In the few days since Theresa May’s difficulties during her keynote speech at last week’s Conservative Party Conference, rumours have abounded as to how much longer she can remain in the role, suggesting that her premiership is teetering on a cliff edge. In fact, it is anything but.
It says a lot, that the only attempt at a rebellion was led by the comically inept Grant Shapps (as many commentators were quick to point out, one wonders how many of the names on Shapps’ “list” were his own alter egos…), and it is highly unlikely that any credible figure will emerge to depose May any time soon.
For the few Cabinet members who could provide a credible alternative to Theresa May, it makes absolutely no sense to try and take over right now.
David Davis? He’s seen first hand how difficult Brexit will be to actually deliver, so there’s absolutely no way he’d want to carry the can for the disaster.
Amber Rudd? Perhaps the Cabinet member best suited to being PM, but difficult to imagine her wanting to take up the job whilst simultaneously trying to defend a wafer thin majority in her own constituency, and given that she was an arch-remainer, she wouldn’t be a popular choice with the party membership.
Philip Hammond? Too boring!
And Boris? Well, given that his primary concern is polishing his own reputation he’d have no interest in the impossible task of trying to deliver his referendum promises — instead preferring to come in “save the day” when the damage has already been done.
And given that no rebellion is ever going to have one of these people as a figurehead, it is unlikely to have any real success.
The main reason for this, is that despite many Conservative MPs (likely including those listed above) feel that Theresa May leading them into the next election would be inadvisable, they are terrified of the civil war they’d precipitate by deposing her. Since the referendum, most of the commentary on party divisions has focused on the Labour Party, and the stark divisions between the Corbynites and the Blairites. In fact, the Conservative Party are as (if not more) divided — up to now at least they’ve just been better at hiding it.
Any leadership election would be bloody and completely tear the party apart. And after all that, the likely outcome would be Jacob Rees-Mogg winning the leadership — a surefire way to never win a General Election. It is laughable that some seem to think Rees-Mogg — an Old-Etonian whose views on social issues would have been considered old fashioned sixty years ago — the answer to the Conservative Party’s problems with young voters. But this is the guy who Tory activists will likely coalesce around, and as such moderates in the Party will have to find their own single candidate to avoid splitting the vote.
This candidate is unlikely to come to the fore until shortly before the next General Election (still scheduled for 2022), with some suggestion from Ruth Davidson that she may be open to the leadership post-2021.
Given this current situation, despite what it may look like, Theresa May’s position is actually pretty safe for now.
Despite this, Boris remains a danger. Although he won’t lead a rebellion, he’s likely to continue to cause trouble. May can’t sack him (although given his conduct as Foreign Secretary, this would be a perfectly proportionate response) as that would risk turning him into a martyr — already popular with the party membership, he’d use the sacking to manoeuvre himself into the leadership, and it’s always better to have your rivals inside the tent. Instead, she should reshuffle him, which May implied in interviews published today that she might be prepared to do. Demote him by moving him to Business, still sufficiently Brexity but with more to do, in the hope that this will prevent him from going off-piste quite so often — wading into other policy areas and causing damage. Do this, and May keeps herself safe.
Despite the current furore, things will quieten down soon. If the Cabinet want to get rid of May because of the election result, then the time to do so was immediately after the election — to back her immediately after the election only to stab her in the back a couple of months later would reflect very badly on the perpetrators in the long-run. Plus, no one wants to become Prime Minister, only to have to take responsibility of Brexit.
Although her position looks wobbly, at the moment it is anything but.
This week’s Conservative Party conference began with Theresa May pledging action on student fees and housing, pitched as a generous offer to young voters — long considered her party’s achilles heel.
First was a pledge to ‘freeze’ university tuition fees at £9,250 a year, a change from the policy announced earlier in the year to allow universities to increase fees by £250 a year. Calling this a ‘freeze’ is clearly taking positive spin to the extremes, as in reality it’s hard to see this as anything other than a u-turn. In any case, it’s generally accepted that the actual annual rate of tuition fees has little impact on deterring university applications from any background, and given that the vast majority of graduates never pay back the full amount anyway, it’s a change that will only be financially beneficial to the highest earners. This is just a cosmetic change in an attempt to compete with Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to completely scrap tuition fees — a pledge that somewhat misses the point of the problem, which isn’t the existence of student loans (many people agree that students should pay something for further education and the subsequent increase in wages) but the steep repayments, and the seeming pointlessness of a system where loans are so high that almost no one can actually pay them off anyway.
But, what followed was the promise of a much more consequential (and welcome) change in policy — to increase the repayment threshold on student loans from £21,000 to £25,000. When the new system of student loans was originally brought in by the Coalition Government in 2012, one of the key parts of the policy was that the repayment threshold would rise (to account for inflation), but ultimately this was scrapped and the repayment threshold has remained at £21,000 for five years. Theresa May’s decision to increase it is a welcome one, and one which will actually have an appreciable impact.
