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The Labour and Tory parties are dead. For politically homeless centrists, that might be a good thing

  • While Corbyn has refused to adopt a clear position on Brexit, Johnson has reconfigured the party to the populist right. There’s no place for moderates in either camp.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

British politics is being reconfigured – if there were any doubt about this, just look at what has happened in the Conservative Party this last week. It is a party that is unrecognisable from only five years ago – it is now essentially a new party.

What on earth is going on? Is it simply that both parties have been hijacked by two characters with a particular right wing nationalist and hard-left following? Or is something deeper going on?

Different factors now drive how Brits respond to globalisation and consequently how we vote. Up until recently, politics in our country primarily played out along left/right and traditional class lines. But the general election of 2017 began to illustrate how class ties to parties were weakening and are no longer the strong driver of voting intention that they once were, with a swing towards Labour among better off Britons and shift towards the Conservatives among some lower-income groups. 

Since then, these changes have undoubtedly stepped up a gear and a new dichotomy is coming into view with voting behaviour driven more and more by whether one’s values are socially liberal and internationalist, or socially conservative and nationalist. This is proving to be the primary driver of voting intention.

So whether you are a Remainer is about a lot more than being pro-European – it is a signal that you fall into the social liberal, internationalist camp; if you are Leaver, it is quite likely to indicate that you are more socially conservative and nationalist. There are exceptions, but there is a whole body of research out there to underline that this is the case. As the The Economist stated in June, “the referendum has stamped identities on two opposing groups long in the making. Whatever the outcome of the talks, British society has a new divide.”

With this politics of identity reshaping the political field, the snap election – whenever it comes – will be an election driven by values like never before.

This has presented a huge challenge for the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s unfitness for office is a big problem but the new voting dichotomy presents an even bigger challenge. Labour has fought to make a 20th century voting coalition – born of class and left/right politics – work for it in the 21st – where increasingly, the liberal/conservative and internationalist/nationalist fulcrum divides its support base.

It has struggled because, whereas its voting coalition previously fell primarily on one side of the fence, it has voters who fall on both sides of the new values divide – with two thirds of Labour-held constituencies voting to Leave but two-thirds of Labour voters opting to Remain in 2016. It has not only refused to adopt a clear position on Brexit because its leader is a Brexiteer while many of its members are Remainers, but if it picks a side in this values debate, it risks losing a large chunk of its voting base.

The Tories, on the other hand, have looked at the new political terrain and ruthlessly made their choice. Boris Johnson and the Vote Leave cabal who run his government have chosen to jettison those of its voters who do not fall into the conservative nationalist space. If you have previously supported the party but have liberal internationalist values, they are not interested in you. This is what lay behind the withdrawal of the whip from 21 Conservative MPs last week and those MPs being barred from standing at the snap general election for rebelling and supporting moves to block a no-deal Brexit. This was not just punishment for insubordination, it was a public expulsion of politicians who embody the One Nation, liberal, internationalist tradition in the Tory party and all that they represent.

The brutality of what happened stunned MPs across the House of Commons. I spoke to a number of the 21 MPs immediately after and they told me how they were immediately cut off, taken off party WhatsApp groups, no longer receiving the automated texts from their whips’ office and so on. When I joined the Commons in 2010, Ken Clarke was the lord chancellor, Dominic Grieve was the attorney general, Philip Hammond was the transport secretary, Justine Greening was the economic secretary to the Treasury, David Gauke the exchequer secretary, Greg Clark was the minister of state in the Department for Communities and Local Government, Ed Vaizey was culture minister and Sir Oliver Letwin was at the Cabinet Office. These were all mainstream, centre-right Tory stalwarts. It would be unthinkable then to think of any of these individuals rebelling at all, nevermind being chucked out of their party for doing so in order to stand in the way of extremism in their party. But that is precisely what has happened.

Perhaps the most shocking ejection was that of Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, after 37 years as a Tory MP. Sir Nicholas to many is the epitome of post-war Conservatism. He said over the weekend that “give or take the odd spasm, we have always been seen as pragmatic, sensible, good at our job, sane, reasonable and having the interests of the whole country and now it is beginning to look like a Brexit sect”. I’m afraid it is far worse than that. Johnson has reconfigured the party so that it is firmly on the populist, nationalist right in the new politics. The centre right no longer has a place in it. This is why more and more centre right Remainers – like Dr Phillip Lee who defected last week – are flocking to the flagbearer for liberal, internationalist values in this country: the Liberal Democrats.