Politics and Governance in the UK

by Michael Moran

Update 54: July 2016 - Six Months of Party and Popular Turmoil


If a week is a long time in politics (to quote the often repeated adage of the Labour Prime Minister of a generation ago, Harold Wilson) twelve months is an epoch. Looking back at the update I provided in July 2015 I see that I was recording a moment of triumphalism for the Conservative Party. In the General Election held in May 2015 it had freed itself from the restrictions of coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and looked forward to five years of office in which it could pursue without interruption the austerity policies which had been so abridged by its Liberal Democrat partners between 2010 and 2015. The Conservative Parliamentary majority was, admittedly, quite small, but at that moment it looked as if business as usual had been resumed in British politics: that is, business conducted according to the rules of majority single party government.

How different and uncertain the political landscape looks as I write this update at the start of July 2016. Both parties have been rent asunder. David Cameron a year ago was in the position of dominance as a Prime Minister and party leader who had delivered an electoral victory. George Osborne was securely positioned as his successor when Cameron departed, as he promised to do, at a moment of his own choosing before the next due general election date, May 2020. A year later Cameron has resigned as Prime Minister and Party leader, and sits in Downing Street as a caretaker until his Party decides on his successor. George Osborne has ruled himself out of the race to succeed Cameron. The ‘front runner’ until the morning of June 30 was Boris Johnson, someone who had never even held a Ministerial post. Johnson then dramatically withdrew from the race following a great falling out with his erstwhile ally, Michael Gove. At the time of writing the ‘front runner’ is the Home Secretary Theresa May, though I deliberately put that phrase in quotation marks because in Conservative leadership races front runners have a habit of tripping up in favour of dark horses.

The immediate source of all this upheaval is of course the hugely acrimonious referendum campaign fought in the spring and early summer on the question of whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union, or leave, and the result of the vote on 23 June which showed a small but decisive ‘leave’ majority. But the campaign only brought into the public domain tensions that had existed already within the Conservative leadership in Parliament. Shortly before the campaign got fully under way, a prominent member of the Cabinet, Iain Duncan Smith, resigned, ostensibly in fury over cuts to welfare benefits. His resignation in turn provoked fury on the part of the Prime Minister and plainly reflected more than differences over welfare policy: Mr Duncan Smith has been a long time Eurosceptic and was a leading member of the campaign on the ‘leave’ side in the referendum. The Party is deeply divided internally: broadly, a majority of leading Conservatives in Parliament (the majority of the Cabinet for instance) were supporters of ‘remain’ in the referendum; the backbenches of the Party in Parliament are just about evenly split on the issue; and among the 150,000 members of the Party in the country there is a large majority in favour of the ‘leave’ vote. In 2006, shortly after his election as Party Leader, Mr Cameron urged his Party not to continue ‘banging on about Europe.’ The extent to which his advice has been ignored is clear from the great crisis of 2016.

But if the Conservatives are in difficulty, those difficulties are nothing to what faces the Labour Party. In my update 50 (January 2016) I discussed the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader under the heading ‘Labour suicide or Labour renewal?’ The answer to that question still remains open, but what is clear is that in the aftermath of the June 23 referendum Labour is now engaged in a party civil war. On June 28 a large majority of the Parliamentary Party supported a motion of censure on Mr Corbyn as Party leader. As I write two former members of his Shadow Cabinet (Angela Eagle and Owen Smith) are wrangling over who should challenge Mr Corbyn in a leadership election. The wrangling is because it is not at all clear whether either could displace Mr Corbyn in a contest where the electorate is the party membership.

This state of affairs reflects the fact that there are really now two separate Labour Parties – indeed possibly if, as I show below, we take the distinctive character of Labour in London into account. One is the Party in the constituencies, especially in the London constituencies where Labour remains dominant; the other is the Party in Parliament. In an astonishing revolt against the Corbyn leadership over the weekend following the referendum result the majority of Labour’s front bench team (including twenty out of thirty one members of the Shadow Cabinet) resigned, precipitating the motion of no confidence in the Leader in the wider Parliamentary Party. The anti-Corbyn alliance is composed of two groups: those who never reconciled themselves to Corbyn’s victory in September 2015; and those who suspended judgement to see how things turned out. The mantra repeated by virtually all those who resigned took a “more in sorrow than in anger” line: Mr Corbyn is a decent man but he just is not up to the job. But there is much more to the problem than this personal judgement. There are many different ways effectively to run a political party (think of the very different styles of two of the most recent successes, Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair) and Mr Corbyn’s understated style is no less plausible than any other. But electoral politics is a results business and the run of results since his election – not confined to the referendum – have been very alarming for the Labour Party. The alarm bells have rung particularly loudly after the EU membership referendum. Unlike the Conservatives the Labour Party (and its trade union allies) was mostly united in advocating a ‘remain’ vote. Yet analysis of the geographical distribution of the vote, and of declared voting intentions in the pre referendum polling, shows that a large section of traditional Labour voters ignored the Party’s call to vote ‘remain.’ (See and Ford 2016, and Jennings 2016.) What was once ‘core’ Labour support – among white manual workers in industrial towns in the north of England and in the valleys of South Wales – voted against the recommendation of the national party leadership and delivered victory to the ‘leave’ camp. Moreover, the pattern for Labour is chillingly like the pattern in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, when voters first rejected the UK national Labour leadership as a prelude to abandoning it in the 2015 general election, leading to the Parliamentary landslide for the Scottish Nationalists.