On housing on the other hand, Theresa May pledged an extra £10bn for the Help to Buy scheme, which offers 20 percent equity loans to buyers of new builds worth up to £600,000.
This is a misguided policy decision. It is indeed true that many young people struggle to get on the housing ladder. And the PM is correct to pick it out as an issue she should look to address. But the problem is, in reality, one of a low supply of affordable housing (particularly in certain areas) and high demand.
As anyone with any knowledge of basic economics knows, if you pump money into increasing demand or purchasing power, without any attempt to address a fundamental problem of lack of supply, all you will succeed in doing is increasing prices. This change is therefore unlikely to have any real benefit for those struggling to afford a first property.
Additionally, the fact that Help to Buy is limited to new build properties causes further problems, making it more difficult for existing homeowners to sell their properties (and devaluing them in the process) and slowing the market down even further.
It is true that radical reform of housing is required and neither of the two main parties seem to have the answers. Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for rent controls, announced at last week’s Labour Party Conference, also wouldn’t help. Whilst capping rents would reduce costs for some, there would be a concurrent reduction in housing supply as it would effectively kill the buy-to-let industry.
I confess that I do not know the answer to the problems of the housing market, but new and radical ideas are clearly needed.
It seems unlikely that they will arrive in this Parliament, where the Government has decided to be cautious on account of their lack of a parliamentary majority and the herculean task of implementing Brexit.
But really, Theresa May has a very real opportunity to attempt the radical reform to help the ‘just about managing’ that she promised when the first stood on the steps of Number 10 last summer. No one else in the Conservative Party has the stomach to carry the can for Brexit; so although Theresa May’s position as Prime Minister looks insecure, in fact it is anything but. This gives her an enviable opportunity to attempt radical reform. It’s is generally expected that she will lose the next election (although given that nothing seems certain in politics these days, I wouldn’t count on it), so she’s got nothing to lose. And by attempting radical reform of housing (and public services too), May could arguably save her premiership, rather than letting it become completely defined by Brexit.
The Five Star Movement is an Italian political party which was established in October 2009 by former comedian Beppe Grillo and web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio. Despite having only been around for seven years, the Five Star Movement is now considered to be the second most popular party in Italy, behind only Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party. In the 2013 General Election, the Five Star Movement managed to gain 25.5 percent of the vote, amounting to just under nine million votes in total, an astonishing result for such a young party. Following this result, party candidtae Luigi Di Maio was elected as the Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies. The following year, the Five Star Movement gained seventeen MEPs in the 2014 European Parliament Elections; whilst in June of this year, the party managed to win key mayoral races in Rome and Turin, and on Sunday they were able to defeat Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts at constitutional reform.
Like many of the rises forces in politics around the world (think Trump, Farage and UKIP, and Le Pen), the Five Star Movement prides itself on being populist and anti-establishment, a stance which is clearly proving to be successful in politics all around the world.
However, although the Five Star Movement are Eurosceptic and have advocated closer ties with Russia (bread and butter issues for populists), they haven’t been especially ideologically close to existing populists. The populist, anti-establishment politicians you hear most about are the people like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders. The likes of Le Pen, Wilders, and Norbert Hofer (who was just defeated in the Austrian Presidential Election) can comfortably be described as being ideologically far-right, whilst Trump and Farage are also very right-wing. This is not the case with the Five Star Movement, with the Northern League (or Lega Nord) the only large far-right political party in Italy. Instead, the Five Star Movement hold a syncretic political position, and operate outside the traditional left-right paradigm.
For example, whilst the Five Star Movement has taken a Eurosceptic position (one of the party’s key positions is withdrawing Italy from the Euro), it has avoided the xenophobia of the Northern League, and the overt nationalism of UKIP and the National Front (although having said this, party leader Beppe Grillo has expressed his support for Nigel Farage and Donald Trump). By doing this and instead focusing its attacks on the political elite and the privileges that they enjoy, the party has been able to gain the support of voters on both the left and right of the political spectrum. In the UK, perhaps the closest that we currently have to a syncretic party is UKIP, who despite being predominantly a right-wing party, have attempted to take some more left-wing positions in a attempt to court traditional Labour voters in the North of England, with this likely to continue in earnest following the election of Paul Nuttall as the new party leader. However, overall UKIP remain a right-wing party, and so are not easily comparable to the syncretic nature of the Five Star Movement, whose key issues include public water and environmentalism, nonviolence, and Euroscepticism, whilst party leader Beppe Grillo has also supported the payment of a universal wage in Italy — positions which don’t ordinarily go together. Although, like many populist parties, the Five Star Movements policies are rather vague and it’s difficult to predict exactly what they would do were they to win power. However, ideology is not at all relevant to why the Five Star Movement could provide the model for political parties in the future. What is relevant is the way that the party is organised.
