T his week Britain’s parties unveiled what they would do if they win a snap election on June 8, though in reality another Conservative victory is the only conceivable result. Voters have not been presented with such a stark ideological choice since 1983, when Michael Foot’s Labour lost in a landslide to Margaret Thatcher’s Tories on a hard-left manifesto dubbed the longest suicide note in history, setting in motion the long process of moderation that eventually produced Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 1997.
For years after Mr. Blair’s first huge victory, the Tories themselves seemed trapped in the past, consumed with infighting over Europe and locked out of power. Then came a fresh-faced David Cameron, the Great Recession and a Conservative-led coalition government in 2010. Though differences remained, not least over the pace and depth of austerity, both main parties had converged in the middle.
Under Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn the wheel has come full circle. The 2017 Labour manifesto turned out to be even more left-wing than an earlier leak suggested, promising to bring several industries back under public control and hike taxes on companies and top earners. Under Ms. May, the Tories (or Team Theresa as they are now known) have moved towards the centre on economics but considerably to the right on social issues, migration and of course the EU.
The space this has created in the middle is one reason why a new liberal, centrist party is once again being mooted. It is no secret that moderates in Labour and the Tories have more in common with each other than they do with the ideologues running their parties, as they discovered while campaigning to stay in the EU last summer. Another reason is that, as in France and the US, a new clash between nationalism and internationalism is replacing the traditional left-right divide.
Ms. May has grasped this, but there is no powerful countervailing force for those who think the UK’s interests are best-served by remaining open to Europe and the outside world. The Liberal Democrats hoped to be this party but their revival proved fleeting. Despite the popularity of its manifesto pledges, Labour is set to lose a third election in a row, possibly by a landslide.
The obstacles to forming a new centrist party are enormous, as a previous generation of Labour moderates - far bigger beasts than the current crop - found when they formed the ill-fated Social Democratic Party in 1981. But as Emmanuel Macron recently showed in France, nothing says that party systems must last forever.
Associate Editor, The World Weekly
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