The article you are currently reading was triggered by Paul Mason’s piece in the Guardian yesterday, “Podemos: how Europe’s political centre is being eaten by the radical left and nationalist right” in which he discussed the idea that both the far-right and the far-left are becoming so powerful that continuing to have two parties who are essentially centrist (at least in terms of execution) is becoming less tenable. It seems that moderate social democrats will someday have to merge with liberal conservatives into one party, says Mason, a party whose function would be to act as a pro-western, basically liberal in the broadest sense outfit that would battle against extremist forces on either side of them.
I usually don’t agree with Paul Mason on much, but I found a lot to think about in his article. He describes how the “salariat” (basically, the PAYE earning, white collar middle-classes) are generally liberal (again, in the broadest sense of the term) while the working classes are becoming ever more conservative. This makes keeping the Labour Party in one piece extremely difficult, particularly as the current split between the Corbynites and the non-Corbynites within their ranks do not fall so neatly (a lot of working class people dislike Corbyn for his various “unpatriotic” stances; meanwhile, Jeremy has many admirers amongst the salariat). The Tory schism is coming to a head over Europe in the coming year; the split between the free market internationalists and the old school Tory soft-nationalists becoming unavoidable due to a referendum being held that jumps upon that very fault line.
This problem is so much more acute in Britain than it is in continental Europe because of the voting system; First Past the Post demands a two party structure, and it is amazing how it always reverts to this, even when politics in this country has been predicted to become inevitably plural (the 2015 general election in the UK being perhaps the all time best example of this). So if neither of the two big parties can withstand the pressures of the real world and stay in one piece, while the electoral system demands that there be two armies united standing against one another, what happens then?
The first possibility (and the most likely one) is that in the short term the Tories remain relatively united while Labour disintegrates, leading to a long period of Conservative hegemony. What happens in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 general election will be telling in terms of how long this period lasts; if Labour do very badly yet the Left is unwilling to let go of the reigns (as is very likely), then the rest of Labour will be faced with a choice of what to do next. A split is being described at the moment as “impossible”. Yet, in the face of annihilation it is amazing what can suddenly seem not just possible but necessary.
On the other hand, the Tories could find themselves in a commanding position as a result of Corbyn, and yet the right of the party could get a grip on the leadership while the rest of the Tory fold is caught overconfident. Given that Conservative Party members are to the right generally when compared to even the Conservative Parliamentary party, this is far from an unlikely scenario. Could the Tories split then? It’s hard to imagine but, like Mason says, if it comes down to the far-right and the far-left creating a pincer movement in which hanging onto the basic outline of social and liberal democracy in the face of extremism becomes visibly imperilled, who knows what’s possible?