We have come over the years to think of the British political party structure as being pretty well established. At least since 1945, Labour stood for the “rights of the working man,” we Tories for “strong defence, a sound economy and a stable Constitution”; the Liberals were somewhere in the middle of all of that blowing with the wind and seeking protest votes of all kinds. That neat (if slightly caricatured) structure may be nearing its sell-by date.
Capitalism against socialism, which typified much of the twentieth century is pretty much history, if you leave aside North Korea and Cuba. That deprives both Labour and the Tories of their unique selling proposition. Single-issue groups and interests such as environment, poverty, business, military or pacifism cross traditional party lines. The younger generation, in particular, is much influenced by Twitter and Facebook, and less constrained by traditional political boundaries. The old Gilbert and Sullivan line about “every boy and every gal [being] either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative” is truly a thing of the past.
Those shifting political tectonic plates may also be reflected in some real political changes in the last twelve months or so. Who could have predicted the total destruction of the Labour Party in Scotland; the end of the Liberal Democrats in England; the Conservative overall majority in Parliament; and perhaps most astonishing of all: the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party? Politics as we have come to know it has changed beyond all recognition in a matter of month.
Traditional party structures seem likely to me to be ripe for further fundamental change. The size of the Corbyn landslide makes it hard to predict his early removal. Yet it will be wholly unacceptable for many moderate Labour MPs to serve under his leadership, (unless he trims his wilder ideas quite considerably). Some kind of split in Labour seems likely, perhaps even defections to other parties. What will be their relationship with the Scottish Nationalists? Might Corbyn be the lifeline the Lib-Dems were seeking? Who can say?
Europe is another tectonic plate. The outcome of the referendum is, of itself of course, potentially extensive in its consequences. But leaving aside the possibility of Brexit for a moment, even a 60/40 vote, for example, to stay in the EU could well have devastating consequences for we Conservatives. Forty per cent of the people, or perhaps 20 million, many of whom will be of a right of centre frame of mind, will be devastated to have lost the referendum. Forty per cent of the electorate would be quite enough to reap terrible consequences in the General Election which will follow closely along behind.
So we live in exciting times indeed. My strong instinct is that the traditional party structures in the UK may well be just about to change for all time. They have, of course, done so often in the past. (What of the Whigs, the old Liberals; Labour’s power is much less than a century old). We are, I think, in the process of a generational change in the way we run our politics.