Political Realignment

This post comes with a huge caveat: I am not an expert on UK politics. I do have a general sense of the parties, but I don’t follow goings-on in the United Kingdom very closely. Or rather, I haven’t until this most recent election. Consequently, some of what I say here may be very simplistic – if not simply wrong – and if anyone who is better versed in UK politics wishes to correct some aspect of this post, I would welcome that.

I have been reading, repeatedly, in recent columns and op-ed pieces in the UK papers, that with this coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties, we may be witnessing something greater than a pragmatic arrangement between two parties to hopefully provide stable government. Rather, what may be afoot is a radical realignment of  politics in the UK.

As most know, there are three main parties in the United Kingdom: Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems).  Labour used to be a very left wing party, with strong union ties. That changed in the 1990s, when Labour became “New Labour”. Under Tony Blair’s leadership, the party’s constitution was overhauled, including the dropping of Clause 4, which committed the party to nationalising pretty much everything. You can see on this chart prepared by Political Compass how far Labour has moved politically since 1972 (scroll down the page – it’s the second chart below the one showing the parties’ positions in 2010).

In that same period of time, the Conservatives have also moved – becoming more authoritarian and more right-wing economically-speaking, while the party that has perhaps remained the most consistent over the years is the Lib Dems.

From what I understand, Conservative leader and now Prime Minister David Cameron isn’t as conservative as the bulk of his party. He’s apparently even said that he’s happier to be ruling in coalition with the Lib Dems than he would have been leading a Conservative government with a small majority (from a Guardian column – I’ve not found the actual quote anywhere). Several reports have commented on how Cameron never seemed entirely at ease with some of his parties policies, and these were the ones that were dropped (apparently quite quickly) during negotiations with the Lib Dems. Cameron has also quickly shut down the 1922 Committee. This is a committee of Tory backbenchers (formed in 1923 after the 1922 election) and provides a way for Conservative backbenchers to determine their views independently of frontbenchers. On 19 May 2010, Cameron suggested altering the 1922 Committee to include ministers in the decision-making process, angering some backbench MPs. On 20 May 2010, the party voted to approve the change, with 168 votes in favour and 118 against. Most backbench party members were have said to have criticised the move and voted against it. (Edit: Cameron has backed down from insisting ministers help choose the chair of the commitee.)

Meanwhile, perhaps Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems, isn’t as “left-wing” as he’s been portrayed. It’s important to remember that the Lib Dems were formed in 1988 out of the merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. The SDP itself was formed by former Labourites who felt Labour had become too left-wing. The Lib Dems are certainly the most pro-Europe of the three main parties in the UK, and while Clegg certainly defends that stance as party leader, it would seem that on a personal level, his approach to Europe is more guarded. In 2004, he contributed to The Orange Book, a collection of essays which stimulated the realignment of the Lib Dems. Clegg’s essay argued for a repatriation of powers from Brussels, which was one of the demands of the Tory right for the Cameron government, and one that has been included (albeit somewhat watered down) in the new coalition’s agreement. This essay from The Independent explores in detail the many areas where Cameron and Clegg would be in agreement – while their parties perhaps less so.

There is already a degree of anger among the Conservative backbenches over some of the initiatives of the Coalition government. I’ve not read as much about the general sentiment among Lib Dems supporters and backbenchers, but some party officials have resigned, and former leader Charles Kennedy spoke out publicly against the coalition with the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, Labour itself may be going through some convulsions in coming months. A leadership race is on to replace Gordon Brown. The left-wing of the party may seek to reassert itself. I don’t know enough about the Labour candidates to comment on where they might take the party, should they win the leadership race, but there is, I’m led to believe, tensions between “New” and old Labour.

The picture that is emerging, to me at least, are a series of possible political realignments and potential party splits. There does seem to be a section of the Conservative party – led by David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, that is decidedly less radically conservative (in the Thatcher sense) than are quite a few (most?) of the backbenchers, and party supporters. They are more centrist, more progressive, probably more closely aligned to the Liberal part of the Lib Dem party. From what I understand, Cameron had worked hard since becoming leader to move the party more towards the centre, and the coalition probably presents him with a great opportunity to continue in that direction.

I don’t know enough about Lib Dem internal politics (admittedly, I know nothing about that) to say if there are actually any real tensions between the Liberal and SDP wings of the party. The so-called Orange wing (led by Clegg and David Laws) would seem to be closer to Cameron’s vision of what the Tories should be; however, I don’t know if the SDP faction would be more comfortable with New Labour (given that they felt old Labour was too left-wing).

Ideally, it might make more sense for Labour to split into two – a very left-wing, Old Labour branch, and a more moderate, social democratic branch (New Labour but a bit left of centre and less authoritarian), which the SPD wing of the Lib Dems could rejoin. That would leave the Liberal wing of the Lib Dems free to merge with Cameron’s “Liberal Conservatives” (he’s described himself as such), while the old guard, Thatcherite wing of the COnservatives could go off alone or merge with UKIP (which I take it are mostly Conservatives who really, really hate anything Euro-related).

Of course, such party splits and mergers are unlikely to happen since it would make it more difficult for any party to win a majority in a future election. Better to hold one’s nose and remain a big tent party. Blame First-Past-the-Post for that. I think if the UK adopted a proper form of proportional representation (i.e. anything except the Alternate Vote), you would see these divisions and political realignments happen, because coalitions would be the norm and would demand it.

Further reading:

David Cameron already has coalition trouble – with his own party
Yes we’ve ditched some policies, but I’m still a Tory PM
Easy to see why Cameron prefers his new friend to his old ones
Why I couldn’t support Clegg’s deal with the Tories
‘Conned” grassroots Lib Dems rebel over Tory coalition

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Radical Centrist