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George Marsden | 20 September 2018
On the most important issues, party divisions have become meaningless. British politics is now split between the hard wings of both parties, and the centrists who span the gap. A Momentum backed Labour purge might actually do something about that.
Reading the news in the wake of John McCain’s death last month probably left a good number of people my age rather surprised. If, like myself, your teenage impression of American politics in the late 2000s/ early 2010s was formed chiefly by the likes of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart’s weekly wise-cracking, then praise of the man who led the party-that-can-do-no-right to defeat in 2008 jars against the mental image already formed by mass media up until Trump. But then again, perhaps others had a better informed adolescence than me. Perhaps, also, the current GOP White House is making even the staunchest of liberals at the Guardian and Washington Post nostalgic for the neo-con old guard.
Senator McCain certainly did have a number of qualities to recommend him, among them a not inconsequential instinct for moderation. “Conservative but not a Conservative” (William F Buckley’s description of the late senator), McCain’s reputation for bi-partisan politicking even lead Democrat John Kerry to propose he join him as his running mate for the 2004 election. Anti-abortion but pro-gun control, McCain showed that rigid party dogma was by no means an inevitable fact of modern political life. But where his record shows us the virtue of toleration and compromise in the individual, it is by no means certain that the same applies to political parties: bringing my attention over to this side of the Atlantic, I am quite convinced it does in fact have serious limitations.
Consider the current alignments in parliament: one party sits in government, made up of a centrist wing largely consisting of MPs opposed to Brexit and in favour of the policies that characterised British politics from Tony Blair to David Cameron, and the other wing - which has long been opposed to British membership of the European Union - takes its ideological cue from Powellism and Thatcherism (the antithesis of the Blairism of the centrists). The opposition is a party likewise composed of two wings: a centrist wing largely consisting of MPs opposed to Brexit and in favour of the policies that characterised British politics from Tony Blair to David Cameron, and the other wing - which is largely opposed to the European Union - and has nothing kind to say about the period spanning Margaret Thatcher’s premiership to the present. What we then have is in fact three ideological camps, two of which find themselves appropriately opposed, but with the third incongruously split between two parties. These centrists find ideological allies in many members of the opposition, yet they still find unification with these nominal enemies more grief than it’s worth.
This schema is of course loose: outliers exist in both parties, with either strong personal convictions (Kate Hoey) or careerist cynicism (Boris Johnson) giving some members voting records that are often difficult to categorise. But as far as the main players in parliament are concerned, they appear to hold up: Tory centrists as represented by Justine Greening (to take one example) seem to have more in common with Labour centrists like Chuka Umunna than they do with the wing which, these days, finds both its personification and caricature in Jacob Rees-Mogg. Ms Greening and Umunna both voted Remain and no doubt share a belief in the social liberalism that saw Section 28 repealed in the early 2000s and same-sex marriage introduced under David Cameron. The Tories’ right-wing (as the “other” wing referred to earlier most assuredly is) includes the likes of Bob Blackman, who voted against same-sex marriage and spoke in 2012 of his wish to see Section 28 reinstated.
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But “so what?”, one might be inclined to reply. Those are after all only two examples of agreement, and to be electorally palatable a political party must become a broad church as a matter of course. After all, a similar approach is what constituted John McCain’s appeal (and was likely the engine of what success he enjoyed). The point to emphasise, however, is that these two cross party agreements show similarities not in the ephemera of day-to-day policy, but in pretty much the most fundamental issues in British politics. What they reveal about the two centrist camps is that their idea of what sort of society Britain should be differ in no significant way, something that cannot be said when we compare the the factions as represented by Rees-Mogg in the Tories, and the Corbyn-McDonnell axis in the Labour party, with their according centrist wing. A marriage between the two centrist wings might be on weaker ground when it comes to the economic question, but again our concern is with fundamentals. The Labour party under Ed Miliband (the last time Chuka Umunna’s politics were in ascendancy) was for deficit reduction as a response to the financial crisis at the end of the last decade just as much as the Conservative party was: then as now, the difference was only in the details.
Parties exist to reflect the basic differences of opinion on current political problems in parliament. What the above portrait indicates is that those differences have been obfuscated by the nonsense party divisions in Westminster, blurring the distinctions between groups that (especially in our adversarial parliament) work best when they are sharply defined. The most pressing current issue of the day is being badly handled (in part) because of precisely this; neither major party have won seats on a concrete promise to voters on how to negotiate our relationship with the EU. Now that this years Labour party conference has seen Momentum’s intransigence on whether or not Brexit should even be debated broken, perhaps Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet will provide a more effective opposition to Mrs May’s dealing with Michel Barnier et al. (which, as an advocate of leaving the EU, I think will only make our long term success more secure). But it has come rather too late, and (if I judge Momentum’s influence on the party correctly) will likely push it towards adopting the wrong policy (the “People’s Vote”).
If a centrist party had formed, ignoring the tribal divisions of Conservative of Labour, and an election was fought between it and a Eurosceptic party, then much of this would have been avoided. Those advocating for a “People’s Vote” who point out that the 2016 referendum wasn’t legally binding are correct; though what they forget is that no referendum (technically) is. We are governed by parliament, not the “people”, something that Jacob Rees-Mogg (who should know better) appears to forget as easily as the radicals calling for a second referendum.
An election could have been fought between two conceptions of our relationship with Europe (and much else besides), the result of which would be constitutionally binding. Pie in the sky thinking? Very much so, especially when one considers the enormous hold the two parties have over the national imagination. But I take comfort in the rumblings we hear from time to time of Corbyn’s Momentum goons conducting the purge we all know they want. It would be seriously unfair for those long-standing Labour party members who don’t lean that far left to suddenly find their party in the hands of entryists, but it could be the catalyst that breaks the hold of meaningless party divisions on British politics, thus benefiting the rest of us. And so, for that reason I say: do it, Jeremy!