From longstanding PBer & former LAB MP Nick Palmer
I’ve been active in politics for over 50 years, and some things stay the same. The traditional themes – the economy, the NHS, relations with Europe. The reductionist media, simplifying every election to a choice of leaders. The conviction that the current moment is exceptional, and nothing will ever be the same again.
But one traditional element has been missing in recent years. It used to be quite common for politicians to change allegiance. Winston Churchill (twice). Ian Paisley. Gerry Fitt. Clare Short. Paul Marsden (repeatedly). Brian Sedgmore. Douglas Carswell. And dozens more see here.. And for every one who actually left their party, there was feverish speculation about many more. As Governments’ terms wore on, majorities started to look less safe as dissidents noisily left the ranks.
But the practice has almost died out. Scores of Labour backbenchers vehemently disagreed with Jeremy Corbyn, but only a tiny handful actually left Labour. A startling list of distinguished Tories led by Ken Clarke have been purged en bloc, and others who are still MPs or peers are notably dissatisfied, not least Theresa May. Are any of them contemplating joining the LibDems, or Labour? Are we even speculating that they might? No. Why not?
It isn’t, surely, that party allegiance has become stronger. The general public are more fickle than they used to be about all parties, and there is little reason to think that MPs are more fanatically loyal. Nor is it that there are deep bonds of affection with the respective leaders – both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer have lots of allies, but I struggle to think of MPs who would say that they loved them with the devotion that Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair attracted in their heyday. In fact, it’s not hard to find Conservatives musing that they might look for a fresh leader in a year or two.
Partly, I think it’s the weakness of the LibDems, the traditional halfway point for people tiring of old allegiances. At present, joining the almost invisible centre party feels eccentric rather than heroic. Mainly, though, the whole of politics has been frozen while the essentially apolitical whirlwind of COVID-19 plays out and the imponderables of Brexit remain still unresolved. Voters are barely thinking about party politics and the polls drift along unchanged.
There are no by-elections, no party conferences. Debating anything except the two overpowering issues feels like a frivolous distraction. Should we nationalise the railways? Reorganise local government? Set new climate change targets? Fiddle with inheritance tax? Not many people actually care at the moment.
Will that last? Actually, no. COVID-19 will subside eventually, driven down by vaccines or marginalised by improving treatment. Brexit will happen, and we may find the new era is wonderful or appalling, but most likely somewhere in between. And there will come a point when the traditional issues reassert themselves. It is an illusion to think that people have ceased to care about the economy or the health service or the education system. The concern about all these matters will return, turbocharged by the economic wreckage left by the pandemic.
And at that point, I wonder if we won’t see some movement across the floor as well, and whether that huge Conservative majority will prove quite as immutable as it looks.
Nick Palmer was Labour MP for Broxtowe, 1997-2010.