The fracturing of UK politics
Conservatives and Labour should form a Grand Coalition
by Meghnad Desai
Thu 30 Apr 2015
One of the most stable democracies in Europe is looking fractured as Britain goes to the polls on 7 May. The frequently quoted statistic tells it all. In 1945 the Conservative and Labour parties commanded 97% of the votes. Now they would be lucky to make 65%.
The centre cannot hold, as W.B.Yeats wrote a century ago.
On the other hand, on most issues which matter – the National Health Service, the budget, defence and even Europe – the two main parties are not that far apart. In each, there is a centre which agrees with the other. The fringes are wild but impotent. It would be a dream outcome if the two parties came together in a Grand Coalition. Can we hope that the UK will be that European?
If we want to understand the state of UK politics, we have to ask: ‘Who killed Cock Robin?’ Each of the two main parties has gone through a parallel process of getting rid of its most successful leader and disowning their philosophy. The Tories cast aside Margaret Thatcher in 1990. The wounds of that matricide reverberated through the next 20 years.
The Conservative party faithful harassed John Major despite his electoral success in 1992.Then after losing in 1997, they wantonly elected and threw away leader after leader – William Hague, Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith. When they elected David Cameron it was only because Tony Blair had set a new template. Cameron was Blair for the Blues.
Meanwhile, in the Labour party, winning is a habit deeply resented. Blair won three elections in a row, as no Labour leader before him had ever done. His reward has been to be treated with contempt and embarrassment by the new leadership. Rejecting New Labour is the only thing on which the Shadow Cabinet agrees. ‘Anyone but Blair’ is what got Ed Miliband elected as Opposition leader.
Matters have since deteriorated further. The Tories cannot trust Cameron to be as true blue as Thatcher. A large swathe of the Right needs constant feeding with anti-EU propaganda.
Immigration is anathema as it reminds them of the liberal attitude of John Major and Ken Clarke. The restless constantly look for another leader – possibly Boris Johnson. It doesn’t matter who. The Conservative party must consume its leaders and spit them out regularly. Whether or not he wins on 7 May as the head of the largest single party, Cameron may not survive.
In the Labour Party, rejection of New Labour means not so much renewal as going back to the comforts of the days of former leader Neil Kinnock. The party can reject capitalism, bask in virtuousness and go back to its fond past when the NHS was its one proud achievement.
The Scottish Nationalist party is a redder-than-red caricature of the Labour Party with even more virulent anti-business credentials, dismissing fiscal responsibility as irrelevant. Ukip, the nationalist party, is another caricature of the right wing of the Tories.
But the UK is also reaping the fruits of Tony Blair's progressive policy of devolution of power to the regions. Hence Plaid Cymru from Wales and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist party as well as the SNP fill the stage in any TV debate. This will not change no matter what.
The Tories have abandoned Scotland and Wales. After the election, Labour, too, may be reduced solely to an English party. The rolling back of the main two parties might make them, after the election, fit partners for no one but each other. A German-style Grand Coalition would not be such a bad thing.
Lord Desai, a Labour peer in the House of Lords, is emeritus professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and chairman of the OMFIF Advisory Board.
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