The Five Star Movement are committed to direct democracy and E-democracy, and have advocated asking party supporters to pick both policies and electoral candidates online. After demanding that snap elections be held following Matteo Renzi’s resignation as Prime Minister, party leader Beppe Grillo wrote on his blog, “From next week we will start to vote for the government programme online, followed by the government team.” The party used a similar system of online voting when selecting Virginia Raggi as their candidate for Mayor of Rome, an election which Raggi subsequently won. The Five Star Movement touts this online process as being more transparent than they ways in which the traditional parties choose their election candidates, and idea which is proving popular given the anti-establishment mood in Italy and the anger at the perceived cronyism and corruption prevalent in Italian politics. However, although the Five Star Movement claim that the process is transparent and democratic, party founder Grillo still maintains strong control over the party’s direction and the party hasn’t used a third-party monitor during any of its primary elections, leaving them open to tampering. However, given the Five Star Movement’s electoral success, this kind of party organisation has clearly worked well. Perhaps the closest we have to this in the UK is Momentum, the organisation set up to support Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party. However, given recent reports of infighting and power struggles over Momentum founder Jon Lansman’s plans to open Momentum up to direct democracy, it is up in the air as to whether Momentum will be able to replicate the Five Star Movement’s success. Given Jeremy Corbyn’s unelectability (in terms of Prime Minister at least) I would guess that Momentum will struggle to replicate the Five Star Movement’s success. Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have also suggested organising UKIP like the Five Star Movement, in part to achieve Banks’ professed goal of ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster, but there has been no sign of this happening just yet. But, what it is clear is that parties at both ends to the ideological spectrum are noting the successes of organisations such as the Five Star Movement, and are acting upon them in order to improve the effectiveness of their own political parties.
Now, obviously the recipe for political success around the world is not for parties to copy the Five Star Movement. But, the Five Star Movement clearly show how in today’s world a political party can be built from the ground up very quickly. The Five Star Movement was only established towards the end of 2009 and already, just seven years later, it is the second largest party in Italy. The focus on internet campaigning has clearly been very significant to this success. Even since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Leader of the Labour Party there has been talk of a Labour split, with moderates going off and forming their own party. In recent months there has even been talk of a split from pro-European members of the Conservative Party. What is said to have stopped all these people is their belief that a new party cannot be built from the ground up and be electorally successful. The Five Star Movement clearly disproves this hypothesis, by showing that if you’re campaigning on issues that enough people care about, and you have the ability to reach those people through the internet and social media, then you can be successful. British politicians who feel marginalised by their own parties would do well to remember this.
When then Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls lost his House of Commons seat in the 2015 General Election, most thought the man regularly described as the most unpopular politician in Britain would soon fade from the public memory. Instead, Balls has reinvented himself with his ongoing stint on Strictly Come Dancing, and his appearance earlier in the year on a special edition of The Great British Bake Off.
These endeavours have seemingly rehabilitated his image with the public to such a great extent that many have talked about a return to frontline politics for him (something which most though impossible after his general election loss), perhaps even as Leader of the Labour Party following the inevitable crashing and burning of Jeremy Corbyn at the next general election.
The huge change that Balls’ public image has undergone by appearing on perhaps the two most popular television programmes in the UK has underlined a different side to the politician who was once perceived simply to be Gordon Brown’s ‘henchman’ and typically took the public flack for government mistakes. Instead, by showcasing his terrible dancing and actually quite impressive baking, Ed Balls has managed to show a whole different side of his personality to the public, and one which politicians typically struggle with — he has shown that he is actually human too.
In an age when public dissatisfaction with machine-washed career politicians has reached a new peak, underlined by June’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s ascension to the Presidency in the United States, Balls has been able to paint himself in a different light to the legions of career politicians to whom the public seem to be taking such a dislike.
In addition, the publicity that can be gained from appearing on these programmes far outweighs the publicity that politicians can gain by appearing on traditional political television programmes. Strictly Come Dancing ordinarily gets around eleven million viewers every week, whilst The Great British Bake Off viewer count was also always well into the millions. Compare this with the number of people who tune into traditional political programme such as Question Time and Newsnight. The publicity Balls receives nowadays far dwarfs what his compatriots who retained their seats will receive on a daily basis. Plus, he has the bonus of being able to sit out this Parliament and avoid any real association with the abortive party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. All in all, a pretty big bonus.
I am pretty sure, that were Ed Balls keen to return to frontline politics and stand for Parliament again in the near future, there wouldn’t be many who would stand in the way. With his time spent making a fool of himself on television having ingratiated himself with the general public, one would except that many would be far more receptive to his candidacy.
