalitions that seek to win power and shift the political argument. The argument about what though? Although people have varying opinions about a wide range of issues and topics, in normal political times there are normally only one or two defining and salient issues.
The two large coalitions are defined by the way people divide on those aligning questions. As such politics and political debates, alliances and enmities are defined by those same questions. Most of the time there is a stable situation with one or two issues defining an alignment in this way. This is the context in which individual switches and defections take place between one side or the other of the alignment. However, after a while the democratic process (if it works) produces a broad consensus or at least modus vivendi on one or both of the aligning issues and politics becomes enervated with a feeling that both sides are indistinguishable. At this point a new aligning issue appears. This typically divides voters, donors, and politicians in a way that cuts across the existing and by now exhausted alignment.
At this point there is a realignment. New divisions appear and old ones become irrelevant. People who were once on the same team become bitter opponents and former fierce enemies become allies. There is a change, with new parties forming, older ones splitting or being transformed, and sharp shifts in the pattern of voting. At the same time old issues can suddenly reemerge with new vigour and ideologies that were apparently consigned to history can revive like Lazarus.
This is what happened in the 1880s. The stable division between Liberal and Conservative, over issues such as Church and State relations and constitutional reform, was suddenly transformed by the issue of Irish Home Rule, which was a proxy for a set of divisions over the nature of British society and the British state. If history tells us anything, it’s that divisions in English politics that appear to be about Ireland are never actually about Ireland, they are really about England or some aspect of English identity and governance that is put in question by the relationship with Ireland.
So what about the current ructions in the Labour and Conservative parties? A new aligning issue is appearing. This has been brought to a head by the catalytic question of Brexit but is about a much wider range of issues. We may describe this as nationalism versus globalist cosmopolitanism. It is a division about identity and the relations between the political order of the nation state and the increasingly globalised economy.
All over Europe (and elsewhere) we can observe the emergence of a kind of politics usually called ‘authoritarian populism’, but which we could equally define as ‘national collectivism’, because it combines an active and authoritative role for the state with an assertion of traditional national identity. This is increasingly provoking a response, which is the emergence of an explicitly liberal cosmopolitan position combining typically support for free markets and economic globalisation with egalitarianism, social liberalism, and the assertion of a pluralistic notion of identity.
In this context, The Independent Group looks like the first stage in the emergence of a liberal cosmopolitan pole in the UK. It may go on to be a successful political party or it may end up catalysing a transformation of an existing party or emergent coalition. The specific questions that have provoked its appearance are instances of the way the categories of ‘right’ and ‘left’ are redefined and their content changed in the course of a realignment. In Britain, as in other places, the category of ‘left’ is being contested. For many it is being redefined to mean a combination of socialist (actually radical green) economics and radical identity politics, combined with a view of global international relations that blames the West for most of the world’s problems and supports anti-colonialism, which also includes questioning the legitimacy of Israel.
This is opposed by an older style ‘left’ that continues to assert the primacy of economic divisions and seeks to downplay the new axis of identity. The MPs who have left the Labour Party have done so in reaction against the version of cosmopolitanism that is coming to define the left, and also in reaction against the perceived movement of the Conservative Party towards populist nationalism. They feel that the second kind of older left is not doing enough to resist this and they also reject the Corbyn faction’s insistence on heavy state interventionism.
Meanwhile the ex-Conservative MPs have rejected their former party’s move towards a populist nationalism and the way the category of ‘right’ is being redefined to make opposition to supranationalism, migration of labour, and economic globalisation its central features.
The exact future for TIG and its members is unclear, although we can be sure that we are seeing a realignment, of which it is a key part. At the moment this process may seem chaotic, but we should remember that the term ‘debacle’ actually refers to the process by which the frozen ice of Siberian rivers ruptures and divides with the onset of spring and the start of a new year.
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