Written by Glen O’Hara.
So, it’s the New Year, and there’s a long, long list of things to get through. There’ll be the French and German elections, the onset of the Trump administration in the US, and policy questions galore. Will the UK be able to disentangle itself from the European Union without a great deal of economic pain and wasted bureaucratic energy? Will Russia be happy to trade a more muscular American foreign policy for a more semi-detached stance from Uncle Sam in Europe? Will rising interest rates slow growth? How long can China continue to fuel the world economy? All these questions will be to the fore in 2017. For now, let’s kick off the year with a review of where British politics stands right now, shall we? We can take each party in turn if you’d like.
The Conservative government led by Theresa May (above) is in a strange position. On the face of it, ahead of them lies a grim, grey task: managing Britain’s exit from the EU. It’s uncontroversial to say that this is the greatest task the British state has had to tackle since 1945. It won’t be complete for many, many years, despite the likeliest exit date in formal terms still being the spring of 2019. European law could take decades to wash out of the British statute book; the country’s trade will only slowly adjust itself to the new realities; the UK will probably want to avail itself of many EU institutions, such as policing and student exchange, on an indefinite basis. At the same time, some Conservatives are beginning to fret that Mrs May’s undoubted popularity masks a fundamental lack of grip and decisiveness. This might arise just from the inevitable hesitation involved in the heavyweight decisions that face the Prime Minister. But if might also be that her popularity is built on sand. She is not much of a public speaker, isn’t very quick on her feet, and is said to be a control freak of an administrator. Mrs May seems to shift about in a very cramped manner, inching two inches to the left, and then one to the right, before starting all over again. She hasn’t moved very far from the spot since becoming Prime Minister. It’s not particularly inspiring, to say the least, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a guiding philosophy behind it all. All that bodes very ill for a national leader who will have to manage years of hard negotiations in Brussels, all the while trying to bind the wounds of a country that has become very divided over the European question. Conservatives seem united for now, but can they really hold together harmoniously as Britain leaves not only the Single Market, but – it appears – the EU’s Customs Union as well? We seriously doubt it. Their real salvation is their lack of opposition, which neatly brings us to the state of the other parties.
The Labour Party.
You come to this site for a historian’s insight into public policy questions, don’t you? Well, here’s one: the Labour Party is in by far its most serious crisis since 1931. It will probably survive as an institution, but its future as a party that seeks to govern on its own at Westminster is now clearly in doubt. Labour is being buffeted by so many crises, all at one and the same time, that it’s hard to count them up. It faces a very long-term decline of its relevance to a populace that increasingly experiences work as a series of overlapping, fragmented, kaleidoscopic, even chaotic tasks. Its blue-collar ethos, its union backers, the settled communities that might once turn out to vote for the party en masse: these are becoming a thing of the past. On top of those long-term trends, large-scale immigration and a reputation for financial profligacy have both helped to loosen solidaristic bonds of loyalty and fellow-feeling among an electorate now less disposed to vote for measures thatmight help incomers. Added to that, Labour have in Jeremy Corbyn a leader who is clearly just not cut out for the role, and who the public have mainly taken against. The week just gone, which was supposed to involve a New Year ‘relaunch’ of Mr Corbyn’s ‘brand’, ran like an episode of 1970s Doctor Who: its terrible acting, frenetic plotline and mock gravitas came with an atmosphere of affected and unconvincing semi-comic seriousness that made you want to hide behind the sofa. Then, to add to that, Labour is now afflicted by ‘Brexit and Trump’, those poorly-realised twins of impossible choices and foreign policy dilemmas. Labour is being transformed into an anti-austerity party obsessed with the domestic sphere at a moment when almost all attention will be focused on foreign policy: on whether to reinforce NATO and rearm if the Trump administration looks likely to abandon Eastern Europe, and on the means by which the UK leaves the EU. That latter issue looks likely to tear Labour’s two remaining electorates apart, since working-class northern English towns and the Welsh valleys share almost nothing on this one with liberal big-city urbanites. Labour is being hit by a serious of storms that add up to a tsunami. It seems unlikely to hold power on its own again for many, many years.
The United Kingdom Independence Party.
UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, faces what seems like an insuperable challenge. If the Conservatives have problems, and Labour is in a really dreadful state, then UKIP isn’t far behind. Having lost its very raison d’etre when Britain voted to leave the EU, it has been undermined from within by the kind of vicious infighting that will happen when a party loses both its compass and arguments in one fell swoop. Mr Nuttall has made a big noise about ‘replacing Labour’ in its northern strongholds, which is undoubtedly the right call given just how weak Labour is becoming: but it would have been much easier to assault some of those huge Labour majorities if UKIP had lost the referendum. They needed a sense of grievance, a cause, a justification for their politics of anger: instead, Mrs May’s insistence on a so-called ‘Hard Brexit’ is likely to steal lots of their voters, much to Labour’s disadvantage in marginals where they face a Conservative challenge. Their record in council by-elections over the last year has been terrible, and they’ve got nowhere fast in Parliamentary by-elections such as those held at Sleaford. Their poll ratings, although hovering at about where they ended up in the 2015 General Election, are nothing to write home about. They’re going to lose all their Members of the European Parliament when Britain pulls out of it in 2019, and unless they start winning actual elections soon – at Copeland, Stoke Central or Leigh, all Labour seats that should be in their sights – no-one is going to take them that seriously as a threat under First Past the Post. Mrs May seems to have shot their fox.
The Liberal Democrats.
Now the yellow team look quite a lot healthier than UKIP, despite still wallowing rather lower than them in the polls after their disastrous showing at the last General Election. This is mainly because, unlike UKIP, they have a grievance to exploit, and can pose as the champions of the 48 per cent of the electorate who voted to stay in the EU. In this age of political rage, where shouting at all and sundry on Twitter can stand in for actually engaging everyone’s brains, that matters a lot. They did well in the Richmond Park by-election, of course, and they’ve been running the board on almost everyone else in local council by-elections. We tend to think that the latter phenomenon is in part due to fired-up activists turning out angry Remain voters, often in areas where the Liberal Democrats were previously strong. Their national opinion polls have gone up a bit, but not very much – perhaps a couple of points since the autumn, an increase well in line with previous boosts the party has received after its many by-election triumphs since the Second World War. Even so, that all-Britain rating probably won’t matter very much when we come to a General Election. The Lib Dems will have to focus all their fire on perhaps twenty seats that they think they can realistically win. With the higher profile that being ‘the party of Remain’ lends, with some fire in their bellies, a bit of luck and some Brexit blunders from the government, they can make headway. Their leader, Tim Farron – not, shall we say, a man not hitherto overtroubled by the hallmarks of leadership – will be hailed as a liberal hero if he doubles his party’s seat tally, an entirely possible scenario that looked barely even conceivable just a year ago.
That’s the survey done. In a 2017 that’s likely to be pretty bleak, Britain’s political parties don’t have a vast amount to look forward to. Labour is fading away like a wall of bold colours facing a sunny window. UKIP faces an existential crisis scarcely concealed by the party’s bluster. The Conservatives will probably govern for the next decade, but it might be a loveless and grinding affair. The Liberal Democrats feel like they sky’s the limit only because they’ve spent the years since 2010 locked in an electoral dungeon. Hey, you come here for the historical insights, not the cheer.
Glen O’Hara is a Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. This article was first published on the blog Public Policy and the Past and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr.