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Expert warns - expect more disengagement from politics after Brexit

Tuesday 28 June 2016

The decision to leave the European Union may well prove to be one of the most important instalments of a process that is already 40 years old – the decay of the two-party system in Britain, now an aspect of a broader crisis of democracy, writes John Callaghan, Professor of Politics and Contemporary History.

It began in the 1970s with evidence of a decline in partisan identification, a revival of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and the growth of support for ‘third’ parties and the rise in numbers of floating voters.

Since then membership of the two main parties has shrunk, turnout in general elections has fallen and general election results since 1974 show the winning party has been unable to obtain more than 44 per cent of the vote, on occasions as little as 35 per cent.

Rise and fall of Labour

For Labour, explanations of the party’s problems have focused on the decline of old industries and old centres of urban support leading to the shrinkage of the blue-collar working class and the weakening of trade unionism.

The discourse of socialism has largely been abandoned since the late 1980s as the party sought to modernise its image. For a while this was perceived to be successful as ‘New Labour’ won three consecutive general elections after 1997 under Tony Blair’s leadership.

But the invasion of Iraq in 2003 destroyed Blair’s personal credibility, while the financial crisis of 2008 destroyed the party’s credibility in economic management, leaving it disoriented and bereft of purpose.

Large numbers of people also blame New Labour for the growth in net migration that began in 1998 and for deception in its presentation of the issue when the numbers rose steeply from 2004.

Divides within Conservative ranks

The Conservative Party has also seen a decline in its share of the vote and the size of its membership. It has been divided over Britain’s membership of the EU since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, bitterly so since 1990.

The migration issue undoubtedly exacerbated that problem and fuelled the rise of UKIP, especially after 2004 when it won 2.6 million votes in the European Parliament elections (16.1 Per cent). In 2014 this share rose to 27.5 per cent, while in the general election of 2015 it secured almost 4 million votes.

Popular ‘euro-scepticism’ was also encouraged by the tabloid press and most political leaders were wary of it. Neither of the main parties championed the EU in the period since John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992, thus ensuring that when it was mentioned it was usually in a negative context.

Thatcher had been an enthusiast for the single market in the 1980s and Labour briefly saw the EU as a champion of workers’ rights in the years 1988-94. But for most of the time the EU has been depicted only as a source of bureaucratic meddling, red tape, and Franco-German aspirations for a federal supranational state.

Charge sheet against EU

Once the growth in net migration to the UK became conspicuous and the financial crisis exposed weaknesses in the euro-zone the charge sheet against the EU – already long and largely uncontested – became vivid, and the benefits of membership increasingly obscure, for much of the public.

This is by no means the first time in British politics that there has been talk of a crisis of democracy. In the 1970s there was a perception among commentators that public expectations of governments had surpassed anything that governments could actually deliver – the problem here being conceived as the ways in which two-party competition and a long period of full employment and economic growth since 1945 had ratcheted up the demands placed on the political system.

In the 1980s the decade of Conservative dominance under Thatcher highlighted the way the electoral system distorted Parliamentary representation and allowed governments to press though radical reforms in the face of widespread opposition in the country. Blair’s constitutional reforms were conceived partly as an answer to this problem of super-centralised power, though they failed to placate Scottish nationalism.

Today the fact of disillusionment with mainstream politics and politicians is commented on throughout Europe and North America. It is evidenced by falling turnout in elections, falling party membership, the diminished share of the vote enjoyed by established parties, the rise of populist politics and other challenges to the order that prevailed up to the 1970s.

One explanation sees the discontent as a product of globalisation in the sense that national economic management can no longer compensate for the effect of transnational market forces in depressing wages, increasing inequality, weakening unions, destroying jobs and moving large numbers of people about the planet in search of work and asylum.

Futile competition among powerless politicians

Politicians who seem powerless to act on important issues – like migration, inequality or corporate tax evasion – compete with one another in never-ending and seemingly futile reform of the welfare state and education.

Support for Brexit was at least partly explained by the losers of globalisation expressing a protest and a desire for opting-out.

Problems for the leaders of the Brexit campaign – especially those Conservative politicians who put themselves at the head of it – will grow over the next 2-3 years as it becomes clear that the referendum decision will make no difference to stagnant or falling real incomes, the availability of decent jobs and affordable homes, and the numbers of migrant workers coming to Britain.

Access to doctors, hospitals, houses and good schools will not improve because of Brexit. The one comfort for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove is that they have nothing to fear from the Labour Party, whoever replaces Jeremy Corbyn as party leader.

We have to remind ourselves that none of the leadership contenders was more than mediocre when Corbyn came out on top. Labour is bereft of ideas, vision and conviction, which is why its leading figures appear so inept.

That also means that future popular protest – which we predict will grow - cannot be effectively and constructively channelled through Labour and the unions. Protest may be channelled elsewhere – in Scotland there is the option of independence - but UKIP has no obvious future and a new populist party has yet to be invented. Expect more disengagement from mainstream politics.