Today’s news about Seven Labour MPs leaving the Labour Party and forming The Independent Group could, of course, be a seminal moment in UK Politics or of course, it may be a footnote in history and quickly forgotten. Is this a full-blown Labour split or a Splinter.
It’s interesting that the announcement was made today in a brief gap in the Brexit furor. Some have wondered whether this should have waited until after next week but then again will the legislative process for Brexit ever end.
The wider question, of course, is whether or not it will succeed in re-aligning Westminster politics.
What’s interesting is that no new party has been formed (at least not yet) a Limited Company has been formed instead. Contrast that with Nigel Farage and the formation of a full-blown registered party ‘The Brexit Party’.
If and when a new party is formed it faces the two key barriers.
Firstly the electoral system – first past the post is unforgiving to new parties. UKIP got 14% in the 2015 Election and came out with 1 MP and even he was a Conservative retread.
Secondly, parties need members and infrastructure ( officers, data, money and election agents for example) and this can take years to build up.
UKIP’s failure to break through and win seats in the House of Commons in 2015 was down to both these factors.
At this stage, we can say the 7 ex-Labour MPs have planted a Flag in the centre ground and we will see how many others join them and what the next steps are.
Some, of course, greeted the decision with bewilderment others questioned why Nick Clegg? Interesting no one seems to have questioned the need for Facebook to better engage with the global political establishment.
It’s clear that the main regulatory challenge to Facebook is coming from the European Union (EU), and Clegg – who worked for the European Commission and was then was an MEP from 1999 to 2004, He certainly knows his way around Brussels. He speaks 5 languages and as a former Deputy PM in the UK, he also knows plenty about the inner workings of the UK Government.
The EU has a clear agenda to reign in the power of American technology companies so who better than someone with Clegg’s experience to lobby and navigate the interests and structures of Brussels?
He adds ‘ If the tech industry can work sensibly with governments, regulators, parliaments and civic society around the world, I believe we can enhance the benefits of technology while diminishing the often unintended downsides.’
For the Liberal Democrats, it means any thoughts of a Clegg come back (a London seat was rumoured as a possible way back) are well and truly over.
However, it also means they can probably truly move on from the Coalition era though they might not truly be able to do that until Vince Cable steps down too.
There is a pretty wide consensus that Labour and Corbyn had a good conference and presented themselves as a Government in waiting focussed on wider domestic policy. Their nuanced policy of ‘Constructive Ambiguity’ on Brexit looks likely to keep their Coalition of Leave and Remain voters together too.
As the excellent Stephen Bush points out ‘Labour may not have started the culture war but they certainly benefited from it at the last election. Now they essentially want to bring that to an end, bank their gains among social liberals, graduates and the middle classes and win over voters with an economic offer.’
Whilst the Conservatives seemed to have to ditched their reputation as the party of business who would have thought a Labour Shadow Chancellor like John McDonnell would be making a pitch to fill that gap in the market.
It was telling that McDonnell name-checked Gordon Brown and Corbyn did the same for John Prescott some distinct connecting with the days in Government.
This seems a marked contrast with the Conservatives who gather in Birmingham this weekend?
The Conservative increasingly resemble an Opposition Party dominated by the poisoned chalice of implementing Brexit struggling to find a voice or define a vision of how they would tackle the domestic policy challenges that lie ahead. Former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman Robert Halfon called this Conference ‘Make or Break’ have we ever heard that language from a Senior Conservative before.
Its almost an equal and opposite position to Labour and who would have thought that 2 years ago?
Meanwhile, Labour who already advocates many of the features of a ‘Norway+Customs Union‘ style Brexit deal. Its seem they will be firming up their position and for mainly tactical reasons adopting a second referendum or ‘peoples vote’ as policy.
As we know the Liberal Democrats have always advocated an #exitfrombrexit and remaining in the EU.
And so we are now very close to the point where all three UK wide parties have clear positions on Brexit. Up until now the Constructively Ambiguity of Labour on Brexit and the ‘compromises’ of ‘Chequers’ have made the idea of another General Election to settle the issues untenable soon it may not be so and a #PeoplesVote may look like a less attractive way of resolving a constitutional impasse.
That is of course so long as neither Labour nor the Conservatives split!
With the Civil Wars in both Labour and Conservatives now escalating we seem to be in uncharted territory at no time in modern political history have both larger parties been in crisis at the same time.
At the same time, we seem to be seeing a realignment of voters with the Tories becoming a non-metropolitan pro-Brexit party and the Labour Party seeing its support shifting in the opposite direction.
You could argue that Lib Dems are the only ones left standing in their post Coalition (doesn’t that seem longer than 3 years ago !) but their recovery is in its early stages.
So we seem to have a unique situation just about the whole of our Party system is dysfunctional yet our Voting System ( First Past the Post ) makes it hard for the new parties that could emerge from the chaos to succeed at Parliamentary level.
Somethings got to give and its hard to see what yet?
It is said that the odds on ( yet another ) General Election are shortening by the day though some would say that the Brexit Negotiations make one inevitable. Tuesday 12th June is what the Americans might call ‘Super Tuesday’ all 15 Lords amendments to the EU Withdrawl Bill will be voted on in one long day in the House of Commons. The government will be asking MPs to reject them all.
