The rise of fringe parties takes British politics into a whole new era. and yet the outcome of the election due on 7 May 2015 seems strangely predictable. The parties seem to be stuck in a deadlock where none can win. What are the chances of one of them breaking free?
Britain’s electoral system (misleadingly referred to as “first past the post”) is capable of producing dramatic swings in the balance between the parties. But a plethora of constituency polls allows pundits to make some quite stable predictions this time. The main features are these: the Liberal Democrats will lose up to 30 seats of their current 57. The Scottish Nationalists (the SNP) will pick up a similar number, or perhaps more, giving them 30-40 seats overall. The new insurgent parties, Ukip and the Greens, will only pick up a handful of seats, and the latter maybe none at all. Overall Labour will advance, and the Conservatives will fall back. The main debate is whether Labour will be able to overhaul the Conservatives to become the largest party. Interestingly, the fortunes of both major parties will be largely determined by how well they do against the smaller parties rather than each other. But neither party will win enough seats to form a government with one of the smaller parties; they will need to do a deal with each other to form a stable government. This is the outcome nobody (except the SNP perhaps) wants.
Can any of the parties break out of this stalemate? Sudden changes of fortune can happen. Two stand out in recent history. The first was in 1992, when John Major’s Conservative government suddenly overhauled Labour in the last week of the election campaign to win a comfortable majority, under the slogan “Labour’s Tax Bombshell”. The second was Cleggmania in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats surged forward after the performance of their leader, Nick Clegg, in the first of the television leadership debates. The surge faded, but the party avoided the drubbing they were heading for, defending their record result in 2005.
Such sudden surges are entirely possible this time. No political leader dominates the scene as Margaret Thatcher did in the elections of 1983 and 1987 or Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005. As in 1992 and 2010, political leadership is weak, and so things can be more fluid. Public frustration with politics is high.
To understand that we only have to look at Scotland, where the SNP have surged forward after last year’s referendum on independence (or, more precisely, they are consolidating their spectacular gains in the Scottish Parliament in 2011). Labour, who are defending 40-odd seats at the election are in serious trouble. That surge, however, is already built in to the forecasts. The surprise might be if the anti-SNP vote rallies and votes tactically. That’s a real possibility, though – and it would mainly benefit Labour (whose majorities are generally big), and might stem some of the Lib Dems’ anticipated losses. It would be particularly satisfying if the Lib Dem candidate Christine Jardine is able to hold off former SNP leader Alec Salmond.
What of the English insurgents, Ukip? They won the European Parliament elections as recently as last year. But their support has sunk to 15% (less than the Lib Dems achieved last time) and it is too thinly spread. Their novelty is wearing thin, and there is quite a strong anti-Ukip reaction, visible in their leader’s negative approval ratings in polls. The press, who often set the news agenda, found it convenient to boost them, but they are now poking fun at them. Yet they are well-funded and in some regions (along the south and east coasts especially) they might yet hit the zeitgeist, and pick up a few more seats than the pundits expect. There is a more remote possibility that they do well in northern urban Labour strongholds – but this looks too high a hurdle for them this year.
How about the other insurgents, the Greens? They have done well in the polls this year, catching up with the poor old Lib Dems quite often. They have picked up the “none of the above” vote that dislikes Ukip. They have the possibility of repeating Cleggmania and advancing into teens of %age of votes, if not better. But they could suffer if they come under scrutiny. They have a rather mad collection of policies and their leader, Natalie Bennett, struggles to break out of fringe appeal. There is a challenge for the party. If they could dump Ms Bennett as their figurehead and replace her with their only MP, the impressive Caroline Lucas, and if they ditch most of their silly policies as “aspirations”, with a more mainstream manifesto – then they might be in business. It would be a big moment of growing up – but, my sense is that they can’t. Too many activists would see such a move as a betrayal. A further difficulty is translating an advance in the polls into seats, as their vote is thinly based. They seem to do well where Labour are already strong – and they lack the time and organisation to marshal a stronger vote in particular seats.
