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Watching the Conservative leadership campaign would be an entertaining spectator sport, were it not that the winner will be prime minister, even if briefly. The exorbitant number of contenders and the range of their views makes clear what an achievement it was for Theresa May to hang on to office for as long as she did. True, the threat of ejection by her party forced her hand, causing her to draw too many red lines in the Brexit negotiations and, ultimately, to fail to achieve a compromise with Labour. Now there is open warfare, and it is hard to see how a new leader can achieve Brexit and prevent a split in the party.

This situation should be wonderful for the opposition, but actually it is full of pitfalls for Labour. The fear must be that, if the Conservative party splits, a new centrist contingent will emerge and tempt more defections by Labour MPs. This dual force is the great difference between the resurgent centre today and the Social Democrats in the 1980s. The SDP was a product of an internal battle on the left about how best to combat Thatcherism, whereas the contemporary defectors could prefigure a wholesale change in the party system. New parties can hope to build on new political cleavages: notably a pronounced generational and educational divide. If these cleavages map onto geography, as Jennings and Stoker suggested they do, then first-past-the-post voting will not uphold the two party system. Instead, different pairwise battles will be fought in different parts of the country.

Looked at this way, it would seem that Labour has an interest in preventing a Conservative collapse, to maintain the existing duopoly. This is possible if Brexit, and the cleavages that go with it, can be made to go away. Then the structure of political competition can resume its left-right alignment, with each party making sporadic grabs for the high ground on cross-cutting issues such as immigration and climate change. This, surely, was the driver behind the talks between Theresa May’s office and the Labour leadership on reaching a compromise over Brexit. The framing was that ‘the country wants us to get on with it’; the subtext was a shared interest in suppressing the divisions that Brexit has exposed.

Those talks failed, and we have to question whether any cross-party deal could ever be possible. There are two ways of looking at it. We can ask how deep the divisions really are, or how capable the parties are of managing them. Those who think that Brexit can be made to go away can point to abundant evidence that most of the country is not preoccupied with the question of Europe. This was manifest in the European elections, where 63% of the electorate chose not to participate in a poll which was only meaningful if treated as a referendum on leave or remain. There is a great appetite for returning to the familiar electoral territory of the NHS and education. Even immigration, which burst into salience in the first half of this decade and got entangled with EU membership, now seems to be dropping out of the headlines. Surely a compromise over a customs union could see off Brexit? John Erik Fossum has provided a salutary word of caution from Norway in the pages of this journal. The EU generates a continuous requirement for decisions by its close neighbours – not (necessarily) because it is driving relentlessly towards federation, but because it regulates economic relationships which change and develop. These decisions can be kept at a low political level, out of the limelight, if the parties can agree to do so, but this demands a kind of tacit cooperation which has not been a feature of British politics.

In short, there is certainly an argument that the electorate would like the Conservatives and Labour to achieve a soft Brexit and make it boring, but this would require some astute strategising by the duopoly. This brings us to the other perspective: the parties’ capacity to structure the political agenda along their preferred lines of competition. Here, things could go gravely wrong. All eyes have been on the supposed failings of Theresa May’s leadership, but they should have been on the state of her party in the constituencies. It is active, energised and utterly obsessed with Brexit. It seems likely to favour Boris Johnson as leader, despite the risk that this will split the party.

In recent decades, commentators have bemoaned the professionalisation of politics, and the breaking of the close ties between citizens and the political classes that mass party membership brings. But professionalisation brings with it a capacity to respond to shifting divisions of opinion and steer a flexible course towards assembling a majority. It may not be attractive, but it is effective. It always used to be a great strength of the Conservative party that the leadership had this flexibility, as it had no pretensions to being a democratic party. The party existed because of the need to take concerted action in parliament, and the role of party members was to support the parliamentary party, not to steer it. But since William Hague set about picking up the tattered pieces of party organisation after 1997, there has been an idea of attracting members with the offer of participation and power: notably, the right to choose between two candidates for the leadership. In the 2016 contest, this right was vitiated by the decision of Conservative MPs to agree on the ‘coronation’ of Theresa May, but a contest is unavoidable this time.

Facing the Conservative leader across the aisle is a Labour leader who has been the beneficiary of party democracy: indeed, Corbyn is living evidence that the best-laid plans of promoting citizen participation can go awry. If the new generation of Labour members mirrors its Conservative counterpart by regarding EU membership as a defining issue, then the prospects for restoring the old lines of party competition and relegating Brexit to a netherworld of quiet politics are poor. That Corbyn has been able to resist this pressure is evidence that Labour is a broader church than the current Conservative party: pragmatic voices are trying to keep the party together for a world beyond Brexit. But the forces of party democracy are against sustaining this strategy for much longer. 

If the main parties are too democratic to strategise effectively, one remarkable implication is that parties with no membership base may be the agile beneficiaries. The Brexit party exemplifies this. It has no members, only supporters, so no need for internal democratic processes to select candidates or debate policy positions. How exactly it raised its funds is something of a mystery, but then the Conservatives have never raised much of their money from members either. The Brexit party is a product of the online age in several ways: not only does it rely on social media rather than door-knocking, but also the party itself is basically an online platform, with little by way of formal arrangements for convening meetings to make decisions.

The bigger picture is that Brexit may well be the trigger for wider party system change. This is not because it is the most important or defining issue for the public, but rather because the two main incumbent parties are so constrained by their memberships that they cannot produce programmes with sufficiently wide political appeal to maintain their duopoly. The party system is changing anyway, due to devolution. Scotland already has a different party system to England; Northern Ireland’s is completely separate. At the next general election, we may see new geographical divides crystallise in England.

With hindsight, the outright victory of the Conservatives in 2015 was the aberrant result of the decade: coalition in 2010 and minority government in 2017 are a better signal of what is to come. Theresa May was accused of approaching the task of government as if she had a majority, but her need to maintain a dual mandate, as leader of the Conservative party as well as Prime Minister, explained much about her approach to Brexit. Critics say that she put the unity of the party before the interests of the country, but she did not have the luxury of ignoring the party. In a new era of multiple parties and minority or coalition governments, party members will have to play a lesser role. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives is prepared for this.

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  • Deborah Mabbett

    Deborah Mabbett

    Deborah Mabbett is Co-Editor of the Political Quarterly journal. She is also Professor of Public Policy at Birkbeck, University of London.

    Articles by Deborah Mabbett