Houses of Parliament, Big Ben at night

Much of the media’s focus following the European parliament election results on Sunday night has turned to the contest for the leadership of the Conservative party. However following the worst performance ever for a ruling party in a national election, the real question is: will Brexit finally bring about a new political order in the UK?

Polarised Plurality

Despite the relatively low turnout compared to a general election, one of the clearest lessons to be learnt from the EU elections is that the growing polarisation in our electoral politics is here to stay. However that polarisation is not limited to two large parties, as it is in countries such as the United States. Instead what we are seeing is a form of polarised plurality – where polarised views are held by proponents in a variety of different parties, some more united than others.

One the one side we have the Brexit party and UKIP – the arch-Brexiters. Both of these parties are clear in their view that the UK should leave the EU without a deal, and then negotiate a free trade agreement if possible. This is also the view of a significant minority of Conservative party MPs, including popular leadership candidates such as Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, and of the vast majority of the membership of the Conservative party.

On the other we have a wide coalition led by the Liberal Democrats, including a resurgent Green party (remember they came close to coming third in the EU elections – their best ever result in a national election), the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists and Change UK. All of these parties advocate a People’s Vote and would campaign vigorously to remain in the EU.

In the middle lies the moderate Tories and the Labour party, both of whom have tried and failed to find a compromise solution to Brexit. Both are being torn apart by divisions over Brexit, and the leadership of neither seems set to come down on one side of the argument or the other. As a result, together, they garnered less than a quarter of votes at the EU elections. This is unprecedented in British politics.

Polarised plurality is also set to continue, as polling by Lord Ashcroft this week has indicated: while some voters would, as expected, return to Labour and the Conservatives in a general election, strong support would still remain for the Brexit party and the Liberal Democrats in particular – all four parties polling between 17% and 21%, mirroring the direction of travel in polling prior to the EU elections. This was confirmed by a YouGov poll the Times today, which put the Liberal Democrats in the lead with 24%, the Brexit party on 22% and both the Conservatives and Labour on 19% – the first time ever that neither of the two major parties has polled in the top two.

Did someone mention proportional representation?

Over the last two years, polling has largely pointed towards the prospects of a hung parliament at the next election, meaning that we are likely to see yet more coalitions or confidence and supply agreements if we are to have any form of stable government in the coming years. In a ‘first past the post’ electoral system, there is a danger that different parts of the country will end up being pitted against one another – highlighting divisions without any prospect of these being healed.

Depending on the influence of ‘challenger’ parties (the Lib Dems, Brexit party and the Greens), including the number of seats they gain at the next election, one possible solution could be electoral reform to make our system more proportional – possibly the only policy which all of the challenger parties would agree on. While this has traditionally been viewed more as wishful thinking than a realistic prospect, if the polling above plays itself out then next general election could result in a parliament where no parties secure more than 200 seats.

The Liberal Democrats have already learned the lessons of the 2010-15 coalition government, and other challenger parties would be wise to heed it: unless proportional representation is secured as a result of entering government, any minor partner is likely to suffer significantly at the following election.

Back to the People

The background to this is that Labour had until recently been consistently polling as the largest party since March, largely due to the sudden collapse in Conservative support: following their high of 40% in late February, the party’s share of the vote has halved. Conservative MPs are now terrified of the prospect of a general election, where they fear not only their worst result since 1997 (or possibly ever) but also the resulting Corbyn-led government.

They are also painfully aware of the fact that there is no majority for a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the current parliament and there is little prospect of a parliament being elected where this will change. For that reason, a growing number of MPs are beginning to think that the only way Brexit can be delivered is through another referendum or ‘People’s Vote’. Such is the hatred of the current deal negotiated by Theresa May that the question is likely to come down to a straight choice between remain and revoke Article 50 on the one hand, and leave with no deal on the other.

Where next for UK politics?

Whatever happens, the margin of victory is likely to be slim and the divisions will continue. What is clear is that, while the language of ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ visions of Britain’s future is too simplistic, there has been a shift in the reasons behind voters’ choices. Since the 1970s there has been a very clear decline in class identity in the UK, shifting more towards a more socially liberal view of the world (usually found in metropolitan areas) on the one hand, and a more socially conservative one (usually found in rural or deprived areas) on the other. This division has crossed traditional political party boundaries and has been a lot more defined by age than by background.

This has been coupled with a steady decrease in the level of trust in politicians, exemplified by the expenses scandal of the late 2000s but even stronger now given the impasse over Brexit. The increasing access to information, whether correct or ‘fake news’, has exacerbated both this and the divisions in society – leading to an instinctive distrust, verging at times on hatred, for people (whether politicians or not) of opposing political viewpoints. The distrust of the ‘other’ may also be partly behind the recent rise in hate crimes – a wider societal challenge but one that is linked.

UK politicians are going to have to grasp these challenges and provide solutions to the problems society faces – and those solutions are going to have to be bold and radical if they are to gain traction. As a result, it seems that further division in the short term is inevitable: the question is where society will settle in the long term.

Whatever the solutions proposed, the two-party system appears to be crumbling. With the Brexit impasse nowhere near being solved, and entrenched societal divisions set to continue, the future of British politics is more uncertain than ever. Polarised plurality looks set to be the order of the day and if the Labour and Conservative Parties aren’t up to the task, others will take their place.

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