The meltdown of two-party politics

In between storytelling sessions and workshops, manuscript editing, attending meetings and writing a few thousand words of novel, I’ve been reflecting further on the state of politics in the UK. It’s a subject deserving of reflection. A parliamentary election will be held in the spring of 2015. Opinion polls are unsettling for many current MPs and interesting for the rest of us.

Lack of confidence in the leaders of the main political parties and dissatisfaction with certain core policies are only the surface manifestations of public discontent with national politics in this country. A significant majority of those who live outside the London area feel overlooked, marginalised, discounted. Hand-waving assurances about greater devolution to certain regions have had some palliative effect but so far they’ve proved insufficient to win the trust of the alienated.

There are clear signs of the depth of the UK’s political malaise: the oft-repeated assertion that there are no discernible differences in policy or strategy among the three main parties; the widespread conviction that politicians as a breed are self-seeking and corrupt; the lack of interest in voting among large swathes of the population; and above all the defection of a substantial minority of voters to parties that until recently were marginal. This last phenomenon has implications that need to be considered seriously.

Two blogs ago I wrote about the rise of UKIP. This is one of the previously ‘marginal’ parties to benefit from the discontent of the populace. Others such as the Green Party also seem to be flourishing, though much less dramatically than UKIP. Of course, the nationalist parties such as the SNP cannot be regarded as marginal – the SNP runs a majority government in Scotland and seems likely to return many more MPs to Westminster next year – but their success is further evidence for the erosion of support for Conservative and Labour.

Thirty or forty years ago the Conservative and Labour Parties between them took 85-90% of the vote at national elections. The Liberal Party, which fused with the short-lived Social Democrat Party to form the Liberal Democrats, took most of the remainder. The Lib Dems became the preferred option for voters who were dissatisfied with the party in government but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the main party of opposition – in other words, for protest votes. As the share of the vote commanded by Conservative and Labour together fell, so the Lib Dem share increased. This was evidence not so much of support for Lib Dem policies (though of course there was such support) as rising cynicism about the two main parties. At all events, it proved our two-party system was in jeopardy.

In 2010 neither Conservative nor Labour could form a majority government and the Conservatives (who had won the most seats) formed a coalition with the Lib Dems. The coalition has governed the UK ever since. Inevitably, because of the economic woes shared by the UK with most other developed countries, this government has had to adopt policies that have made it deeply unpopular. Conservative support has fallen, but Lib Dem support has been all but wiped out. Many people attribute this near-annihilation of the third party to a perceived betrayal – the failure to implement promised policies, notably the abolition of university tuition fees – but I think this is a misinterpretation. The minor party in any unpopular coalition government suffers a serious loss of support; by becoming a partner in government, the Lib Dems relinquished their role as the party of protest. In vain have they implemented policies that have helped the disadvantaged and softened the blows that the Conservatives alone might have rained on the poor. Their contributions to the wellbeing of the nation are being ignored. But Labour has gained remarkably little as a result. Instead, the erstwhile marginal parties have taken over the protest role of the Lib Dems.

It seems likely that the outcome of next year’s election will be another hung parliament. Once again a coalition will have to be formed. But between which parties? Conservatives and UKIP? Labour and the SNP? Will enough Lib Dem MPs retain their seats to make the party a serious player once again?

If I were a member of one of the rising parties, which I’m not, I’d be angling for policies that emphasise the need for devolution of power away from London, away from Westminster. That seems the best way to cash in on widespread public discontent – and thereby to win votes and gain MPs. If the Greens, or UKIP, or indeed the Lib Dems, have the foresight to adopt this strategy as a major plank in their electoral platform, I believe they’ll flourish – and UK politics will become interesting again.


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