Time to break through the two-party system

Authors: Jack Maycock
  • Posted on: May 6, 2021

After a turbulent year, many hoped 2021 would be the return to some semblance of ‘normal’.

As always, the reality is somewhat different.  

Today’s local elections are the perfect representation of this new era. In the Hartlepool by-election, the candidate polling in 3rd place (out of 17!) represents calls for an independent Northumbria. Just over the border, the Scottish Parliamentary elections could be a precursor for a further independence push. Even in London, a record twenty candidates are standing for Mayor, including a former Wall Street banker, an actor, two YouTubers and Count Binface. You’d be forgiven for forgetting what normal ever was.

To try and make sense of it all, we spoke to Jackson Caines from the newly-formed Breakthrough Party, a nominally left-wing party formed primarily by young, politically engaged ex-Labour members. We discussed this changeable landscape and what a new party can achieve against a fractured political backdrop. First up, why he joined a new party in the first place:

BT: I went on the same journey that I think lots of like-minded people have, where they wanted to stay in the Labour Party, they wanted to give Starmer a fair shot.

It soon became clear to me that the strategy of stay and fight was no longer a convincing one, after seeing lots of staying and not much fighting. I (like many) concluded it wasn’t possible in the short-term to use the Labour Party as a vehicle for transformational politics. 

So what does the emergence of new parties tell us about the political landscape? Breakthrough see groups like themselves as a by-product of feeling unrepresented:

BT: We know the raw energy, passion, idealism and hunger for transformative politics is out there. We saw it in 2017, we saw it in the youthquake with the number of under 40’s voting for Corbyn’s radical manifesto. 

What young people are knocking on the door for the Labour Party now? Where is that energy going? Partly it is going into grassroots movements, renters rights movements, trade union activity, anti-racist activity, kill the bill – that’s all essential.

But I think it’s a shame it doesn’t have a parliamentary voice, it doesn’t have a national political vehicle that speaks on behalf of all those hopeful people that want to fight for something better. Obviously, other people and other parties are having the same thought process.

In Hartlepool for example, the most promising development for the left is the Northern Independence Party. It’s been created in response to the Labour Party abandoning the terrain of hopeful transformative politics. They want to be part of a movement that is positive, grassroots, and democratic — all those things they got emotionally from the Corbyn Project. The Breakthrough Party is also an attempt to fill that gap.

So with all this competition, how do they plan to cut-through? As Jackson was keen to impress upon me, cut-through and impact can be found in a number of ways:

BT: Despite their horrendous politics, the UKIP model for trying to influence British politics in a two-party system is very compelling. In terms of Parliamentary seats, they struggled — but they are just a means to an end. In reality, they were extremely successful at putting pressure from the right on the governing party, scaring the Conservatives into thinking they would lose votes to UKIP if they didn’t move in a right-wing populist direction. The Conservatives did and we are where we are with Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Brexit.

Can the Labour Party be pushed to the left? That’s an open question. The right of the party is extremely reluctant to embrace left-populism – even when it could do so quite opportunistically. 

So for the Breakthrough Party, what would success look like… 

BT: We’re trying to stay very flexible on this for the moment. In the short to medium term, we’ll find out quite quickly whether we’re able to tap into those that don’t feel represented by the Labour Party.

It might sound like the plan is simply to go after Labour voters, but strategically there is much more to it…

BT: Age is one of the most important divides in British politics at the moment. In a strategic sense, if you’re faced with a polarity, you can either embrace it and go with one side, possibly alienating the other, or you might decide that polarity is not useful for your political project. With the age divide, the Tories have recognised that older voters are their base. 

There are deep structural reasons why older people tend to vote Tory. Many of them are homeowners, benefitting from the status quo of an economy built on sustaining house prices. They get most of their information from traditional media sources, so they’re more likely to be influenced by recent hysterical narratives around culture wars and “wokeness”. 

Labour has given us a massive open goal, because instead of doing the same with younger voters, they’re trying to appeal to what they think older voters are interested in, which are these cliched, cynical visual links to patriotism and the flag, going to the pub for a pint – all these symbols that focus groups and consultancies have told them will appeal to these voters.

Image credit: standard.co.uk

So basically the whole political mainstream is focused on courting older property owners in the Midlands/North of England. We’re focused on bringing in the idealistic young people who are worried about racism, the world of work, police brutality and environmental collapse.

One potential stumbling block is that young people are the least likely to vote. Breakthrough has a positive vision for how to change that:

BT: Firstly, you’ve got to genuinely inspire people. That sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s very real. No amount of money can buy that. 

What’s interesting with the Labour Party is that some of the old millionaire donors have come back in, but we’re not seeing any grassroots enthusiasm. You can’t buy the enthusiasm — it has to come from genuine excitement about what you’re offering.

The second thing I would say is understanding that politics is not just about Westminster, but having a more holistic view, embracing that it is not just what happens in Parliament, but what happens in people’s workplaces and communities.

We want to join up with social movements and trade unions, all these grassroots groups who are rooted in communities and people’s lives – making sure those people are represented on the national political stage.

I think Breakthrough is all about that expansive view of politics that joins the dots and says to people that politics is about your day-to-day experience of society and we’ve got your back. 

Unlike many of the emerging political parties, Breakthrough’s fortunes will not be decided in the next 24 hours. Their trajectory will be determined over the next 12 months as strategies are developed and policies coordinated. For today, they can simply watch and take notes as our increasingly peculiar political system morphs into its newest form.