Commentary | 13 December 2019

Why the day of the party is done

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

The abiding condition of modern Western politics is flux. It is true, of course, that the Conservative Party has now won its fourth consecutive election in the UK, but look a little closer and we can see rapid change. The Conservatives have had three leaders in that time and the character of the party has changed dramatically.

The speed at which the Conservative Party has redefined itself in just the last few months is striking. Boris Johnson has reinvented the Tories as the party of Leave. YouGov polling taken before the election indicated that 71 per cent of voters in favour of leaving the EU were planning to vote Conservative. That figure was 34 per cent before Johnson took over the leadership in July.

The Tories are now also a major force among working-class voters who previously held fast to Labour. As political scientist Matthew Goodwin put it when the election results started coming through on Friday: “Labour is losing the areas that it was founded to represent.”

But we should not assume this is a permanent realignment. In fact, it is likely that the Conservative hold on the working-class vote will be just as fragile as the Labour Party’s, because voters in Western democracies are more unpredictable than ever.

You could once say with reasonable certainty which party a voter would support based on their job, their class, their race and their religion. But those old cleavages have almost disappeared.

That’s why big centre-right and centre-left political parties in most Western democracies are in decline. The economic and social conditions that gave rise to them have now been overtaken by deindustrialisation, globalisation, feminism, immigration and the end of the Cold War.

In Britain, those big parties remain at the centre of politics, thanks to favourable voting systems and the kind of reinvention that Tony Blair imposed on Labour in the 1990s and which Johnson has now done to the Tories. You could add Donald Trump to the list of party re-inventors – during the 2016 presidential primaries the Republican establishment was united against him, but since his victory the virus has taken over the host.

In Germany, things have gone differently. The centre-right Christian Democrats and centre-left Social Democratic Party are losing ground to new parties, most notably the Greens on the left and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the populist right. The AfD, by the way, didn’t even exist when Angela Merkel became Chancellor in 2005. It is now the official opposition in the Bundestag. Like I said: flux.

So the major parties either need to reinvent themselves or they risk the prospect of being overtaken by new parties. Yet in Australian party politics, neither of these things has really happened. Labor, it might be argued, had its Blair-like moderniser in Kevin Rudd, but his internal position wasn’t strong enough to complete the process.

Still, we have hardly been immune to political flux, given the leadership instability of the last decade. And Australia is no exception when it comes to the general drift away from major parties. It’s not showing up yet in election results, but we do see it in the primary-vote statistics. Both parties are declining, though for Labor the downward slope is much steeper.

The old order, in which big centrist parties shared the reins of power between them, is over.

The overall lesson for Western democracies is that we shouldn’t wait for a return to normalcy or stability. The old order, in which big centrist parties shared the reins of power between them, is over. Major parties in Western democracies are now so unpopular and so untethered from their social and economic base that they are increasingly unstable and highly vulnerable to challengers.

But we shouldn’t think of this solely in terms of new parties taking over from the old. Clearly that is happening in Germany, but the new parties don’t have any more of a hold on the public than those they seek to replace. The resurgence of the Tories at the expense of Nigel Farage’s once popular Brexit Party illustrates the point.

Instead of democracy being dominated by strong and enduring parties with large memberships and a well-defined base of voters, we are likely to see those parties cede ground to political movements centred either on a strong and charismatic leader or on a defining issue such as climate change.

But they won’t last as long as the old parties have. Perhaps Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche is a taste of that future: a leader-centred movement that arose quickly but which doesn’t have deep social and economic roots, and may not long survive the career of its figurehead.

None of this is necessarily threatening to liberal democracies, but it certainly is a threat to the big parties, and the risk is that they do something desperate to maintain their status in the face of internal instability and rising new parties. Like, for instance, agreeing to hold a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the European Union.