There’s increasing talk about possible splits within the Conservative Party over Brexit – and within the Labour Party too. We hear that anti-Brexit MPs could break away from their respective parties – possibly in collaboration with each other – to form one or more new, liberal-minded parties. These discussions are all based on considerations of the make-up of the two main parties. But these discussions have largely ignored the fact that you can’t have parties without voters. And so, what does the polling evidence suggest as to where gaps in the political market really are?
Of course, voters split in a million different ways and there are therefore a million different parties that could be formed – on the basis of region, age, class, ethnicity, religion, and so on. But let’s think about decent-sized parties that could theoretically be created off the back of shared political attitudes within the electorate. In doing so, there are probably five major parties that could be formed. (I’m considering England’s electorate only here).
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International Free Traders. Roughly ten per cent of the population would define as being primarily pro-business and pro-free trade – and with that positive towards the creation of a low-tax, dynamic economy. In the US, such people are occasionally referred to as “Wall Street Journal Conservatives”. While they are mostly to be found in the South of England (rather than London), they are scattered around (but not in) England’s affluent towns and cities. They are middle class and mostly pro-EU – and they mainly opposed leaving because they (rightly or wrongly) thought leaving the EU was a move against free trade. They are socially liberal and are open to significant public service reform.
Eurosceptic Libertarians. The Libertarian Party only merits a mention here, outside of the main parties, for clarification purposes. This is to say that the self-consciously optimistic, forward-looking, internationalist but eurosceptic, low-tax, socially liberal segment of the electorate is tiny. It’s probably less than five per cent of the electorate and is much smaller than its pro-European, business-friendly equivalent who might vote for a free trade party.
Social Conservatives. Around 15 per cent could genuinely be described as primarily small-c conservative – people that believe in old-fashioned institutions, social conservatism and tightly-managed capitalism in the Christian Democrat mould. Overwhelmingly middle-class and older, this group leans male but is ethnically mixed and can be found in suburbs, small towns and villages across England.
Nationalists. Now we can think about the big clusters. Perhaps the biggest is the roughly 25 per cent of the electorate that is working class and lower middle class, anti-politics, self-consciously patriotic, eurosceptic and socially conservative. They previously mainly voted Labour but voted Conservative in 2017 over Brexit and could do so again. They are found across England but particularly in the small towns of the Midlands and North. They are ambivalent about capitalism and favour both lower taxes and more (but focused) spending on public services.
Social Democrats. Around 25 per cent of the public are essentially social democrats – people that worry primarily about the state of public services, about poverty and welfare, and about apparent capitalist excess. They care about issues of identity but significantly less so than their hard-left counterparts. They are highly pro-European, socially liberal, younger, female and overwhelmingly urban and suburban.
The Hard Left. Finally, around 15 per cent of the public are ideologically very left-wing. In the past, they defined themselves primarily by their views on how the economy and public services should be run, with extreme hostility to the private sector. They still care and vote on these issues, but now they’re increasingly likely to make themselves heard on issues of identity (gender, ethnicity, and so on). They align with Corbyn in everything except the EU; in the past, many would have been anti-EU, but that flipped when euroscepticism became completely linked with the right. They’re mainly found in London and the country’s big cities and they’re younger, female and middle class.
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What does all this mean for any of those politicians thinking about creating new parties? Three things.
First, probably, that they should view any new parties as being broad churches (like their own now) or as smaller, permanent coalition partners as commonly exist in other countries.
Second, related to this point, the public don’t line up – at all – on a neat ideological spectrum as politicians often imagine. Ideologically “pure” parties might theoretically have fewer internal divisions (although that rarely works out in practice), but they’d reach few voters.
Third, and specifically for anti-Brexit politicians, the path to creating such a party lies firmly on what we think of as the Left; while it’s not impossible that a new anti-Brexit party could speak to international free traders and social democrats, it would be easier to fuse together social democrats and the hard left because voters share so much common ground on other issues. If they’re not in the broad church of the Conservative Party, it’s hard to imagine an electorally attractive role for these Conservative MPs.