Who knows, this stint on television could be first step on the way to Number 10? After all, they just elected a reality-television star in America…
Since Donald J. Trump beat Hillary Clinton to the Presidency on Tuesday night, various hypotheses have been put forward as to why the Democrats lost an election that so many thought they would win comfortably, against a Presidential Candidate in Donald Trump whom at first glance looked about as unelectable as it was possible to be. With President Obama’s approval rating relatively strong and on the rise, most thought that the election of Hillary Clinton to the Presidency was a foregone conclusion. Alas this was proved to be wrong, and in the days which have followed the inquest has begun into why Clinton and the Democrats failed to win, and why the Republicans managed to win the Presidency and retain control of both Houses of Congress for the first time since 2006.
One of the most popular hypotheses put forward has been that Clinton’s main rival in the Democratic Presidential Primary, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, would have defeated Donald Trump by a comfortable margin. There are many who feel that Sanders, with his own brand of left-wing populism, would have been a better candidate to take on the right-wing populism of Trump.
Indeed, this was a view espoused by Sanders and his supporters throughout the primary campaign. During an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sanders said:
“Right now in every major poll, national poll and statewide poll done in the last month, six weeks, we are defeating Trump often by big numbers, and always at a larger margin than Secretary Clinton is.”
Sanders and his supporters put this view forward many times throughout the campaign but ultimately they were unsuccessful, with the wider Democratic Party rallying around Clinton and helping her to the nomination despite Sanders running her extremely close in the Iowa Caucus, and winning the New Hampshire Primary by a very wide margin.
Sanders supporters point to various reasons as to why he could have defeated Trump in the Presidential Election, if only the Democrats had selected him.
One key thing that supporters point to is the popularity of Sanders, who has been named the most popular United States Senator for the past two years. In an election where the two main candidates were uniquely unpopular, they suggest that this could have been a huge asset which would have propelled him to victory. Sanders supporters also point to his popularity amongst millennials, many of whom didn’t warm to Hillary Clinton, and as a result cast their votes for the likes of Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, or simply stayed at home. Mostly though, Sanders supporters point to his primary successes in the very States in which Clinton struggled most on Tuesday. During the Democratic Primary, Sanders won victories in Wisconsin and Michigan, both of which were considered Democratic strongholds prior to the election but which were ultimately won by Trump. It has been suggested that Sanders was propelled to success in these primaries by the same forces that propelled Trump to victory in these States on Tuesday, namely the forgotten men and women of the white working class. This means that, in theory, Sanders could have competed with Trump better than Clinton for the votes that ultimately decided the outcome of this presidential election.
However, would Sanders really have done better than Clinton against Donald Trump?
In the Presidential Election, although Clinton had issues gaining the support of the white working class, arguably her biggest problem was failing to energise African-American voters to turn out and vote for her in the same way that Barack Obama did four years previously. In winning the Presidency, Donald Trump actually received less votes than the 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, however the Democratic vote fell so significantly that Trump won the Presidency. In large part, this was because the African-American vote fell significantly. Around 88 percent of black voters supported Clinton, compared to around 8 percent for Trump, however turnout wasn’t high enough for this margin to make a difference, with black voters making up 12 percent of the electorate as opposed to 13 percent four years ago. Had Clinton been able to garner the same turnout among black voters as Barack Obama, she probably would have won States like Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida, and with them the Presidency.
But would Sanders really have done any better?
During the Democratic Primary, Sanders’ main difficulty was his low support with African-American voters, and in many of the primary contests he lost black voters to Clinton by around fifty points. Clinton struggled with the young and the white working class during the primary campaign, and then struggled with these groups again during the general election. Given that Sanders struggled with African-American voters during the primary, it would be expected that he would also struggle with African-American voters in a general election. Therefore, whilst Sanders may have been able to turn more white working class voters over to the Democratic cause, this would likely be counteracted with a fall in African-American support — meaning that Sanders would have probably suffered the same fate as Clinton when coming up against Donald Trump.
As well as this, although it seems a fair argument that Sanders’ left-wing populism could have matched the right-wing populism of Trump, the results around the United States seem to provide little evidence for this. In Colorado, one of the key battleground States which Clinton won, on the ballot alongside the Presidential Election was a referendum on a single-payer healthcare system. The introduction of a single-payer healthcare system was one of the key planks of Sanders’ candidacy, yet in Colorado it was defeated comfortably. In Wisconsin, former Senator Russ Feingold, who is an ally of Sanders, was attempting to win back his old Senate seat. He lost to Republican Tea Party incumbent Ron Johnson — by a bigger margin than Clinton lost Wisconsin by. Therefore, there seems little concrete evidence that Sanders’ policies would have played better with the electorate than Clinton’s policies.
As well as this, Sanders was a regular surrogate on the campaign trail for the Clinton campaign, consistently telling voters that they had to vote for Clinton lest they get a Donald Trump Presidency. However, this didn’t turn the tide, with Trump still emerging victorious. So perhaps Sanders’ popularity with the white working class is indeed being overstated, and he wouldn’t have gained much more support for the Democrats in a contest between him and Donald Trump.