Could the Conservatives repeat their feat of 1992, and break through to an overall majority? They have an impressively disciplined campaign. They could even repeat the tax bombshell line of 1992 line with some justice (Labour’s instincts are free-spending); and Labour’s leadership is seen as not up to it, again as in 1992. Their leader, David Cameron, may not as impressive as Mr Blair or Mrs Thatcher, but he is more convincing than John Major was. But. But. I just think that the Conservatives are on the wrong side of history and will find it impossible to extend their appeal enough. Back in the 1980s they were the party that broke the unions (which most people saw as a good thing) and made the country self-confident again. Mass affluence broke out – even if a lot of it was through the false wealth of rising property values. Now we seem stuck; the rich do well, but few others. Even increasing property values are seen as double-edged, forcing youngsters from even affluent families back onto “the bank of Mum and Dad”. In the 2000s the Tory brand became toxic; they haven’t done enough to reverse that. Tactically they are in a bind too. They need to win back Ukippers with sour policies on Britain’s international role and immigrants – while at the same time as appealing to more optimistic, liberal voters. I just can’t see a breakout. Their only hope of a breakthrough comes from the collective weakness of everybody else – which remains possible.
How about Labour? They have the opposite problem. They are much more in tune with the popular zeitgeist. They understand a lot of what people feel is wrong about society. But their narrative is chaotic. They look like a coalition of grumpy protest groups rather than a coherent government in waiting. I am reminded a little of Labour under Jim Callaghan in 1979: when they try to make a clear stand on a policy, one of their number undermines it. Tough on immigration? Protests from London MPs. Stop any serious reform of the NHS (which they call “saving” it) – yes one moment, no the next. The current awkwardness is on a promise to reduce university tuition fees. They want a headline policy to whack the coalition with (especially to consolidate former Lib Dem voters) – but how to do so without damaging universities or giving a gift just to the richer students? It seems as if the party has lost the discipline of the New Labour era. But the party does have some strengths – in particular an army of younger canvassers, especially in London, and probably the strongest central organisation of any UK political party.
Like the Tories, the main hope for Labour seems to be the weakness of others: the Lib Dems, the Greens, Ukip and the SNP. On the other hand, it is easier to foresee some sort of implosion by Labour than it is for the Tories. A public rift on economic policy could be the cause: the tension between their trade union backers and the more realistic parliamentarians is palpable. There is rather strange paradox here. Ed Miliband has kept the party together much better than expected over the last four years. But this has been achieved by placating rather than resolving the tensions within it. Which makes the unity and discipline less easy to achieve when it is most needed.
Which leaves the Lib Dems, in my review. Their fall has been dramatic. They commonly show up with a poll rating of just 7%, compared with the 23% they achieved in 2010. In many places they would do well to get 2-3%. But they have strongholds, and a strongly focused constituency-led campaign strategy is helping to limit the damage. They are helped by Ukip undermining the Conservative vote, though they seem to have fewer defences in the minority of seats where Labour is their main opponent. In terms of popular vote it is difficult to see the party falling much further – but there is a risk that their constituency-led strategy falls apart, and they are left with very few seats indeed. But they do have upside potential. Their hope is to be seen as a sensible, liberal party, with none of the extremist politics of Ukip or the Greens. The more Labour and the Conservatives move to the extremes to face the threat of Ukip in particular, the more appealing the Lib Dems might look. There is reason for them to hope that their poll ratings will rise – though this may make surprisingly little difference in terms of the number of seats that they lose. Indeed a surge in the polls might undermine the party discipline needed to make the constituency strategy work.
All of which leaves British politics in a predicament. An electoral system that used to practically guarantee a succession of stable single party governments, is now moving towards one that simultaneously disenfranchises most voters (by stranding them in seats where their vote makes no difference), while delivering a result from which it is hard to form a governing majority. And yet such is the conservatism of Britain’s politicians and public, that it is difficult to see any successful move to change it.