Eyad Abu Shakra

The UK May Have Just Returned to Two-Party Politics

Many things have changed since the departure of Jeremy Corbyn’s populist Leftist leadership of the British Labor Party, in 2020; following its crushing electoral defeat in 2019.

Neutral observers and rational party members had expected such an outcome. Labor’s share of the vote dropped to 32% - it’s lowest since 2015 -; thus, losing 60 seats, and ending up with just 202 seats… its fewest since 1935!

It is true that collapses like this do not often happen in established democratic parties that possess proper selection and accountability mechanisms, and hold regular annual conferences that discuss general policy directions. However, it is also true that no party, whether from the Right or the Left, is always safe from the threat of ideological and personal excesses, which may lead to these collapses.

Indeed, the excessive populism that Corbyn injected in, and benefited from, Labor’s grassroots does not differ much from the Right-wing excesses, that plagued the Conservative Party after Tony Blair began steering Labor towards the "center ground", following its impressive electoral victory in early May 1997.

Those days dogmatic "claimants" to Margaret Thatcher’s hardline Conservative legacy began outbidding each other in a

ruinous route to ever more Right-wing extremism, in an attempt to rally their party against moderate Labor.

Indeed, the picture much closer to mind is definitely that of Donald Trump in the US. For Trump, it was not enough to crush his "traditionalist" Republican rivals, but he even sought to destroy the fundamentals of American democracy. To achieve what he wanted, he was willing to saw the seeds of tension between the central government and state governors, politicize the judiciary, and eventually, incite gang violence in the streets, as well as attack public buildings.

The dogmatism and populism of the hardline Labor Left, which lost the upper hand with Corbyn’s defeat differs little from Trump Right-wing hardliners. In fact, the only difference lies in the "Left" and "Right" labels but almost nothing else.

The Brexit vote, which decided the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, has uncovered a solid Leftist Labor base that was both anti-Europe, and as resentful towards European workers as the Conservative extremist groups. Indeed, while the latter may have opposed Europe for "isolationist"… even racist reasons, some Leftists – mainly, unskilled labor – opposed European integration for "protectionist" reasons, being worried that cheap East European labor force would deprive them of their jobs and livelihood.

The change in the leadership of the Labor Party has been closely monitored by British and foreign analysts alike. They have been specifically interested in the way the new Labor leader handles the remnants of the traditional dogmatic Left; more so, because five former leaders (John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Milliband) had succeeded in containing and marginalizing it, but – naturally – without being able to crush it.

Sir Keir Starmer, the new leader, has chosen to deal with Corbyn and his Corbynites with a mixture of sagacity and decisiveness. He has always felt that there were many realistic Leftists within the Party who never fully supported Corbyn’s excesses, but still temporarily prefer not to rock the boat, and maintain party unity instead, while waiting for the wave of excess to run its course.

To this group of Leftists, Starmer extended his hand and brought them closer to him, along with the moderates long marginalized and distrusted by the former leader.

Within a short period, opinion polls began showing an improvement in the people’s opinion of Labor; to the extent that some began talking candidly that it has regained enough credibility makes a serious alternative to the Conservatives again.

This was helped by Starmer’s good performances whether in parliamentary debates or media interviews. However, to many he comes across as an "uncharismatic" leader, who also avoids direct confrontations, both inside his own party, or against the Conservatives. As for the latter, they are less excited about him, because they would be happier to have had a hardline foe like Corbyn, who always ensured them the solidarity of their electoral base.

On the other hand, later electoral experiments in the shadow of Covid-19, and the many mishaps and errors of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, have so far failed to clearly define the successes and failures of Starmer’s leadership. It has been truly difficult to judge his performance, given current circumstances.

One thing is true, though. It would be unfair to claim that there are no major ideological differences between the two main British parties after the Corbyn-era. For while a marked change has taken place inside the leadership of Labor, marked by a move towards moderation, the same cannot be said about the Conservatives.

The Conservatives remain as far as ever from moderation, despite the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of their front-bencher’s backgrounds.

The party, which is historically regarded as the powerbase and platform of the political British elite, is currently led by: a prime minister who is a grandson of a Muslim Turk, a Chancellor of Exchequer and a Home Secretary who are both of Hindu Indian origin, a Health Secretary (a pivotal post these Covid-19 days) of Muslim Indian origin, an Education Secretary of Iraqi Kurdish origin, and a Business and Energy Secretary whose family came from Ghana.

The latest opinion polls show only slight separating the two parties. What is also noticeable is that accidental or passing events are causing the fluctuations, not comprehensive policy difference or strategies.

A leading recent poll by politics.co.uk. has noted that "after a summer showing a small but very steady lead for the Conservative Party in the opinion polls, things have started to move again in early November. Where the Conservatives had if anything increased their poll lead following (The Chancellor) Rishi Sunak’s October 2021 budget, the situation changed quickly after the (ex-minister) Owen Patterson affair."

The polling averages extrapolated by politics.co.uk since Patterson’s resignation on November 4 show the two main parties now neck and neck, with "Labor on 36.6%, the Conservatives on 36.1%, and the Liberal Democrats on 9.3%."

It then mentions, that if "a General Election was held today, and the public vote reflected the polling position since November 4" – and considering the different sizes and party composition of electoral constituencies – the Conservatives will have 285 seats (with a loss of 80 seats), while Labor will have 269 seats (with a gain of 67 seats). This means that neither party will have an absolute majority that allows it to form a government on its own.

Therefore, with surprises and unforeseen events aside, the British political scene will retain its excitement and tension; but what is new now is that the country is back to real two-party politics, with alternatives are now surely available if needed.