Also, Bernie Sanders’ policies were scrutinised during the Democratic Primary but not in the same way as they would be during the general election. During the primaries, Donald Trump dismissively referred to Sanders as “Crazy Bernie”. Facing him in the general election would have allowed Trump the opportunity to paint Sanders as a radical socialist, which in all likelihood would have torpedoed his candidacy.
In addition, the presence of two populist candidates on the ticket, could well have precipitated a major third-party candidacy. In January, there was a lot of speculation that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would enter the Presidential Race as an independent candidate.
Bloomberg’s candidacy would be unlike most third-party or independent candidacies in that it would have been extremely well funded and able to compete around the country, much like the candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 and, if you think about it, the candidacy of Donald Trump this time around.
Ultimately, it is hard to see where Sanders could have done better than Clinton. Although he may have lessened Trump’s support amongst the white working class, his candidacy would likely have further reduced turnout amongst the African-American community. And although Sanders is able to pitch himself as a more anti-establishment politician than Clinton, he is still a career politician who has been a Senator working in Washington D.C. for almost ten years. Trump would have been able to tap into exactly the same level of anti-politics feeling against Sanders as he could against Clinton. More than anything, this result was a vote for change and a vote against the Washington establishment. Although Sanders is arguably not an establishment politician, I think that Trump would probably have still been able to paint him that way, and what’s more he would also have been able to deride him as a radical socialist.
Overall, although it makes for a nice and easy conclusion, the reason that the Democrats lost was not because they didn’t choose Sanders as their candidate, he would in fact have probably have suffered the same fate as Clinton. If the Democrats come to this conclusion, and choose to shift to the left as a result, then they would be hugely mistaken. Just look at what has happened to the Labour Party in the UK, where after losing in the 2015 General Election running on Ed Miliband’s centre-left platform, they then chose to elect as leader the arch left-winger Jeremy Corbyn after concluding that the reason for their loss to David Cameron’s Conservative Party was that they were not left-wing enough. However, unsurprisingly, Corbyn is languishing in the polls and shows no sign of being able to compete for power in the UK.
Although Bernie Sanders is clearly a very gifted politician and it would be remiss of me not to praise his excellent primary campaign, it would be a huge mistake for Democrats to conclude that their failure to nominate him for the Presidency caused their loss. To do so could confine them to the electoral wilderness for an extended period of time. Instead, they should concentrate on re-building the party (and although he is not suited as a Presidential candidate, Sanders should certainly have a role in this rebuilding job) and finding another centrist candidate who can challenge Trump in 2020. Because in the 2020 Presidential Election, the Democrats will have a very real chance to regain presidential power, and they will need to be prepared for this.
The GOP has been totally split by this election, failure to reconcile its warring factions could result in its demise.
The campaign for the Republican nominee for President began in earnest on 23 March 2015, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced that he would be seeking the Republican nomination for President. One by one, other high-profile Republicans began to announce that they too would seek the nomination, including the likes of Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, and Lindsey Graham. In total, seventeen major candidates campaigned for the nomination, making it the largest single field in United States Presidential primary history.
Of course the ultimate winner of this process, and the person who I have deliberately chosen to refrain from mentioning just yet, was businessman and reality-television star Donald J. Trump.
When Trump announced his campaign for the Republican nomination with a press conference at Trump Tower, New York on 16 June 2015, few foresaw his victory, and even fewer foresaw the impact that Donald Trump would have on the wider Republican Party.
The nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee highlighted a huge fissure in the Republican Party between much of the party elite (Senators, Congressmen and women, and Governors) and the Republican base. Time after time, comments by Donald Trump were disavowed by senior Republicans, but party members kept on voting for him. There was seemingly nothing that those in Washington D.C. could do to stop the Trump Train, with establishment candidates like Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich unable to conjure any answer at all to the Trump surge.
This means that we have an election coming up in November where the candidate at the top of the ticket (Trump) is running on a hugely different platform to many of the Republicans lower down the ticket, who are running for seats in Congress, or on State Legislatures. It seems clear that the Republican Party is hugely divided, which isn’t going to help when it comes to competing in subsequent elections.
Now, all ostensibly ‘big-tent’ parties face internal divisions, and it isn’t this which is the problem. Divisions can exist within parties, as long as these divisions are reconciled to the extent that the party avoids a full blown civil war. We have seen this in the United Kingdom with the takeover of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn, causing a civil war between his faction and the so-called ‘Blairites’. Meanwhile, the governing Conservative Party are able to continue increasing their support, despite huge divisions of their own, simply because they prioritise power ahead of internal squabbles. The same is often true in the United States. The Democratic Primary Campaign showed that the Democrats also faced significant internal divisions, with the left-wing Bernie Sanders gaining huge support in his attempt at beating Hillary Clinton to the nomination. However, once Clinton won the nomination, the Democrats put much of this squabbling behind them because they recognised that winning the Presidency was more important than an ideologically pure political party.
