This week, Dr Elizabeth Monaghan writes on the state of political parties following the UK’s Brexit vote
The OWL, like many others, has puzzled over the mayhem that British politics has become since the beginning of summer. Institutions and policies that very recently seemed so settled have been turned upside down and inside out. The referendum, as will become increasingly apparent, clearly marked the end of an era in our political life.
Amongst the victims of the upheaval have been political parties, the organisations that have breathed life into the constitution for over three hundred years. Almost without exception, parties across the spectrum felt intensely the reverberations of the Brexit vote. Initially, it was the Conservative Party which, over the course of a few weeks in June and July, became the scene of skulduggery in the Leave faction of the party, followed by an all-woman leadership contest that never was due to a misunderstanding over whether mothers make the best Prime Ministers. More recently, UKIP, having been granted their dearest wish, are beset by internal struggles and, as a result of Brexit, stand to lose a significant source of funding which, paradoxically, comes from the European Parliament. And just last week, their performance in the Witney by-election has led some within the Liberal Democrats to propose that they come out unequivocally as the anti-Brexit party.
But it is the Labour party where the fallout has been most extreme, reaching the level of an existential crisis. The referendum, and Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged lukewarm support for the Remain cause, was the pretext for a motion of no confidence which was passed by the party’s MPs at 172-40. There followed mass resignations from the Shadow Cabinet but Corbyn refused to stand down as leader, saying he would not abandon the 250,000 Labour members and registered supporters who had voted for him to lead the party in 2015. It took for Angela Eagle to make a formal challenge to Corbyn’s leadership and what ensued was the most toxic and damaging internal party disagreement seen for a long time.
The debates surrounding the leadership contest went to the heart of what it means – or what it ought to mean – to be a political party in the 21st Century. On the Corbyn-side much of the argument focused on the mandate from ordinary members and registered supporters of the party, which clearly favoured him. On the side of Owen Smith (who became the sole leadership challenger when Angela Eagle withdrew her challenge as she had received fewer nominations from Labour MPs and wished to avoid splitting the opposition) the argument was that a Labour party led by Corbyn could never win a general election due to the antipathy and even hostility towards him amongst the broader electorate.
This tension reflects an often-used typology in political science which identifies two – not always mutually reinforcing – functions of political parties in modern democracies. First, parties represent: they articulate interests, aggregate demands, translate opinions into distinct policy options. Second, they govern: they organise and give coherence to the institutions of government. These dual roles combine government of the people and by the people. However scholars have argued that since the late 20th Century the representation role has diminished and the governing role has expanded. To an extent this seems to be the case: a recurring theme in the referendum campaign was that Remain was the preference of an out-of-touch elite that straddled both the main political parties. It evoked the aphorism used in elections that “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always wins”.