Scottish First Minister and Scottish Nationalist Party leader Nicola Sturgeon (File)
If there were a UK General Election held tomorrow, which party would you vote for? In the 19 years that YouGov has asked this question, there have only been two occasions in which the Labour and Conservative Parties did not occupy the top two spots.
The first was in the immediate aftermath of the first 2010 Prime Ministerial debate, at the zenith of “Cleggomania” around Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.
The second was at the end of May. Now Labour and the Conservatives could only manage joint third, trailing both the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats.
The dominant forces in the Commons, thanks to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, are now more vulnerable than ever. Unable to reach a compromise with the European Union, or even within their own ranks, both are enduring a steep decline in favorability among the electorate. This leaves the UK drifting, without a sail, towards a hung Parliament in the next general election.
Other parties circle hungrily, poised to snatch any dissatisfied supporter. Since May’s European elections, the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats have propelled themselves ahead of weak and divided opponents, surging in the polls and captivating public attention. North of Hadrian’s Wall, the Scottish Nationalist Party offers a governing alternative — and possibly independence — to Scots fed up with politics in London.
But is this just a Brexit blip or can an emerging party bring a lasting shake-up of UK politics?
A Brexit Credibility
As Labour and the Conservatives have descended into tribal politics, the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats have been characterized by unity and cooperation through a clear and consistent Brexit policy. Unburdened by the pressing need to secure an absolute majority in Parliament, these minority parties have committed themselves firmly to the opposing sides of the debate, establishing themselves as the voices of Leave and Remain.
Of the two, the Brexit Party has edged ahead, served by a constant stream of media coverage. Proclaiming its raison d’être “to ensure that the UK leaves the European Union”, challenging Britain’s “self-serving two-party system”, the party portrays an indecisive and divided Tory government to amass frustrated supporters.
Even in the face of Nigel Farage’s antagonistic behavior and remarks from Anne Widdecombe likening Britain’s departure from the EU to “slaves” rising up “against their owners”, the Brexit Party has been able to build momentum. The ignorant and subtly racist comments might bury a candidate from another party, but the toxic environment of Brexit gives Farage and his party a Teflon-like protection.
Back in the Game
While they still trail the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats may be better positioned to convert their current popularity into Parliamentary seats. They have a loyal support base, a better-established infrastructure, and, most importantly, a comprehensive manifesto.
Unlike all of their Brexit Party counterparts except for Widdecombe, the two candidates for the Lib Dem leadership, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey, have ministerial experience. Swinson is seen as a modernizer, seeking closer ties with other parties and showing a willingness to “own the failures” of the governing coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015. Davey has cleverly leveraged his time as Energy Minister to present himself as the ideal candidate to tackle climate change. Their contest — the winner of which will be announced on the same day as the unveiling of the new UK Prime Minister — has rejuvenated the party.
To get themselves “back in the game”, the Lib Dems have reverted to an old tactic: simply not being Labour or the Conservatives — an approach that worked for Nick Clegg in 2010. With the main parties characterized by in-fighting and blame-shifting, many voters have forgotten what a “normal”, rational political debate can be. Davey and Swinson’s leadership race has at least begun to restore that memory.
In a turbulent political climate, decisiveness and clarity of message have been a luxury. So it is unsurprising that the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party have resonated with voters.
Whether or not this wave of popularity is sustainable is a different question, as the two parties have come under scrutiny themselves.
Britain beyond Brexit
The Liberal Democrats’ track record in government is tarnished by its drastic U-turns on university tuition fees and complicity in Conservative spending cuts, an important factor in Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. But at least they have a record to defend.
Farage’s nascent party has yet to present its vision for the UK beyond Brexit. It risks being seen as one-dimensional, with Farage admitting that “there is no difference” between the Brexit Party and his previous political home, the UK Independence Party, “in terms of policy”. Last week, the party put out hastily assembled pledges, including a £200 billion infrastructure investment package in “left-behind” regions, but it remains to be seen if there are any concrete policies.
So both The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats are vulnerable to the uncertainty and instability that they are currently exploiting. Seats in Westminster are only likely through a second referendum or the continuation of the current deadlock in negotiations between Britain and the EU.
Paradoxically, future electoral success for the Brexit Party hinges on the failure of a UK Government to ever deliver a Brexit deal. Conversely, if the Liberal Democrat campaign to overturn Brexit is successful and the UK revives from its political amnesia, memories of the 2010-2015 coalition will come flooding back.
The success that these parties have enjoyed can be, in part, attributed to Labour and Conservative impotence.
But their rivals are slowly waking up.
In an e-mail to members on Tuesday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn confirmed cautiously that his party “would campaign for Remain against either a No Deal or a Tory deal…[that] does not protect the economy and jobs”. Both Conservative leadership candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, are setting the country on course for a No Deal Brexit.
Meanwhile in Scotland
Which brings the United Kingdom — if not England — to the overlooked force that could rearrange British politics.
The Scottish National Party, with its regional concentration, scarcely features in national polling despite forming the third-largest group in Westminster with its 35 MPs. But leader Nicola Sturgeon has arguably made the firmest statement of intent by reaffirming her party’s commitment to remaining in the European Union, whether this is as part of the UK or not.
Leading a pro-Remain government in a devolved nation, in which 62% of voters backed EU membership, gives the SNP an undeniable mandate. Even if Sturgeon’s calls for a second Scottish independence referendum have been rejected by Tory leadership hopefuls Johnson and Hunt, she is issuing the prospect as leverage to push for greater devolved powers.
The ongoing impasse of Brexit will only embolden Sturgeon further, as the SNP is poised to offer a nationalist channel through which, she hopes, Scots will express their frustration with Westminster.
Like any minority party in the House of Commons, the SNP is subject to the twists and turns of Brexit. But unlike its rivals, it can point to a track record in government and proclaim achievements. When the Liberal Democrats accept the raising of tuition fees by the Conservative-led coalition government, the SNP scrapped them north of the border. When Westminster opted to cut healthcare spending, the SNP decided to expand it. #
Stunts v. Governing
Is that a vision to break Brexit paralysis, or at least leave it behind?
The three-year quagmire over the UK’s departure from the EU has demonstrated the need for responsible and cooperative governance. But last week, the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats used the opening of the European Parliament — their possible breakthrough moments after June’s election success — for PR stunts. Brexit MEPs turned their back on the youth playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the EU anthem, while the Lib Dems sported yellow “Bollocks to Brexit” T-shirts.
Scottish First Minister Sturgeon and the SNP were also in Brussels. But their mission was far different: establishing links with EU officials and promoting the interests of Scotland as a “distinct political community”.
The recent collapse of another aspirant group, Change UK, show that electoral success requires policy as well as polish. If Britain’s minority parties intend to establish a new politics, they will need to convince voters that there is a future beyond Brexit — and that they are the right people to lead the country into it.
Scotland may be in the midst of that political quake. But it is far soon to say whether the tremors in London are anything more than a passing inconvenience for the Conservative-Labour duopoly.