The game has changed

2010 looked like the beginning of a three-party system in the UK. But British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways.
2010 looked like the beginning of a three-party system in the UK. But British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways.

Do you ever think, looking at the British political scene, that all possible results of the next election just feel wrong? That no one deserves to win? That we’re in a weird place where the 2015 poll might as well be decided by rolling dice or drawing lots?

Everyone says Labour’s opinion poll lead is fragile. The party doesn’t look ready to return to government and, for all his efforts, voters don’t see Ed Miliband as a potential prime minister. Optimistic Tories are talking up their ‘summer recovery’, but they’re still stuck at around 30% in the polls, and have a mountain chain to climb in terms of seats to gain a majority in 2015. Which should make a hung parliament and another coalition involving the Lib-Dems (which amounts to a ‘win’ for them) the most plausible outcome. But that doesn’t feel right either. Lib-Dem support is hovering around 10%, Nick Clegg is a national joke and the party appears to have lost a significant slice of its core support to Labour. It’s like one of those periodic seasons in the Championship when suddenly no club seems to want to win the title.

When everyone is unpopular you don’t have to be popular to win. You don’t have to have the best policies, the most likeable leader or a good record in government. You just have to be a bit less unpopular or a bit luckier than the other party.

British politics is fracturing in unpredictable ways. We’re used to elections being decided by a relatively small group of ‘swing voters’ – uncommitted to either main party – shifting their heft one way or the other, ‘lending’ their votes to Labour or the Tories on an election-by-election basis. But now there are a lot more swing voters, and they’re all over the place: toying with UKIP, the Greens and local ‘anti-politics’ candidates, voting differently in local and national elections, switching back and forth between parties while puzzling over whether there’s any real difference between them, and – increasingly – not bothering to vote at all.

Of course, this isn’t new. Ever since I started studying politics in the 1980s, people have been talking about the ‘breakdown’ of the two-party system. And the share of the vote taken by the main parties has indeed fallen steadily from 97% in 1951 to 65% in 2010. Perhaps it has now (finally) reached a critical point beyond which, instead of the three-party system we expected, we are seeing multi-party politics or even ‘no-party’ politics.

Despite this, most commentators are still talking the old language of stable majorities and the ‘magical’ 40% barrier. But what if no one gets over 40% again? What if Labour’s 29% last time round was not a ‘disaster’ (as it undoubtedly was in 1983) but a ‘normal’ score for a party coming second. What if hung parliaments are not the result of an unusually strong third party performance, but the norm – and the Lib-Dems don’t have to do well to end up in government? What if so-called ‘fringe’ parties become ‘niche’ parties, able to appeal successfully to particular voters in particular areas?

If you look at it this way, Labour’s overtures to the Lib-Dems and Ed Miliband’s reputed ‘35% strategy’ (the idea that Labour only needs 35% to win an election, so why bother alienating core supporters by moving onto Tory territory?) looks less like defeatism or complacency and more like the results of a sober assessment of the political future.


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