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Could a far-right vs centre-left showdown be the future of British politics?

Amid global pressures, a centrist Labour government could face a far-right opposition, with no true reformists in sight

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
19 May 2023, 5.16pm
Is this the future? Keir Starmer and Suella Braverman

Composite image by openDemocracy. Ian Forsyth / Stringer / ADRIAN DENNIS / Contributor / Getty

The National Conservative (‘NatCon’) movement has recently gravitated from receiving an occasional mention in the mainstream press to a much wider national stage. This is in part thanks to the lucky coincidence of its three-day conference in London this week following immediately after some appalling local election results for Rishi Sunak and his Conservative government.

Despite a touted commitment to free speech, attempts were made to keep left-leaning media away from the meeting by banning openDemocracy, Byline Times and Novara Media. These failed when openDemocracy managed to enter the conference – free of charge, without a ticket, using little more than a plummy accent – to report on some of its wackier elements.

The meeting’s more serious aspects included an all-too-obvious attempt by the home secretary, Suella Braverman, to make a bid for the Tory leadership should Rishi Sunak lose the forthcoming general election.

But the core purpose of the conference was to promote the NatCons’ far-right vision of a strongly nationalist variant of neoliberal conservatism, including a Christian dimension that comes close to lending the movement an evangelical sense of mission.

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In its attitude to migration pressures and its core position on the central role of the state, the movement veers uncomfortably close to a fascist outlook. It believes it is, in its own words, “confronted by a rising China abroad and a powerful new Marxism at home”. In response it posits what it calls “an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race”.

An earlier column discussed the possibility of the movement coming into its own as increasing migration pressures bring the migration/asylum issue into greater prominence. However, others would argue that, in parallel with the NatCons, a more significant political trend in the UK is the rise of a more inclusive and intrinsically cooperative centre-left outlook.

This is the argument from the US-based Progressive Policy Institute’s Project on Center Left Renewal, a “conversation with center-left parties in Europe and around the world”. Its purpose is to “exchange ideas, strategies and tactics for making centre-left parties more competitive and improve their governing performance”.

This is certainly different from the NatCon approach, though plenty of leftist analysts would see it as centrist, if not rightist, in its perspective. This comes across in the PPI’s positive attitude towards Keir Starmer’s Labour Party in the UK, where, it says, the party’s prospects are “looking up after a 13-year exile from government. Over the past two years, party leader Keir Starmer has methodically exorcised the dogmatic socialism that took possession of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.”

The Institute’s project on renewal is led by Claire Ainsley, who served until recently as executive director for policy for Starmer. Writing recently in The Guardian, she pointed to Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party in Australia and the German Social Democrats as examples of progressive thinking, and argued in the UK context that Labour under Starmer is in a position to gain a parliamentary majority by “reconstituting the historical coalition between today’s working-class voters and liberal-leaning middle-class voters”.

The huge risk is of a move to the far right in Britain as climate breakdown impacts in earnest

Whether that is realistic or not, centrism is a clear trend in British politics, and in contrast to the far-right approach of the NatCons. This raises the question of whether either of these approaches can dominate the national political discourse in the coming years.

It helps to factor in two global trends that will affect them. One is global economic marginalisation and other is climate breakdown. Taking the two together, it is glaringly obvious that we are due to see a massive increase in migration pressure. As many millions of people are pushed to the environmental and economic margins, the pressure to find safer homes in the richer states will become a desperate and probably dominant political force.

Just this week the World Meteorological Organisation reported the two-thirds probability that global heating will exceed a 1.5°C rise on pre-industrial levels by 2027, a far faster rate of heating than previously anticipated.

As if on cue, floods in the north Italian region of Emilia-Romagna have killed 13 people and made thousands homeless. In an ironic twist, they also led to the cancellation of the Italian F1 Grand Prix at that petrolhead mecca, the Imola Circuit.

Back in Britain, with Ed Miliband pushing hard for a green transition, Labour is on the right lines on this one issue, but the NatCons are nowhere near and do not even regard it as significant. Even Labour, though, does not have the leadership quality to prioritise climate breakdown as the dominant and immediate global challenge, bar none.

Many people will argue that Starmer’s Labour Party is not remotely progressive enough to face up to the current challenges, but many more will accept its policies and its chances of election in 2024 are high. To that extent it’s likely it will be Labour, not the Tories and certainly not the NatCons, that will take power within the next couple of years.

In the longer term, though, the huge risk is of a move to the far right in Britain as climate breakdown impacts in earnest and a ‘close the castle gate’ attitude comes to dominate politics, not just in Britain but right across the Global North. To counter that would take a degree of political change that is far greater than anything currently in prospect, in Britain at least. A starting point could have been the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto, including tax reform, public ownership of key utilities, support for labour rights and effective regulation of financial institutions, but that is dead – even if its ideas doggedly refuse to be buried.

We now have the prospect of a centrist Labour Party under Starmer in power in 18 months’ time, with a Braverman far-right opposition facing it. That scenario would mean many millions of people would be unrepresented by either government or opposition, a recipe for dissatisfaction and uncertainty just when a truly reformist government would be most needed.

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