UK crying out for a new party to rescue it from Brexit malaise
The Brexit debacle is far from over, and it continues to reverberate across the UK, Europe and the world beyond. It is not a story that ever had a chance of a happy ending, and it is now limping toward a conclusion without closure, which will lead to years of social and political rupture. It also leaves Parliament, both its elected and non-elected chambers, more deeply divided than it has been for a very long time. For the British political system, the question of being part of Europe and, for the last two-and-a-half years, the means of leaving it, has served as a litmus test of its ability to rise to a crucial challenge that will determine the wellbeing of the nation, its identity and its values for generations to come. And it has failed spectacularly.
However, if this failure were to be followed by a period of profound reflection over the entire journey, from calling for a referendum to the struggle to find any constructive and reasonable way of dealing with its result, there might be a flicker of light at the end of a very dark epoch in British history. One fundamental question for such a reflection should concern the inability of the current political system to produce effective policies that safeguard the country’s national interest, and which are capable of mobilizing a critical mass of support for them.
This inevitably leads to the question of whether the existing political parties have reached the end of the road and are in need of a radical overhaul, or whether instead there is now a need for new alignments and new parties. All that the existing political configuration is capable of producing is incoherent vision, constant wrangling and poor leadership. Moreover, it has become clear throughout the Brexit experience that the parties, in their utter disunity, have been expending most of their energy on maintaining a facade, and not a very convincing one, of a united and functioning party. This has become a severe hindrance due to the acute nature of the Brexit calamity.
It goes without saying that, in a multi-party system, in which some are catch-all groupings such as the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, there are bound to be differences within those broad-based parties, especially on issues with far-reaching implications for the nation. Nevertheless, when such disagreements threaten to paralyze not only the party but the entire country, it is imperative for politicians to consider whether they are in the right political home for them, or whether it is it time to either join another party or form a new one. It increasingly seems to me that the UK has reached the point where it desperately needs a new political party, or a new alliance, that will combine a robust European-global outlook with equally strong social democratic values that would reintroduce the notion of society to the public discourse, based on social justice and equal opportunity.
However, as the Brexit process drags on, whatever its outcome, the Conservative Party is critically wounded, and the Labour Party hasn’t covered itself in glory either. Deep disagreements about membership of the EU have been bleeding the Tories for half a century, whether in government or opposition. There has always been a persistent and vociferous anti-European element among the Tories. However, these Euroskeptics were kept at bay while the economy was doing well enough to prevent the spread of general malaise.
However, the most recent downturn in the economy, as a result of the global economic crisis a decade ago, along with nothing resembling fair distribution of wealth in society, gave British ultranationalists — and especially the opportunists among them who occupy the Tory backbenches — a chance to start their onslaught on the UK’s membership of the EU. Through manipulation, lies and deceit they brought upon the country the Brexit calamity. This points toward a structural crisis, not a temporary one, and the dysfunctionality of a party that has also produced a succession of mediocre leaders.
All that the existing political configuration is capable of producing is incoherent vision, constant wrangling and poor leadership.
It could have been expected that the political bloodbath among the Conservatives would serve as an incentive for Labour to stay united and prepare itself as a viable alternative for government. Reality within the party, however, is not much rosier than it is among the Tories. It is as almost as divided over the Brexit issue, and led by an equally weak leader who still claims to believe in “workers of the world unite,” but only as long as they don’t look for jobs in the UK.
Moreover, the row over consistent and allegedly prevalent anti-Semitism within the party, which is wrongly and often deliberately conflated with legitimate criticism of the Israeli government, is making some MPs, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, consider leaving the party. As is the case with Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn’s unconvincing stand on the issue made him look both indecisive and disingenuous. Persistent rumors of a breakaway faction within Labour are hard to ignore, and we might see some of its MPs leave to form a separate party, while the Conservative Party continues to destroy itself from within.
It is hard to imagine how the UK’s political parties could be in such complete denial about their growing irrelevance to most voters, as well as to those who are still too young to vote, let alone about the anger and scorn most feel toward them, as they witness their pathetic performance in handling the country’s affairs in a time of great crisis.
Both big parties are stuck in old debates and formulas. This surely opens up space for a third big party: One that is forward-looking and has more of a global perspective; one that wants Britain to be a global leader, and that recognizes that the great qualities of the British people are enhanced by close engagement with the world, and not by retreating into an island mentality; and one that would govern by being inclusive and that would reward and enable success, but would not leave behind those who need help and support.
The political arena is wide open for such a new force that would rise to the challenge and form a political power fit to lead the UK well into the 21st century.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg