Brexit threatens to blow the British party system apart. Differences over the UK’s relationship with the EU have never been deeper, more salient and more entrenched than they are now.Europe has become a fundamental cleavage, rivalling those which have traditionally helped determine, and continue to help determine this country’s party politics.
Tectonic shifts like this are rare. But when they do occur, they throw up the possibility of profound change and realignment. Inasmuch as voters ever identified with the programmes and the parties on offer, they may forget any loyalties and any preferences they once had.
New contenders for their support may emerge, and indeed already have. Existing parties may split – or at the very least reconfigure themselves, and their appeals to the electorate, in order to try and cope. All that seemed solid may melt into air, with profound consequences for electoral competition.
We know that Remain and Leave now seem to constitute political identities as powerful as those once created by, say, class and partisan loyalties. It is those identities which, along with sociological change and electoral systems, help to determine a country’s party system – the pattern of interaction between political parties in a society, most commonly characterised according to the number of parties and their ideological spread.
Cleavages – profound splits in society, some of which are rooted in economics (such as differences between owners and workers), some of which are attitudinal (such as differences over the extent to which a country should be open or closed, cosmopolitan or parochial) – often find expression in politics, with parties positioning themselves on either side of the split.
New cleavages don’t come along every day. However, when they do, they can reshape party systems by bringing forth new parties that mobilise along them. But they can also prompt existing parties either to adapt and/or to break apart. The introduction of democracy at the start of the twentieth century, for instance, made the UK’s latent owner-worker cleavage manifest, leading the Conservatives to transform themselves from the party of the landed aristocracy and agricultural interests to the party of business, low taxation and a smaller state.
Meanwhile, the Liberals, pulled apart by war and hobbled by their reluctance to take on working people as candidates, fragmented and floundered and were soon overtaken by Labour and left out of government for almost a century.
Later on, European integration, the failure of corporatism and industrial decline drove a further wedge into cracks between left and right in the Labour Party, resulting in the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – and later the Lib Dems – which eventually forced Labour to adapt in order to stay competitive.
Meanwhile, on the right, concerns about cultural change and immigration in particular, combined with the media’s hunger for controversy and novelty, helped to put rocket boosters under UKIP, which then pushed the Conservative Party towards a more Eurosceptic position that eventually resulted in the holding of the EU referendum in 2016.
The question is whether that referendum, and its result, will produce tensions – socio-economic and cultural – that can no longer be contained by the UK’s party system in its existing form?
Will the Conservatives, for example, become a party dominated (even more than is already the case) by antipathy to the European Union and supported by older, less highly-educated people alarmed by the UK’s increasingly multi-ethnic character and longing for a return to a country they recognise as their own?
Will Labour, for its part, see its electorate become more like its membership – overwhelmingly middle-class, university-educated and socially-liberal? And is that (admittedly growing) segment of society yet big enough to win it elections in our current electoral system, even presuming Labour holds on to its predominant position among ethnic minority voters?
And how will all this impact on the geographical reach of both parties: will Labour become even more urban and the Tories ever more rural and small-town? Will the North-South divide in support begin to break down? Or will Labour’s cautious ambivalence on Brexit eventually see Remainers flood to the Lib Dems?
Alternatively, perhaps will we see the new centrist formation, currently known as The Independent Group, displace the Lib Dems. Could success on its part eventually persuade the Conservatives to change course and veer off the right-wing, nationalist road they have been travelling down since Theresa May took over?
Would this, in turn, open up space for a new, more populist radical right insurgency on their flank, whether it be led by Nigel Farage and friends or a UKIP 2.0 prepared to tap more directly into widespread Islamophobia than they were ever prepared to?
Or could an end to PR elections for the European Parliament spell doom for minor parties like the Ukip and the Greens, who have since the early eighties benefited from the opportunity the European elections have given their supporters not to, for once, cast a ‘wasted vote’?
As for the Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), all of which are more fortunate in that they enjoy more geographically concentrated support, will their very different stances on Brexit hinder or help them? And will Brexit mean that the party systems of the constituent parts of the UK become even more dissimilar than they already are?
There are, it is clear, more questions – far more questions – than answers. So much so that anyone who claims they know what’s going to happen to the UK’s party system in the next few years is either a knave or a fool. Educated guesses, on the other hand, are permitted. So here goes.
If Brexit goes ahead and continues to structure political identities as strongly as it seems to be doing right now, then Labour could well be in big trouble since large numbers of its voters will feel badly let down and could jump ship if a new centrist party can displace the Lib Dems and develop not just a coherent post-Brexit platform but an organizational infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the Tories, contrary to much conventional wisdom, will probably hang together – partly for fear of hanging separately and partly because we’ve forgotten, absent Europe, how much they all agree on.
And if Brexit doesn’t happen, the polarities are reversed: the UK remaining in the EU would almost certainly make things far more difficult for the Conservatives than for Labour. As to whether Labour, or any other party, would then be capable of winning a comfortable majority in the Commons, watch this space….
By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. This piece is from the UK in a Changing Europe’s report, Article 50 two years on, and was originally published in the Telegraph as ‘Brexit is tearing apart Britain’s establishment political parties’.