The Republicans have manifestly failed to do this, and the Trump campaign can count on one hand the number of senior GOP lawmakers who are actively campaigning for him around the country. This is for a good reason, Trump has done absolutely nothing to gain the support of the party elite, and has instead chosen to shun them at every available opportunity by regularly making disparaging remarks about people like Jeb! Bush, John McCain, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. On the Democratic side, the Clinton campaign recognised the need to reach out to Bernie Sanders and those who supported him during the primaries, with the result being that Sanders has campaigned around the country on her behalf, leading to a much more comfortable election campaign. Trump on the other hand failed to do this, meaning that throughout the campaign he has been fighting on two frontiers: against the Democrats, and against the Republican Party elite. Given this situation, it is perhaps a miracle that he remains somewhat in contention for the Presidency at this late stage.
This being said, it remains unlikely that Donald Trump will win the Presidency next week. This leaves the Republican Party at a crossroads, where failure to choose the right path could easily result in the demise of the Grand Old Party — at least in the sense of the party being unable to compete for the Presidency.
In the Republican Party, this crossroads comprises two very distinct factions. One the one side, you have the moderates, the wing of the party which has dominated the Republican Party throughout most of its existence, particularly at the Presidential level. On the other side, you have what we’ll call the ‘Trumpists’, a movement which has effectively morphed out of the Tea Party movement which has come to the forefront of the Republican Party within the last ten years.
Assuming that Trump loses on 8 November, there are many from the moderate wing of the party who will feel that the Trump experiment has come to an end, and that they will be able to return to something resembling their prior more moderate ideology. However, this will be far easier said than done. The rhetoric emanating from Trump over the course of the campaign is that the election, and indeed the whole political system, is rigged. Therefore, Trump supporters are being primed to not accept the result of next week’s election. If this is the case, and Trump’s most keen supporters refuse to accept the result in significant numbers, then rebuilding the Republican Party of old could prove almost impossible.
The difficulties that the Republican Party face today have been a long time coming, with the grounds for these difficulties perhaps being set in 1980 when the Republicans returned to presidential power with Ronald Reagan.
This was done with an almost completely different electoral coalition than that which usually supported the Republicans, with Reagan’s supporters encompassing many evangelical Christians and white working-class ex-Democrats. These new party members were in sharp contrast to the existing pro-business conservatives who made up the Republican Party. More recently, these divisions have been manifested in the rise of the Tea Party movement, which mostly occurred during the 2010 midterms, although it could be said that the 2008 selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running-mate also helped to usher the Tea Party onto the national stage.
With the emergence of the Tea Party, the moderate wing of the GOP effectively lost control of the primary process. This has led to many Tea Party backed candidates winning Republican primaries and then getting trounced by their Democratic opponents in Congressional races (remember Christine O’Donnell?), although this being said there have also been many Tea Party backed candidates who have made it into Congress due to their standing in safe Republican seats. One of the most notable of these was Tea Party candidate Dave Brat who challenged then Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for his Congressional seat in Virginia in a primary prior to the 2014 midterms. In a huge upset, Brat defeated Cantor 55.5%-44.5%, and with this Cantor became the first ever House Majority Leader to lose his seat in a primary challenge.
The Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party, particularly in terms of their House of Representatives group, caused huge problems for the moderate party elite. It was effectively this that caused the resignation of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, with the Tea Party wing kicking up a huge fuss if Boehner so much as considered compromise with President Obama and the Democrats. This led to the Republican Party being forced to shift further to the right of the ideological spectrum in order to appease the Tea Party faction, and by extension the grassroots of the party. This has culminated in the election of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President, and what is effectively an existential crisis for the Republican Party.
Given that this Tea Party wing of the party is totally unelectable on the national stage then the answer would seem pretty straightforward. If asked the question: which way should the Republican Party go? then you would expect any rational person to suggest that they go the way of the moderates, i.e. those who have some chance of winning the Presidency. However, it is not that simple. Those who vote in the Republican primaries are the party grassroots, and as I said previously this group are on a completely different wavelength ideologically to those in the moderate wing of the party. It is these in the party grassroots who are relied upon to campaign when it comes around to elections, and so to a certain extent it is very important to be able to keep them onside. In addition, the problem is further complicated by the Conservative ideologues who populate the likes of Fox News, Breitbart, and Conservative talk radio. It is these individuals who effectively control much of the modern Republican Party and to whom Republican politicians are forced to pander if they wish to appeal to their grassroots supporters, indeed the Chief Executive of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign is Stephen Bannon who is on leave from Breitbart for the duration of the campaign. The likes of Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, and radio hosts Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and Laura Ingraham have been particularly keen backers of Trump, and it is these people who set the tone in the modern Republican Party.
