When major change happens it can be hard to see what’s really happening. All is flux and uncertainty. In the British 2015 general election fundamental change is happening before our eyes and yet we can’t see what it is. We persist in thinking in terms of the old model of the political order when it has already gone and things have shifted beyond what we can conceive. It will take time for the new dispensation to make itself clear. What has happened is that the traditional post-war model of the nationwide two-party system elected by the “First Past the Post” (FPTP) electoral system in a unicameral, centralised state has finally hit the buffers and no longer works. Yet politicians and to an extent voters still think in those traditional terms when actually a fundamental re-alignment of the political order is occurring.
I use the word “strange death” partly in reference to Paul Dangerfield’s book of 1935, when the Liberal Party had become almost extinct and people puzzled about the decline of 19th century Liberalism in the era of the rise of Communism and Fascism. Today, we have similar trends occurring, although affecting both major parties, and with a very restless and disengaged electorate. Many people have been puzzling over this phenomenon of “disengagement” and attribute it to the perceived wrongdoings of the political class. Yet this ignores major shifts that have been taking place in what we still call Britain.
The death of the old order
Since 1945, the liberal consensus had been replaced by the organised, industrial working class and liberal elite of the Labour Party, who implemented a major change in our political, economic and social arrangements after 1945, opposed by the business and rural and middle class interests of the Conservative Party. A big party-political realignment had just occurred. Both parties had large memberships and held a strong influence across England, Scotland and Wales (Northern Irish politics being habitually sectarian, although the protestant Unionists were linked to the Tories). About one third of the working class voted Conservative, although for the most part voting occurred on strongly class lines. Governments were chosen from one or the other in what seemed a stable political order.
Yet by 2010 it had become evident to many observers that this model was no longer working. A “hung” parliament was elected, called “hung” because we are not accustomed to there being no majority for one party unlike most democracies. A coalition was formed and over the next few years the pattern of weak support for the major parties and the growth of smaller parties gathered apace. The underlying trends simply became more accentuated, such that we are now faced with a very significant splintering in the political order. So what are these trends?
Major political change is under way
The major parties’ share of the vote, on the eve of the 2015 general election, now stands at approximately 33-34% each. In Scotland, a massive realignment is taking place, with a wholesale shift to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), particularly at the expense of Labour. This in itself would make a “hung” parliament very likely. Elsewhere, the right has become divided with the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and the left rise with the growth of the Green Party. In Wales there is Plaid Cymru.
Labour’s loss of its political base
This is not new. The bedrock support for the major parties has been shrinking for a long time. The collapse of traditional industry and the decline of trade unionism has eroded the working class base of the Labour Party. Moreover sociological shifts have produced a big increase in what was called the middle class but now much more varied, while the old working class has in turn splintered into partly a very impoverished “precariart”. Thus a recent survey argued that we now have 7 classes. The former traditional industry “rust belt” centres have resulted in an aging “left behind” generation, now considered to be fertile UKIP territory, many of whom are now living in marginalised, impoverished centres such as in parts of Eastern England. Glasgow, by contrast, where there is a similar sociological mix, has switched to the SNP. The old council housing complexes linked to traditional industry are now broken up and sold off, the communities now longer cohesive and with many marginalised. No wonder Labour struggles to get above 35% of the vote. It took the impact of the biggest recession since the 1930’s to break traditional thinking and finally shake off old political loyalties. Voters are now moving in new directions, particularly nationalistic ones in various guises.
What is now occurring is the final outcome of the old breakdown in party political loyalties and a predictable pattern in voting behaviour. People are no longer strongly affiliated to one or another party and this breakdown in political affiliation has been going on a long time, matched by a massive shrinkage in party membership. In turn other influences on voting behaviour are coming into play. What we are seeing is fragmentation, particularly on a regional or local basis. In Scotland, Labour has been abandoned wholesale for another, far stronger means of representing what are now seen as Scottish interests to a perceived alien “Westminster”, while a new centre of focus has now emerged in the devolved assembly in Edinburgh. Tired of not getting the government they voted for, they are turning to another, more social democratic version that reflects a passionate awakening of nationalism. In England, declining East coast towns with many of the “left behind” are turning to the far right of UKIP and against “multiculturalism”, immigration and the seemingly distant and alien EU. London and the South-East, if not the South as a whole, has emerged in remarkably good shape from the recession, with the massive economic pull of one of the globally most important and leading cities in London. The contrast could not be more striking.
