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Brexit has exposed the British political class, and it’s not pretty

  • Elis Gjevori
  • 28 Mar 2019

As Prime Minister Theresa May tries one more last-ditch attempt to pass her Brexit deal, MPs are shown to be wildly out of step with their constituents.

Brexit exposed how divided and out of touch Britains political class had become. ( Reuters )

In a desperate bid to pass her Brexit deal in parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to step down if her party backs the deal.

In the space of three years, Britain could have its third prime minister, who would likely face calls to establish their legitimacy at the ballot box, resulting in a third general election.

But it’s also important to take a step back.

In the last 12 years, Britain has had three and now quite possibly four prime ministers and two coalition governments. 

Between 1980 and 2007, Britain had three prime ministers; Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair. The average lifespan of British prime ministers is seemingly getting shorter.

Moreover, in 2010 Britain had its first fully blown coalition government in 70 years. Following May’s gamble in 2017 to establish her legitimacy as prime minister, after taking over from David Cameron who resigned following the Brexit vote, the election produced yet another coalition, with a confidence-and-supply agreement between the Conservatives and the Irish DUP.

A broader look at British politics suggests that voter identity is evolving and splintering with increasingly fewer people identifying with a political party. More than one-third of voters believe that elections are not ‘free and fair’ and 73 percent believe that the country is not ‘governed by the will of the people’.

It is against this backdrop that Brexit is occurring as the ‘will of the people’ meets the will of their ostensible representatives.

The dying two-party system

Increasingly, the British public is less likely to be a member of a political party. Party membership has tumbled. Take the Conservative Party, in the 1950s it was estimated to have a 2.8 million membership now it has 124,000 and declining.

The Labour Party similarly claimed to have more than a million members declining to less than 200,000 thousand in the 2000s and more recently swelling to 564,443 members - an outlier increase driven by the personality of opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Between 1945 and the 1970s the two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour could easily count on receiving the vote of 90 percent of the electorate.

Now the two main parties can only hope to command two-thirds of the electorate which is increasingly looking at other options - if they vote at all.

Voters are showing signs that they are looking for something beyond the two-party system. The Brexit process, for instance, delivered a result that neither of the two main parties endorsed. Moreover, while 52 percent of the electorate voted for Brexit, 73 percent of MPs voted to remain.

The Brexit vote, rather than causing the dividing lines in British politics, laid bare a distinct detachment between the political class and the voters. The ‘centrist consensus’ that had emerged in the 1990s has been blown apart.

Rebranded centrism

A little over a month ago, the UK political scene saw what looked like a possible tectonic shift when three Conservative Party MPs and eight Labour MPs left their respective parties to start what they called The Independent Group.

Now more than six weeks later, they barely register on the political scene. Curiously silent on their financing, The Independent Group found itself facing familiar accusations of hiding the identity of its donors, so much for a clean break.

The Independent Group, which has not yet been set up as a party, believes that there is a space in British politics for a ‘centrist party’. Yet the British public is telling pollsters that they are in favour of significantly less immigration, more nationalisation of public services and higher taxes on the rich - all positions that The Independent Group eschews

All policies that are being heavily served by the two mainstream parties and therein lies the challenge for The Independent Group who seem to have their finger just of the pulse of the British public.

The Independent Group has attempted to present itself as a breath of fresh air in British politics, yet a closer look reveals that, particularly among the former Labour MPs, they are often resorting to re-presenting previously rejected New Labour policies of the Tony Blair era.  

There is still a hope that if Brexit would just go away then Britain could go back to being "normal". But one look at British politics over the last 30 years tells us that ‘normal’ is no longer what British voters want. 

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