This group could soon include Trump himself, if he launches ‘Trump TV’. It has been suggested that his son-in-law and de-facto campaign manager, Jared Kushner, has been attempting to drum up support for this, although naturally when asked Kushner denied it. In any case, the Conservative media will go a long way to deciding which way the Republican Party goes. It seems extremely unlikely that following a Donald Trump loss, they will simply roll over and allow the moderates to take back the party. If anything, it is more likely for the Tea Party wing of the GOP to blame to moderates, and suggest that the party needs to shift even further right.
In short, there seems little chance that the two factions of the Republican Party will reconcile. What this means, is that they could instead split.
The possibility of a split in the party has been suggested by several high-profile moderate Republicans, perhaps most notably by Steve Schmidt who was a key advisor on George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, and who managed John McCain’s 2008 campaign for the Presidency. In an interview with Vox, Schmidt said:
I think the Republican Party has an outstanding chance of fracturing. There will be the alt-right party; then there will be a center-right conservative party that has an opportunity to reach out, repair damage, and rebuild the brand over time. America, ideologically right now, is a centrist country — it used to be a center-right country — but it’s by no means a Bernie Sanders country. Not even close. The market will demand a center-right party.
There seems little doubt that a split like this would indeed be possible. If someone with no knowledge of American politics were to compare the views espoused by Donald Trump during his Presidential campaign with the views of some moderate Republicans, perhaps Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, then it would be unlikely that they’d guess that Trump was technically part of the same party as Flake and Kirk. This means that the landscape is ripe for a split, and it seems unlikely that either of the two factions would be particularly adverse to this outcome. Indeed, the aforementioned Flake has himself said that if the Republican Party doesn’t undergo a dramatic shift in policy and tone then they will consign themselves to “political oblivion”. Given that the grassroots supporters of the Republican Party won’t tolerate this kind of policy change, a split seems the only option.
However, the problem with a split is that it would be highly likely that it would end the possibility of a Republican being elected as President for a generation. The first-past-the-post electoral college system for electing the US President means that third-parties have almost no chance at all of gaining electoral votes. The effect of the Republican Party splitting would be that their vote would also be split, making a Republican President an impossibility.
A split would likely consign the Republican Party (and any new party) to the electoral dustbin. If the Republican Party is serious about winning the Presidency then it needs to unite and reconcile the more conservative wing of the party with the moderate wing. Because running on a moderate platform is the only way to win the Presidency. This particularly the case in modern America where demographic changes mean that the electoral map is skewed more and more in favour of the Democratic Party. The likes of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Colorado tend to be touted as swing states, however statistically it looks as though it would be fair to classify these states as safe Democratic. Even Texas, once the bastion of Republican support, is turner bluer every year thanks to a rapidly increasing Hispanic population flexing its political muscles. These changes are making it more and more difficult for even a moderate Republican Party to win the Presidency, meaning that an ‘alt-right’/Tea Party Republican Party has absolutely no chance of national success.
As the aforementioned Steve Schmidt has said: “there’s no question that Republicans — as an institution and what we’re led by — are unfit to run the country, or to govern the country.” And he’s absolutely right. For rational, moderate voters, the Democrats are the only option. For liberals like myself this is great at first glance, but history shows that a lack of credible political opposition isn’t good for anyone, and ultimately leads to inefficient government.
For the Republicans the task is simple, they must take a more moderate path and stop obsessing about settled social issues that don’t concern the wider electorate. Failure to appeal to the wider election will result in the demise of the party of Lincoln, which is still affectionately known as the Grand Old Party.
Yesterday, the residents of Witney cast their votes in a by-election to decide who would succeed former Prime Minister David Cameron as the constituency’s Member of Parliament. As a safe Conservative seat, Witney was rated the tenth safest Conservative seat following the 2015 General Election, the result of this by-election was never really in doubt. However, what everyone was watching for was how Theresa May’s new Conservative Party would do in David Cameron’s old constituency; and in the first electoral test following the EU Referendum, how would the opposition parties fare.
As expected, the Conservative Party retained the seat, with Councillor Robert Courts winning 17,313 votes for a majority of 5,702. However, although this seems like a comfortable win, when compared to the result in this constituency in the 2015 General Election, it is anything but.
In the 2015 General Election, David Cameron won a huge 35,201 votes, which led to a very safe majority of 25,155. Admittedly given that this was only a by-election, and that the country at large is suffering from electoral fatigue, the turnout was quite low (just 46.8% compared to 73.3% in 2015). However, it is the percentage of the vote which is significant. In 2015, David Cameron won 60.2% of the votes in Witney. Yesterday, Robert Courts won just 45%, a huge fall from 2015.
