The Corner

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The Conservative and Labour Parties Are Both Unfit to Govern

A street vendor selling Union Jack flags passes a pro-Brexit supporter outside the Houses of Parliament in London, England, March 28, 2019. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

A great question looms over British politics. Should we smash the major parties? By “major parties” I obviously mean the Conservative and Labour parties. And when I say “we” I mean, of course, the British voting public. Since the government delayed Brexit once again this month, it seems that Britons will soon be asked to vote in this year’s European Parliament election. That will be three years after we voted to leave the European Union. With the Conservative government showing a monumental incompetence in matters great and small it looks as though we might also face a general election before this parliament comes to its purported end in 2022. Suddenly it looks as though the two-party system which was meant to be uncrackable could finally crack.

A YouGov poll carried out last week showed Labour coming top of the forthcoming EU elections (24 percent) and the Conservatives down 8 percent to only 16 percent. Only just behind them are Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party (15 percent) and Nigel Farage’s old Brexit party, UKIP (14 percent). So in the EU Parliament elections the Conservatives could well be beaten by a party that didn’t exist until last week. Some Conservatives appear to think, “Well that’s just the European elections: the public were always badly behaved during those.” Except that the British public’s ill-discipline no longer appears to be limiting itself to European elections. A YouGov poll on voting intentions in a general (domestic) election shows the Conservatives four points behind Labour at just 28 percent. For such an election the Brexit party and UKIP poll 8 percent and 6 percent respectively. And so we see the possibility here not just of a Labour government but of the Conservative party being destroyed.

Like a lot of Conservative voters, I no longer abhor the prospect. Not because we relish a Corbyn government — very far from it. A Corbyn government would put Britain on a road to national decline that would make the 1970s look like our heydays. But the Corbyn Labour party has its own problems. It is fighting against its own parliamentary party and in the country as a whole there is now a clear divide between the pro-EU Labour party that dominates in metropolitan areas like Islington (Corbyn’s own constituency) and the vast swathes of the north of England who voted to leave the European Union and are the Labour party’s only remaining base.

The obvious thing for Labour is also to split. Something that began to happen in February when half a dozen Labour MPs (lead by Chuka Ummuna, once a Blairite hopeful for the party) walked out to form the “Independent Group,” which has now also been joined by a gaggle of “Remain” Conservative-elected MPs. This group also plans to run at forthcoming elections. And so when the British people next go to the ballot we might at least have a party to vote for that really wants to leave the EU and a party that really wants to stay in, rather than two parties that pretend that they want to leave.

If Britain’s relationship with the EU is going to continue to dominate our politics then this all has its advantages. But there are two meaningful problems. The first comes if Britain actually manages to leave the EU. In such a situation both new parties would surely slump — the main order of the day having been at least temporarily addressed. Each may continue to campaign to take us in their favored direction some years down the line, but a broad majority of the public would most likely believe the question to have been addressed at that point, and wish other questions — education, health, the economy, the rest of the world — to be addressed at some stage.

The second problem — and the only reason not to favor the constructive destruction of both main political parties — is the possibility of even greater chaos. One of the greatest causes of conservatism itself is the realization, which only grows throughout life, that everything can always get worse. When you imagine that Ed Milliband is the worst Labour leader you can get you soon find yourself facing Jeremy Corbyn. You imagine Theresa May is the worst prime minister imaginable and then you see some of the talent the Conservative party is seriously throwing up as aspiring PM material. So when people say that we couldn’t have worse representation than we currently have from either party I say we should be able to imagine an awful lot worse, because there is a lot of ruin in dying, once-great parties.

Still neither of these quibbles alters the essential point which is that the Conservative and Labour parties have both — in the last three years — shown themselves unfit to govern, unfit to claim to represent the people and unfit really to put themselves up for election. I am all for creative solutions to this impasse, and would welcome the views of readers. All I know is that the idea of voting for either party at the next election is becoming an impossibility. The Conservative party, whose sole redeeming feature used to be a reputation for competency, has shown itself to be ill-disciplined and incompetent. I can see how the European elections can go. The Brexit bloc can vote around the Conservative party, and the Leave bloc can presumably vote around Labour. But what do we do next time we have a Westminster election? The desire to wield the wrecking ball can rarely have been felt among many otherwise generally anti-wrecking types.

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