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Expert Comment: The underlying changes in British politics

parliament 150 x150 Monday 27 April 2015

In the first part of his series of special election Expert Comments, Senior Honorary Research Fellow and former Professor of Politics, Professor Bill Jones starts to look at the reasons we are most likely heading for a hung parliament.

Since May 2010 the fundamental changes long evident within the British polity have developed further rather than receded: they will determine the outcome on 7th May. Given the number of players in this contest it is impossible to predict how they will interact so, to a greater extent than any recent election, the outcome will remain a mystery until polling day.  Psephologists are convinced that we are due for another hung parliament and that this time an even longer period of negotiation is probable before a new government is likely to emerge. 

 

Underlying Changes in British Politics

1. Collapse of the Centre Ground - A European Phenomenon: For many years election victories across Europe went to those parties sitting squarely in the centre ground: not any more. The collapse of the centre ground has been caused by factors such as: perceptions of the wealth of the transnational super rich; mass migration of workers from poorer to richer countries; the remoteness of the political elites; and, especially, the longstanding failures of EU governments to solve the 2009 economic crisis caused by the bankers in any way except the imposition of austerity. In consequence we see the traditional power holders all over Europe forced on the defensive by insurgent extremist groups both of the right and left. The results of the 2014 Euro-elections, with UKIP winning in UK, saw the latter making huge inroads.

 "The shift from two- and three-party systems to parliaments of five, six or seven contestants has been a long time in the gestation, but it has been jolted and fast-forwarded by the financial and debt crisis of the past four years. What started as a financial and currency emergency has morphed into a broader political, social and economic crisis, with Europe mired in stagnation and deflation, no growth, no jobs and the mainstream elites struggling to come up with answers."[1]

Drastic weakening of the centre ground and the growth of insurgent parties has been evident in: Italy -Beppo Grillo's Five Star Movement has 20% of seats in the Italian parliament; Ireland; Austria and Germany where Angela Merkel has formed a 'grand coalition' with Social Democrats for five of her nine years in power. Sweden, Norway, Holland and Denmark have seen the emergence of right wing anti-immigrant parties which have altered their left of centre political tendencies.

 

2. The Hollowing Out of British Political Parties: This process has had four main characteristics.

i) Decline of  Main Parties and growth of smaller ones: In the 1950 general election the Conservative and Labour parties together won 97% of the vote and this 90% plus share continued into the 1960s. But the Liberal Party began to improve its vote so that in 1974 it polled 19.3%; together with the rise of the nationalist vote this reduced the two main parties' share to 75.1%. The formation of the Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance in the 1980s saw the 'third party' share rise to 25.4% in 1983 and the two main parties' share of the vote reduce to 70% of the total.  The Alliance morphed into the Liberal Democrats in 1988 but its share still neared one fifth of all voters, with the nationalist vote steadily climbing. In 2010 Labour and Tories' joint share was down 65.1%, with Lib Dems on 23% and 'others' including the nationalists, 11.9%. When both parties struggle to command  two third of the vote, it is so much harder for either of them to muster the required 50% of seats for an overall majority. So we saw in 2010 that government was only possible via the joining of the Lib Dems' 23% to the Tories' 36.1% in the first post-war peacetime coalition.

 ii)Turnout and voter registration: A further sign of UK democracy in decline has been falling levels of participation in elections. In 1950 turnout was 85%; it remained in the seventies until 1997 when it sank to 71% and then plunged to 59.2% in 2001. From then it partially recovered to 65% in 2010 but the old days of high turnout seem long gone.  The loss of female votes is especially marked. Between 1992 and 2010 the number of women voting in general elections fell by 18% and in 2010 more than 9.1 million women failed to vote: worryingly only 39% of women in the 18-24 cohort voted compared with 50% for men. However if voters are asked a question which really matters to them they will still come out to vote, as the 85% turnout in the Scottish referendum demonstrated.

On 23rd October 2013, the comedian and actor, Russell Brand, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, excoriated political elites as being totally ignorant of the society in which they live and  controlled by the moneyed minority responsible for the 2008 economic crisis. He claimed it was not worth voting in present circumstances and  called for a revolution to reverse this state of affairs. His 2014 book, Revolution, purported to elaborate his ideas but reviews were mixed. Nick Cohen[2] judged  the book as 'atrocious: long winded and smug, filled with references to books Brand has half read and thinkers he has half understood', but Owen Jones judged it 'funny, full of charm and engaging'.[3]

Voter registration: "Last summer the Electoral Commission said 7.5 million eligible voters were not registered, with poor, black and young people least likely to be on the electoral roll. Many more of those who are registered are unlikely to use their vote – 16 million in 2010. Given the Society’s latest survey suggests fewer people are certain to vote than in 2005 and 2010, unless things change dramatically Britain could once again witness the tally of missing votes rise higher than those cast for Labour and the Conservatives combined – 19.3 million in 2010."[4]

iii) Trust: This quality, indicating the degree of belief voters have in their leaders, has plummeted over the recent 10-20 years. In 2009, the year of the expenses scandal, Sir Robert Worcester, founder of MORI, commented:

"Politicians talk about 'restoring trust in politicians'. [But] for the last four or five years only about one person in four has said they trust politicians to tell the truth. This year, following the expenses scandal, politicians hit a 25-year low, with just 13% of the public saying they have faith in what politicians say." [5]

iv) Party Membership: In the 1950s party membership stood at  close to 3 million. In 1951 the Conservatives claimed 2.9m members, Labour 876,000; in 1981 membership had declined to 1.2m and 277,000 respectively with Lib Dems on 91,000; in 2001 Conservatives had slumped to 311,000 and Labour to 272,000 with the Lib Dems on 73,000; in 2011 Conservatives were down to 177,000, Labour, 190,000 and Lib Dems 66,000.  Perhaps even more significant has been the way members regard their parties: as the graph below shows, 'strong identifiers' have declined dramatically since the 1960s.

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[1] Ian Traynor, Observer, 16th November 2014

[2] Observer, 26th October, 2014

[3] Guardian, 23rd December, 2014

[4] Robert Booth, Guardian 17th April, 2015

[5] Observer, 27th September, 2014

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