The main cause of this has been attributed to a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats who won just 6.8% of the vote in 2015, but managed to increase this to 30.2% yesterday. This resurgence tallies with the Liberal Democrats’ surge in party membership following the EU Referendum, where they were the only party to come out in favour of a second referendum. Party figures suggested that in the days after the referendum, the Liberal Democrats gained 15,000 new members, and their membership has continued to grow since. This is perhaps due to a combination of reasons, but chief among these is the Lib Dems pro-European stance, as well as the centrists who supported the Conservatives in 2015, flocking to a different party due to dissatisfaction with the more right-wing new Government.
Given that Witney is a constituency which voted 53.7% in favour of remaining in the European Union, and the Conservative candidate Robert Courts supported Vote Leave, the Liberal Democrats made a big thing about their pro-European stance in this referendum, and it appeared to pay dividends as they surged past Labour into second place.
This huge swing of 19.3% to the Lib Dems could statistically wipe out the current Conservative majority in the House of Commons were to it be replicated across the country. Statistically speaking there are twenty-six seats where the Conservative advantage over the Liberal Democrats is less than this, and where they could therefore prosper in a general election. Of course, we must consider the fact that the Liberal Democrats absolutely threw the kitchen sink at this by-election in a way that would be impossible in a full on general election. Party Leader Tim Farron made five visits to Witney over the course of the by-election campaign. In a full general election campaign there is no chance that he would have the time to do this, and in addition the Liberal Democrats would not be able to commit as many party staff to a single constituency.
However, the result of this by-election is telling in several ways. Given how the Conservative have underperformed relative to their polling numbers, it shows that the Government isn’t nearly as popular as polling has suggested, and that the Government’s current haphazard handling of Brexit has lost them some support. In addition, it further shows the malaise affecting the Labour Party, which has the potential to lose them their place as the main parliamentary opposition. Labour suffered a significant reduction in their share of the vote, falling back into third place. It is realistic to suggest that many centrist or left of centre voters who may typically have voted Labour in this by-election, were put off my the way Jeremy Corbyn has dragged the party to the left, and so instead cast their vote in favour of the Lib Dems.
Overall, this result suggests the Theresa May is not as close to the political centre as she seems to think. Whether voters are put off my the government’s handling of Brexit, or whether it is policies like the expansion of grammar schools which is causing the problem, we don’t know. But what is certain is that Theresa May has to do a lot more to appeal to the centre if she wants to be Prime Minister in the long term. This is something David Cameron did particularly well, moving the Conservatives away from the divisive policies which resonated with their base, and instead moving them toward the political centre. By bringing back policies like grammar schools, Theresa May has done the opposite, and this could cost her dearly in the polls.
Senior Conservatives have suggested that the result is not so bad, because it was pretty much the same as what David Cameron was getting in his early days as an MP. This is true, David Cameron did also receive 45% of the vote in Witney in the 2001 General Election. However, they should consider the overall result of this election, which resulted in a huge Labour majority. Given that the share of the vote in safe seats often indicates the level of nationwide support for a party, the Conservatives should be very worried about this result. If they are only getting the same share of the vote that they got at a general election in which they suffered a devastating defeat, then what will the result be nationwide when a general election is next held?
Conservatives can perhaps take comfort from the unelectability and unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but they should by no means think that this guarantees them an increased majority at the next general election. With a current working majority of just sixteen, the government can’t afford to lose many seats, and so they should not be ignoring the significance of this result. The Liberal Democrats definitely have the potential to cause them serious harm in a general election.
In this by-election, the Liberal Democrats made a great play out of the fact that Witney voted Remain, yet the Conservative candidate had supported Leave. There are many other constituencies where the same is true, and the Lib Dems can use this to gain an advantage at a general election. Perhaps a better test than Witney of whether this surge will be replicated is the by-election which is probably forthcoming in Richmond Park, where Leave backing MP Zac Goldsmith is expected to resign and stand as an independent due to opposition to expansion of Heathrow Airport. This is a seat which the Liberal Democrats held from the seat’s inception in 1997 until 2010, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could win it back in a by-election.
In any case, yesterday’s by election should give Theresa May food for thought. Although she has been keen to say that she doesn’t want to hold an early election, it is looking increasingly like she is going to have to. If this week’s House of Commons vote for chairof the Brexit Select Committee is any indication, MPs may not vote in favour of the government’s EU repeal bill. In this select committee vote, MPs overwhelmingly voted for Remain backing Hilary Benn to chair to committee as opposed to Leave supporter Kate Hoey. Were the government to lose this vote, it would effectively be a tacit vote of no-confidence in the government. This would allow Theresa May to call and early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It is only then that we will see just how much the political landscape has been altered as a result of the EU Referendum. One thing’s for sure, as the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Witney, Liz Leffman, said last night: “The Liberal Democrats are definitely back in business”.