The recent remarkable electoral events in the U.K. have big implications for British politics. But they also contain important lessons that should be of interest everywhere in the world where politicians and political parties seek the support of voters under modern conditions, Japan very much included.
Briefly, what happened is as follows:
In England, the incumbent Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson, did very well, both in local elections and in one highly significant by-election to the national Parliament, where they inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Labour Party, overturning one of its previous strongholds with a massive majority.
In Scotland, the incumbent nationalist party, or the Scottish National Party, did fairly well in elections to the regional Parliament, though they did not perform quite as expected. Still, the party’s showing was strong enough to ensure that the issue of Scottish independence from the rest of the U.K. continues as a very hot and vexed subject.
In Wales, the incumbent Labour Party, which has long had a majority, managed to stave off challenges and remain firmly in place.
Northern Ireland, the fourth “nation” of the U.K., for its part, faces unique Irish issues defying all trends elsewhere.
So the incumbent ruling parties all did well. This in itself is a surprise because governments recently elected tend to do badly in their first phases.
On top of that, there has been the Brexit drama, still producing aftershocks; the enormous pandemic crisis; and a whole swathe of scandals in the ruling party at Westminster, along with highly personal criticisms of the prime minister himself.
Setbacks for Johnson were confidently predicted by the media and the fevered opinion-shapers inside the hothouse of Westminster itself. But instead, the wider world took not a bit of notice, and at least in England, the Conservatives triumphed, showing they were still making big inroads into Labour heartlands.
The worst agony from all this is currently being suffered by the Labour Party itself. After their heavy election defeat of 2019, which brought Boris Johnson to power, the expectation was that Labour would by now be pushing back — especially since the party had taken the trouble to change its leader from an extremist to a more moderate figure. Surely the tide could be turned against the Conservatives.
But the opposite happened. The hoped-for swing to the Left just did not take place and the appeal of old-style socialism fell flat on the ground. The great army of working people from which the British Labour Party has historically drawn its strength seemed to have faded away.
Of course, there have been a whole variety of local reasons, explanations, blame and excuses for this debacle. But almost all of them have missed the deeper factors that are changing elections and electorates everywhere: the communications revolution and totally altered attitudes toward politicians, political hierarchies and rulers.
The old polarized debates and doctrines, the political line-ups and battles between left and right, between socialism and capitalism, warfare between the classes, free markets versus state control — the great European philosophical conflicts of the past— are no longer of much interest at the grass roots. All today’s major issues crisscross the lines of parties once founded on these ancient causes and rivalries, over which so many conflicts have been fought, revolutions proclaimed and, often, blood shed.
Take a look at the main concerns of today. Climate change, pandemic control, dominance of the high tech giants, crime, drugs and migrant flows all top the list. But so do other issues such as the need for first class quality government in all social areas, in housing, health provisions, job security and education.
Few, if any, of these topics can be said to belong to any political wing of the old order. This is now the era of demand for technocratic competence, not doctrinaire lectures — where good governance combined with genuine, sensitive and continuous accountability are prized highest. The old “isms” of left- and right-wing politics have very little, if nothing to say to any of these problems.
In consequence, political parties that take to the field with redundant slogans on their banners make little headway. That is what British Labour is painfully discovering. Socialism of the confrontational kind is dead and discredited. People in the age of hyperconnectivity no longer wish to be lectured by anyone from above about what to think or believe.
In a sense, this diagnosis could be better news than it looks for a downcast Labour Party. This is because the warning applies just as much to all other parties that try to feed voters with a diet of too much stale doctrine, whether from the old left or the old right.
Just now Britain’s Conservative Party is avoiding that error by mixing unprecedented state intervention and spending with its traditional free market instincts. But if ever it was to revert to dogma, as it has done in the past, it could immediately meet the same fate and the same creeping irrelevance.
Looming over the whole British scene is the question of Scottish independence, which would end the 314-year-old Union. Here again, differences between left- and right-wing political themes have no relevance whatsoever. The much deeper — and older — problem is that the democracy that nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon keeps claiming for the people of Scotland clashes directly with the democracy which belongs to the people of the United Kingdom union as a whole — which they do not wish to see undermined by secession.
It is the age-old problem of keeping nations together, over which many of the wars of history, civil and territorial, have been fought and continue to be fought, and which have been given frightening new life and greater destructive potential with the age of the microchip and the internet.
Political parties forged from the great social and economic issues of the 19th and 20th centuries have nothing distinctive to say about this kind of dilemma. Indeed in the Scottish case both Labour and Conservative parties are on the same side — in favor of Union and against separatism and independence.
Strange new political alliances will form in the future to meet these new challenges. Political factions and party groups that persist in campaigning on old slogans and beliefs will not be part of them.
Lord David Howell, Baron Howell of Guildford, is a member of the House of Lords and a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. His latest books are “Look Where We’re Going” (2019) and “The Japan Affair” (2020).
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