It doesn’t require much effort to imagine the right conditions arising to trigger an Election this Autumn.
The Prime Minister has managed to get to the end of phase one of Brexit talks ( last December) and agreed on a transition phase just before Easter. The hardcore Leavers in the Conservative have grumbled a little but have largely stayed loyal.
The next ( and main) stage of negotiations are underway and as expected to prove very difficult both within Government and with the EU.
The splits in the Conservative Party are getting wider.’Super Tuesday’ will be the biggest test yet.
The Government expects to win all 15 votes but who really knows.
However, the return of the EU Trade bill in July will see a full-blown rebellion from Remainers in the Conservative Party. If Labour does finally endorse staying in the Single Market having already backed staying in a Customs Union we may have deadlock and the Government won’t be able to get its Brexit strategy through Parliament.
May’s pursuit of a smooth, orderly, and some would say very soft Brexit looks increasingly like its pushing Brexiteers too far and will trigger a coup against her. Tim Shipman of the The Times Today suggests this will come as soon as July when the Withdrawl Bill receives Royal Assent.
A new Conservative leader (and PM) may feel that they need to go to the Country not only to break the parliamentary deadlock but also to get a mandate for a harder Brexit assuming they are a Leaver of course.
Its very unlikely Labour would decline the opportunity to have an election so passing the threshold of 66% of MPs needed to trigger a GE should be no problem.
On the other side of the equation, however, we should consider :
There is no public appetite for one – you can hear ‘Brenda from Bristol’ warming up her vocal cords as we speak. Another election is likely to be divisive and bitter.
Aside from a few burnt Conservative fingers from 2017 to put off a new leader -Its highly likely an election would produce another Hung Parliament albeit with a different composition to the current one. The polls haven’t shifted very much and Hung Parliaments are the new norm and majorities are the exception.
A Conservative Leadership election could easily see Theresa May win and face down her critics and its unlikely she would be very keen to go to the Country again.
So the answers as so often are ‘who knows’. Political chaos continues. Brexit truly is the only show in town.
UK Politics will certainly remain interesting for those who follow it closely but probably baffling for everyone else.
Theresa Mays’s now infamous retort has now entered the political lexicon after her manifesto u-turn last year.
Unlike elections and referendums in 2015 2016 and 2017, we got a result where little changed at least outwardly. In the Local Elections 2018 we saw the largest parties achieve a score draw. Had this been a Westminster Election we would have had another Hung Parliament with similar numbers to 2017.
So what can we deduce from the Local Elections 2018?
As usual, there is the caveat that locals are not historically a great predictor of General Elections but they do show us the undercurrents in our political system and shape the media narrative.
Let’s not also forget strength at local council level is the key to capturing Parliamentary seats.
The Conservatives won the battle of expectation management and post results spin. To lose seats and councils but get a media narrative as positive as this was a real achievement.
Conversely, Labour lost the expectation setting game (See HERE) despite winning the most votes and the most seats albeit not gaining any Councils. Its fair to say Labour activists were doing victory laps on social media in the final week of the campaign and party HQ failed to put that right in the mainstream media.
The Conservatives were predicting (deliberately) an electoral ‘bloodbath’ (see HERE ) in London that never materialised.
There seemed little doubt that the Anti-Semitism row affected Labour in key areas yet the Windrush scandal hardly seems to have dented the Conservatives.
The Liberal Democrats results were better than they expected and fed a media narrative of a slow but now steady recovery from near wipeout in the 2015 General Election.
The Conservatives will be pleased with Labour’s perceived ‘failure’ to break through but more concerned at the Lib Dem revival.
It seems certain that the results of the Local Elections 2018 show us that the redrawing of political loyalties we saw in the 2017 General Election are here to stay.
The Conservatives are truly the party of Brexit now with 75% or so of their vote coming from Leave supporters. That will embolden Conservative Brexiteers to push for a ‘harder’ Brexit and may sound the death knell for the ‘Customs Partnership’ option favoured by the Prime Minister. That’s assuming, of course, the House of Commons don’t force the Customs Union option upon the Government in the next few weeks.
Many commentators are talking about ‘Peak Corbyn’ and saying that these results show Labour can’t win a General Election.
We should be cautious about this as in a General Election turnout would be twice as high and the Campaign much more intense and high profile.
That said if an Election isn’t held soon then it’s inevitable that Corbyn won’t be such a fresh face anymore. Remember no Opposition Leader has won a second General Election in the last 40 years.
THE NEW REAL DIVIDE IN UK POLITICS
Where once we talked about the North-South divide and the Working Class Middle Class divide these results confirm what we saw in 2017. A new divide is now plain to see
Younger Metropolitan Voters v Older Socially Conservative Voters
Big Cities versus Towns and Rural Areas
Leave versus Remain
The Conservatives have precious little representation in all the major UK cities bar London yet govern the country that’s a very different picture to 20 years ago.
In a couple of days time, the Local Elections 2018 will be forgotten and I suspect Brexit will top the News Agenda again. In the meantime the political world takes the briefest of Bank Holiday breaks to catch up on lost sleep before hostilities resume.