The thought of who might be the next leader of their party is never too far from a politician’s mind, particularly if the person doing the thinking has any chance of being elected to that position. Yet in the days of Thatcher, Wilson or Blair in the UK, this could only be a fanciful daydream as the incumbent leaders went on and on, seemingly for a political lifetime.
Today, by contrast, an aspiring leader in any of Britain’s main parties can live in a state of permanent and anxious expectation. All the leaders are in trouble, or have said they are going before long. Anybody can be elected, and Jeremy Corbyn has proved it.
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable has said he is standing down once Brexit “is resolved or stopped”. Theresa May has pledged to resign before the next general election. By historical standards, the collective political life expectancy of today’s party leaders is unusually short.
Within a few years, therefore, we are likely to be looking at a whole new slate of leaders, possibly with whoever emerges at the head of the Independent Group thrown into the mix. Quite often, a leadership election can produce a new direction for a party — think of Thatcher, Blair or Cameron. Sometimes it resolves a crucial policy debate — such as my own victory over Ken Clarke in 1997 that established a more Euro-sceptic Conservative approach.
Sign of despair
This time, however, something even more fundamental will be at stake — whether the parties can survive at all in their current form. In the recent past, choosing the wrong leader could lead to a long spell in opposition. In the near future, it might produce disintegration as well. And if you think great parties can’t disintegrate, study the Liberals after the First World War.
The possible formation of a new group within Labour, by no less a figure than the deputy leader, Tom Watson, is potentially more significant even than the departure of eight Labour MPs last month. It is certainly suggested that this group will have the organisation of a party within a party.
This moderate group is designed to stop more MPs leaving the party altogether, and is a sign of the despair of many of them at the extremism of their leadership. Whenever the next Labour leadership election comes, it will be the most intense battle ever for the identity and direction of the Labour Party. If the hard Left wins again, with John McDonnell, or someone like him, as their standard bearer, it will be impossible to maintain that Labour can be a home for social democrats. A deep and lasting split will be on the cards.
Such fragmentation is becoming the natural course in many countries. Look at Spain’s coming election, with five parties in contention where there used to be only two, or Germany’s Bundestag, split between seven national parties. This is a sign of how rapidly politics is changing, accelerated by the rise of social media, which makes it easier to attract the militant support of a minority than to build a consensus from a majority.
So while the break-up of parties might seem superficially to be a good thing in some ways — more debate, independence and choice — it demonstrates the extent of bitter polarisation in society. It makes it harder for voters to make a clear decision in elections, and will probably only deepen disillusionment with democracy.
Averting that trend should be seen as a major responsibility for our next generation of party leaders. For it is not just in the Labour Party that the next election of a new leader presents the risk of a party falling apart.
The debate within the Conservatives over Brexit has become corrosively divisive, although it has not reached the levels of intimidation and hatred seen within Labour. It is also predominantly about one issue, albeit an extremely important one.
Nevertheless it is a dangerous situation, in which three MPs have already left and the European Research Group has, like the mooted new group in Labour, taken on the characteristics of a party within a party. If the Tories’ coming leadership election is fought on the central issue that currently divides it, the handling of Brexit, and is based solely on the factions and rivalries that this issue has produced, then the dangers of a party split will be much increased.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
William Hague is the former foreign secretary of the UK