Although I have described the Labour Party as virtually split into two separate parties – one in Parliament, one in the country – it might be more accurate to say that the Party is now divided in three ways: vertically between the Party in the constituencies and the Party in Parliament; and geographically between the party of the big cities (especially London) and the Party in the older, mostly declining smaller industrial towns of the north of England and south Wales. As I showed in my last update (number 50, January 2016) there is in particular now a growing divide between the capital and rest of the country. The Party’s membership did indeed double in the space of a few months because of the ‘Corbyn effect’ in last year’s leadership contest. But the new members are disproportionately located in Greater London. There has been almost no increase in Labour’s former heartlands beyond London. The contrasts are stark and striking: in Holborn and St Pancras Labour’s membership tripled to 3,000; in Burnley it rose from 319 to 484; in the Rhondda from 355 to 485; and across Scotland the typical constituency gained an average of 68 new members (creating an average constituency total of 322.) It is true that in proportional terms the smaller absolute gains are significant, but the upshot of it all is that the weight of membership has swung decisively to the big cosmopolitan cities, and especially to London.

The impression that London Labour is different is reinforced by the result of the election for Mayor of London (and for the Greater London Assembly) in May. In the one bit of good news for Labour in a very long time Labour’s candidate, Sadiq Khan, trounced his Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith, winning the required absolute majority on the first ballot. (He received 56.8 per cent of the vote, Goldsmith 43.2, while the other parties, including UKIP, received derisory levels of support.) Labour also won the popular vote for the Greater London Assembly Elections by a mile and is the largest Party in the Assembly.

Just how unusual is London’s political behaviour is shown by the results of the nationwide council elections held on the same day as London’s elections. The ‘headline’ changes were not superficially alarming for Labour: it lost only a small number of seats (18), and outside London confirmed its strong position in the big cities that most resemble London in cosmopolitan mix, like Manchester and Bristol. The party that is threatening Labour in its older heartlands – UKIP – also made only moderate gains (25 new councillors.) But a survey over time, rather than a snapshot, shows the scale of the Labour problem. Over the last forty years the pattern is clear: the main opposition party almost always makes gains in mid-term council elections. The only occasions when Labour performed as it did in 2016 was in 1982 and 1985 – the very nadir of the Party’s fortunes, or at least the nadir of its fortunes before 2016. Moreover, the results of the elections in the devolved systems emphasise the scale of Labour’s problems. Labour lost its majority in the Welsh Assembly, but much more ominously saw UKIP make inroads into its Welsh heartlands: UKIP won no individual constituencies, but on the second ‘regional’ allocation picked up seven seats. By contrast with its failure to make headway in Scotland, it is emerging as a significant threat to Labour, an impression emphasised by the evidence that traditional Welsh Labour voters also deserted the Party in the EU membership referendum. In Scotland Labour suffered a predictable rout – predictable after its disaster in the 2015 General Election. Labour won only three constituency seats (against 59 for the SNP) and, after the regional allocations, was pushed into third place in the Parliament by the Conservatives. The Conservative resurgence is particularly significant. There is a naturally large Conservative vote in Scotland. The fact that the Party has now fully come to terms with devolution, is led by an openly gay woman who shows none of the cultural traits of the old Scottish Conservative party, and the fact that the SNP is now occupying the place of a social democratic party in Scotland, suggests that the Conservatives have now established themselves as the natural party of the right in Scotland once again.

The only set of results in 2016 which suggested consolidation rather than upheaval was in Northern Ireland. I showed in the third edition of Politics and Governance in the UK that the most striking feature of electoral behaviour in the province over recent decades has been the clustering of support around two polar opposites, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. The latest results show only the most marginal attrition of support for these two dominant institutions: the DUP lost a tiny sliver of support (down 0.8 per cent) but lost no seats; Sinn Féin lost a little more (2.8 per cent and one Assembly seat). But the stability and dominance of the two blocs remains largely undisturbed. The one potentially disturbing sign from Northern Ireland came in the EU membership referendum: the province voted in favour of remain (56 per cent in favour) while the corresponding figure in the UK as a whole was 48 per cent. More potentially destabilising is the distribution of this vote. Analysis by area suggests that ‘leave’ voters are concentrated in constituencies voting Unionist, ‘remain’ in those voting nationalist. When ‘Brexit’ happens this will make the question of the province’s status in the UK all the more problematic, especially if Scotland reacts to Brexit by voting for independence in a second referendum. Much thus depends on what we make of Brexit, something I examine in Update 52.

References:

Jennings, W. (2016). North v south, young v old – the new political fault lines, The Observer, 6th June 2016, at: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/04/eu-referendum-campaign-polls-fault-lines-politics

Ford, R. (2016). ‘Older ‘left-behind’ voters turned against a political class with values opposed to theirs’ The Observer, 23th June 2016, at:
http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/25/left-behind-eu-referendum-vote-ukip-revolt-brexit