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Expert comment: A single-issue democracy: party politics ahead of the UK’s general election

The deeply entrenched division over Brexit among political parties happens at a time when MPs should be relinquishing short-term political gains in favour of the national interest, writes Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication Dr Anthony Ridge-Newman. As we head into a general election, this reality has turned Britain into a single-issue democracy.

Following recent events in Parliament, I have suggested that ‘British politics has become a single-issue democracy and Brexit has created a context in which the old rulebook has been largely ripped apart’. As a result, ‘the only thing that is certain is more uncertainty’.

Yet while the lack of certainty holds true in terms of the final Brexit outcome, the motives of political parties are becoming far more pronounced and predictable than perhaps it seems. Generally, since 2016, events appear to have led to deepening entrenchments around nuanced Brexit-related standpoints, bringing more prominently to the surface parties’ key political motivations. This is important in the context of the upcoming general election, because it means the nuanced views of voters could break voting habits of the past and cluster around the party with the closest match to their own view on Brexit. There is thus significant potential for the outcome to be another hung parliament, which is likely to lead to further Brexit uncertainty and continued multi-directional division.

Moreover, such factors could continue to drive a trend towards Britain becoming a single-issue democracy. If so, it would be to the continued detriment of wider UK policy: further neglect of education, health, and policing. In this sense, one could argue that all parties with a key role in Brexit are acting to some extent against the wider national interest.

Party standpoints

Rather than lean towards their more democratic tradition, the historically Europhile Liberal Democrats are overtly aiming to ‘stop Brexit’ and attract the hard Remainers in the next election. At the other end, the Brexit Party does what it says on the tin in leaning towards an unadulterated Brexit of the ‘no deal’ type. These two Brexit extremes became evident most notably in the polarised results of the 2019 European elections.

Since the 2016 EU referendum, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has been consistent in capitalising on Brexit and leveraging it with the aim of securing a second independence referendum in Scotland. Northern Ireland’s DUP have been constant in placing unionism before Brexit. Respectively, these positions are solidly linked to both parties’ raison d’être.

In the parliamentary context, the problem for the two main UK parties has been a splintering along weak party fault lines associated with the EU standpoints of certain MPs. Brexit has somewhat acted to realign political allegiances within Parliament, which, in turn, has acted to harden and further fragment positions on the EU within political groupings in the House of Commons.

Until recently, the Labour Party has been consistent in maintaining a fluid, some might say jumbled, stance on the outcome of the referendum – one that has been largely opposed to any direction of travel towards Brexit taken by the Conservative Party. It has resulted in some accusing Labour of constantly moving the Brexit goal posts. The main opposition instrument used by Labour has been to place protecting workers’ rights at centre of their Brexit arguments – a leftist catch-all approach and a clear attempt to woo the party’s core voters. However, while the Labour strategy may have acted to frustrate and ridicule, at times, the government’s parliamentary manoeuvrings, if the polls are to be believed, it seems to have not gained them support among the voting public. This seeming self-sacrifice could have been argued to be due to acts taken by Labour in the national interest, if the party had not been so laboured in its approach to reaching firm decisiveness on Brexit.

The Tories under both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have been consistent in aiming to deliver on the result of the referendum. Given the referendum was Conservative policy, there are no surprises there, albeit important to note that the party’s Brexit policy and approach has hardened under Johnson. Brexit has severely torn the fabric of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. A key example of this is how one of the safest Tory seats of Runnymede and Weybridge was represented by a former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer and the next moment by a party-less (independent) Tory rebel. Again if we trust recent polls, these deep internal divisions seem to have left Boris Johnson’s election chances relatively undented. The Conservative strategy of portraying Johnson as the white knight of Brexit, slaying all who get in the way of Britain leaving the EU, seems to have gained some traction with Brexit supporters.

All roads lead to Brexit

It seems plausible to suggest that since the last general election, the constant uncertainty associated with Brexit has acted to drive parties towards a more myopic form of party politics, with the aim of capturing key segments of the voting public across the Brexit spectrum, which in turn has contributed to a shift towards a single-issue democracy in Britain. When one examines each party’s central motivation and strategic standpoint, all roads lead right back to Brexit. This is even demonstrated in BBC Question Time when questions on non-Brexit topics are invariably led back to Brexit by those on the panel. These types of phenomena in public discourse suggest that the upcoming general election will be, by default, ultimately, a referendum on the terms, impact, and outcome of Brexit.

This article was first published by The LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, 30th October 2019.

Published on 12/11/2019