Tom Gymer argues there’s nothing new with polarised politics

The election results are in and no party has a majority. We have a hung parliament. Prime Minister Theresa May has said she won’t resign, a minority Tory government with support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) seems the most likely outcome.

Firstly, let me just make one thing very clear. This is not a win for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. Yes, they have done better than predicted; yes, their campaign was good; yes, they won more seats than in 2010 or 2015. However, it is important to remember that after seven years of the Conservatives in government, Labour has still failed to win a majority of seats. Even though they lost seats, the Tories are still the largest party, in all likelihood Theresa May will still be Prime Minister, at least for a while. Corbyn’s result may have been acceptable, it may even have exceeded expectations, but it was not outstanding. The Tories lost, but so did Labour.

What this election result has shown though is the return to a more polarised version of politics. The left versus right divide appears to have widened between the two main parties. Many might point to the supposed radically socialist policies of Corbyn, but I actually think the Conservatives have shifted further to the right than Labour have to the left. In fact, I honestly donít believe Corbyn is particularly radical, he is simply pushing for a return to many of the policies Labour have had previously.

Equally, I donít really think people’s attitudes have changed that much either, in a time of economic difficulty they still support ideas which will address problems of poverty and want, which is what Corbyn tried to offer in his manifesto.

Whatever hype the media might use, in truth these changes fit with the overarching political patterns.

There are times, generally during economic booms, when both parties have similar ideas about how to govern the country, such as the post-war consensus, when the opinions of the Chancellor (Rab Butler) and the Shadow-Chancellor (Hugh Gaitskell) were so similar that it was termed ‘Butskellism’. The Blair era was one of these times, with Thatcher famously declaring that they had “won” because Blair “came over to their side,” but this began to change with the economic crash. Now the two main parties are divided like they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

Of course, some might view this as a good thing, bemoaning the times when parties are similar, yet whatever your political alignment you can see how this contrast can cause difficulties. After all, whatever people want to say about Blair moving to the right, his premiership also saw the Conservatives pulled to the left.

Remember that Blair introduced minimum wage, and then the Tories actually raised it, not fully to a living wage admittedly, but still itís hardly something that would have happened under Thatcher. This isnít a new era, but simply a continuation of an old one.

This polarisation of politics isnít just limited to the left and right, the SNP suffered in Scotland partly due to the fact that the parties that opposed them stood as unionists, opposing another independence referendum.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland almost all the seats were won by the DUP or Sinn Fein, respectively the most unionist and most nationalist parties in Northern Ireland.

So yes, there has been a marked shift in British politics, but it’s a shift that has happened before, and will no doubt happen again. The implications it has for the future of British politics are harder to predict.


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Tom Gymer

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September 2021
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