Traditional conservatism has lost its way
However the major experiment with free market neo-liberalism under Thatcher and then Cameron has not brought the Conservatives the fruit they have expected. Rather, one could argue, it has divided its base. One of the major trends since the 1980’s has been accentuated inequality, such that the modern-day Conservatives no longer reach across the social spectrum but appear more as a “rich” party, backed financially by City of London financial interests who have bankrolled the current Tory campaign. Thus Conservatism has retreated both in membership numbers, ideologically and in regional terms to the more prosperous South and South East. Very few Conservative seats are found in the North and only one (until 7 May 2015) in Scotland. The party has also been split over Europe since the Maastrict Treaty (1992), with a strong and rebellious right which has been calling for Brexit and anxious about the rise of UKIP. The party, which has not won an election since 1992, no longer looks to be the “natural” party of government as it was under Salisbury, Badwin and Churchill. More and more it speaks for wealthy sectional interests, while its more working class supporters have drifted elsewhere. Despite having a better economic record than Labour it is unable to play the card of the economy and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Developing new political coalitions
In politics, coalitions should not just be understood as ones constructed between parties for the purposes of forming a government. They are also exist, in more psychological terms, within parties, between different interests and persuasions. In the latter sense, new political coalitions need to be constructed, ones that people can connect with and feel as “theirs” once again.
Neither Labour nor the Conservatives can at present construct a government “coalition” in political psychology terms that brings together Scottish nationalistic aspirations, traditional northern and Welsh working class labour, the “left behind”, the affluent and apsirational south and south-east or liberal “green” thinkers. The parties don’t match the social tribes “out there”. Rather politics has splintered along national lines as regards Scotland and regional as regards England and Wales. A new coalition of interests has to be created, and, as in the 1970’s when there was last a significant period of minority government, it may well take time and much dissension to emerge.
A new dispensation
The “new” politics, when that emerges, will need to take account of the serious institutional and structural weaknesses of the current “British” polity. First and foremost the traditional centralised state needs to take account of nationalism in Scotland, but also regional divergence and economic weakness in England and Wales. This would suggest a new institutional framework probably based around “devo-max” and a federalist solution to some degree. Cameron’s short-sighted “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL) is probably unworkable, as well as highly divisive, as many constitutional commentators have pointed out.
Secondly politics needs to bring citizenry back into engagement. Disengagement has dogged this election but I would suggest it is a symptom, not a cause, of the current crisis, which is in reality brought about by the decline of the traditional governmental and party-political system. Blaming the problem on “Europe”, “Immigration” or “the Political Class” is to look for a scapegoat solution, as this blog has argued. The real issue is systemic. The system needs to reflect the needs of its citizens and these are ones that cry out for contact and connection. The traditional centralised, unicameral and remote Westminster single member FPTP system is insufficiently responsive in today’s highly connected and involved world. Just compare the world of social media with that of Westminster politics to see the contrast.
Thus a nationally and regionally devolved federalist system, with much fairer and proportional-representation (PR) based elections, can choose two elected houses, including an upper house that is elected and reflects the nations and regions of the UK as a check on over-centralisation, as well as equal-sized constituencies for both houses. This ensures that all parts of the UK have consented to major change. No longer could Scotland find itself with the “Poll Tax” (the Community Charge) which it had not voted for, introduced by Thatcher as an experiment before it was rolled out across the UK, and then hotly resisted until it was withdrawn. We also need a written constitution, with a final court of appeal, to ensure that the system is durable and not easy to amend in the way that Parliament has been prone to recently.
Now that we have a hung parliament in the offing, politicians will have to address these issues of political dysfunction. The question is how much have they realised that the old dispensation is finished and a new one needs to be agreed. The next few months will show how much this has sunk in – or not.