The Broad Church
The British left is in an uncertain, but vastly improved position since the June 2017 general election.
Across Europe, mainstream social democratic parties have slumped to historic lows, losing voters to the centre right, populist right, populist left, as well as regional separatists. The British Labour party, no doubt helped by the first past the post system, has avoided such splits and – at least in England – appears to have succeeded in uniting opposition to the Conservative party across the centre left.
The recent gains of populist parties in Europe, along with Trump’s rise in the US, have opened up new dividing lines in politics. Some believed that the traditional left-right divide that has characterised political contests for the last hundred years had broken down, and was being replaced by a new dividing line. In Britain, the Remain-Leave split at the EU referendum mirrored not only attitudes to related issues like immigration, international co-operation, national identity and globalisation, but also to a wider set of social issues: feminism, LGBT rights, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and a general sense of nostalgia about the past.
This divide in the electorate has been referred to as ‘open versus closed’, ‘globalists versus nativists’, ‘cosmopolitans versus communitarians’, the ‘anywheres versus the somewheres’, and more simply ‘liberal versus conservative’. After the 2016 referendum, many feared this divide would fragment the left’s electoral coalition. In fact, at the 2017 election Labour managed to unite a majority of Remainers behind them and gain new younger voters excited by Corbyn’s message, while the Conservatives failed to gain as many Leavers – particularly in traditionally Labour areas – as they had initially hoped. Despite this, there are still serious challenges for the left in Britain. Labour did not win the 2017 election, and will have to gain three times as many seats at the next to form a working majority. While it would be foolish to make any electoral predictions so soon after June’s surprise result, it is important to point out that these divides have not gone away, and that there is every risk of them resurfacing as Labour goes into the next election when, as a serious contender for government, the party can expect vastly increased scrutiny of its detailed policy positions.
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