By Nick Clark
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General election shows that politics is polarising back to two parties

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Issue 2558
An exit poll during the general election shows most people backed the Tories or Labour
An exit poll during the general election shows most people backed the Tories or Labour (Pic: Ron F/Flickr)

Not so long ago it looked as if parliamentary politics in Britain was fragmenting.

In the 2015 general election the Tories won a small majority and Labour came second. Yet the two main parties only managed to take just over 67 percent of the vote between them.

Other parties—Ukip, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Greens—had either grown sharply or entered mainstream politics for the first time. They ate into Labour and Tory support.

Now it looks like the reverse. The Tories no longer have a majority, but in last week’s election the two main parties took 82 percent of the vote. That’s the highest they’ve had together since 1970.

The SNP has been pushed back, losing seats to Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems. Ukip’s vote share has crashed to 2 percent and the Greens have lost more than half their votes.

Yet clearly things have not gone back to normal. If anything politics is more volatile than it was two years ago.

For at least the past three decades both Labour and the Tories accepted the bosses’ agenda of privatisation, deregulation, and pushing down pay and conditions. As the differences between the two main parties shrank, so did the turnout in elections and their shares of the vote.

Each party also had its own specific problems. Most of the Tory leadership, as the party of the big business, backed Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU), which enforces privatisation and austerity.

Yet many Tory members—and a big chunk of its MPs—backed leaving because they blame the EU for Britain’s economic decline.

The rise of Ukip exacerbated this. Ukip successfully combined anti-migrant racism with opposition to the EU, draining away supporters mostly from the Tories, but also some from Labour.

As for Labour, it haemorrhaged votes after tying itself to the bosses’ agenda of privatisation, cuts and low pay. This gave parties such as the SNP and the Greens the opportunity to position themselves to the left of Labour, picking up disaffected Labour supporters.

Yet aspects of both parties’ crises paved the way to their revival—at least for a while.


Former Tory prime minister David Cameron was forced into calling last year’s EU referendum. The Leave vote was a serious blow to the business interests the Tories try to protect. Cameron resigned and the party plunged into infighting.

But the Leave vote also saw Ukip collapse. New Tory prime minister Theresa May promised a Brexit “hard” enough to crowd out Ukip and satisfy the anti-EU Tories, but vague enough to tide over Tory Remainers.

In Labour, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader came out of anger among its members and supporters at the hierarchy’s right wing drift.

Offering a break from the dead politics of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband meant Corbyn revitalised Labour’s support. It also left less space for the Greens, and to an extent the SNP, to pose as left wing alternatives.

So now the two main parties are no longer fighting for centre ground. Out of near-fragmentation, politics has polarised around the Tories who have hoovered up right wing support and Labour which has shifted much further to the left.

That doesn’t mean that all politics should be reduced to voting Labour. The problems underlying both parties’ crises haven’t gone away.

There are still many in Labour who would like to take the party back to the right.

And the pressure to prove Labour is respectable and “responsible” enough to govern will grow as Labour looks closer to winning a general election.

Meanwhile Theresa May will have to try and carve out an actual Brexit deal that keeps both wings of her party happy. That’s almost certainly going to cause a row sooner rather than later that could end May—and her government too.

What matters is whether there’s enough of a revolt among ordinary people, which could tip the Tories over the edge and bolster Corbyn against pressure to move right.

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