Saturday 28 November 2009


My General Election Spread (Part 2)

Lib Dems 20%

The 2005 general election saw the best result for the Liberal Democrats, the 3rd party in British Politics, since their predecessor party fought the 1929 election. They achieved 23% of the vote and 62 MPs standing on a platform of a liberal, progressive alternative to both the Conservatives and Labour and most prominently as the only one of the three major parties to vote consistently in opposition to the Iraq war. The Lib Dems' big parliamentary breakthrough came in 1997 when they more than doubled their representation to 46 MPs, though their share of the vote fell by 1 percentage point to 18%, having never managed to gain more than 23 MPs in the 60 years before. They increased their representation, and share of the vote, in both 2001 and 2005 bringing them to their current high-point in the Commons. Furthermore, the current political climate would seem extremely favourable to them with a deeply unpopular Labour government and a Conservative opposition who have struggled to establish their popularity amongst a significant portion of the electorate. The political momentum of the last 13 years and a favourable wind (politically speaking) would seem to be behind them for the next general election, and this is undoubtably the narrative that the Lib Dems themselves would like to convey.

Despite this though I consider their benchmark to be at 20%, 3% below their 2005 score and there is a very good reason for this. It is because there is another, much less optimistic side to their current political narrative. The fact is that right since their success in May 2005 the Lib Dems have been stalling everywhere, repeatedly failing to make any ground. The local elections in '06, '07, '08 and '09 and Euro-Elections elections this year have all shown the same pattern with the Lib Dems just about holding their ground electorally but making no significant progress anywhere. For example, in 2009, though achieving minor advances in seats in the Euros and votes in the Locals these were accompanied by a fall in their share of the vote in the Euros and seats in the Locals. They have proved strangely resistant to any advance in their national position and are widely predicted to lose out badly at the next election to the Conservatives against whom they have made almost no progress since 2005.

The Lib Dems have come within 3% of Labour in opinion polls but they seem incapable of capitalising on this to deliver a decisive blow to either Labour or the Conservatives. Even in bye-elections, which throughout the 90's and early 00's gave some of the Lib Dems most impressive successes, the Lib Dems have had only mixed success since 2005, with one victory in Dumfermline and West Fife balanced by disapointing showings in several others. There have been other poor signs in Scotland and Wales' devolved elections (both previous Lib Dem strongholds), with the Lib Dem vote suffering mild decline, and in the South West, the other traditional Lib Dem stronghold, various local councils have swung to the Conservatives.

Beyond this slightly grim electoral news evidence from opinion polls places 20% as the crucial barrier that the Lib Dems should be realistically aiming to pass. Ever since the election of David Cameron as Conservative leader in December 2005 the Lib Dems have bounced around in the 15-20% in nationwide opinion polls. Despite two major Labour meltdowns in the opinion polls, significant problems with the Conservatives establishing their own popularity, two changes of leader, the (presumably) best efforts of the Lib Dems themselves and all the vagaries of political events they have proved incapable of broaching and staying above the crucial 20% barrier, significantly below their vote in 2005 of 23%, with surprisingly little movement over the years around their average of 18%. Though it should also be said they have only briefly drifted below 15%.

The first major problem for the Liberal Democrats, constantly facing the dilemma of being a centrist third party squeezed in a strongly ideologically bipolar British political universe, is that following 2005 there has not been a single issue, like the Iraq war, to make them stand out and act as a rallying cry for support fleeing from the two major parties. The second major problem has been the Conservative leader David Cameron. He has relentlessly followed a program of changing the positioning of the Conservative party to make it appear as a more centrist and liberal party. This seems to have decisively undercut the Lib Dems' progress at appearing as the main acceptable liberal alternative for voters fleeing Labour.

It is impossible to as simply quantify this as voters now swapping from Labour to Conservative rather than Labour to Lib Dem. It could be rather that the same strand of voters is moving from Labour to the Lib Dems but that a similar number of separate voters are also moving from the Lib Dems' right wing to the Conservatives. It is extremely difficult to tell with the crude data that is available, nonetheless the pattern is unmistakeable.

The Lib Dems currently have 63 MPs in the House of Commons, built at the last election on their exploitation of public anger over the Iraq War and their astute positioning between the Conservative and Labour. It is the best result they have been able to achieve for 70 years and has led to a significant increase in their profile and exposure and influence in British politics. If they are to maintain this profile and standing beyond the next election though they can not afford to see their share of the vote fall below the 20% threshold. If they do they will see serious losses,their first since since 1992, to a resurgent Conservative party that will cripple their burgeoning ability to present themselves as a serious possible party of government, reduce their pool of parliamentary talent to utilise in the future and quite possibly retard their slow progress (which they have really been making since their nadir in the 1950's) for another decade, if not more.

They are not necessarily doomed though, even at this point. It is possible that they will still be able to find some issue or event to galvanise their support and/or allow them to distinguish themselves from the two main parties between now and the general election and stage at UKIP style recovery against expectations. Their time in which to do so, however, is fast running out.

Others 10%

It has been traditionally said that Britain has a two party system. This is largely true in that there have been only three parties that have ever formed the government of the United Kingdom, and this is a case of Labour taking the Liberals' place as part of the two party system rather than a development of a three way sharing of government. That said, however, a more nuanced view of British politics would bely this analysis. There have been extended periods where further parties have held a considerable influence in parliament and also in devolved, European or local politics and neither have major parties always been monolithic entities. An example is that the fact that the period in which Labour replaced the Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservative Party in the UK lasted from the 1918-1935 general elections and arguably longer, a period of about 20 years before the two party system in parliament settled down again.

British politics in recent years, especially since 1997, has seen the rise of smaller parties, with the strongest third party since 1931 and numerous high profile minor parties. This has been assisted by the establishment by Labour of devolved assemblies and the increased importance of the European Parliament but it also seems to represent a wider political trend whereby support seems to be seeping away from the major parties to a wider base. Possible causes of this include the dramatic increase of possible media of communication, which among other things, reduces the cost of organisation and help to bring together politically like-minded people, even of a relatively rare political persuasion; as well as encouraging awareness of a wide range of issues, which may not be addressed by major parties, and increasing public scrutiny of major political parties, which may encourage cynicism towards them. There is also the decline of the major parties as mass organisations, especially in terms of polarisation and identity of various parts of society, such as certain classes, with one of the two main parties.

Whatever the reasons for this trend the best possible characterisation of current British Politics since 1997 may be that we have a three party system, whereby the Conservatives are a party, Labour are a party, the Lib Dems are half a party and the minor parties make up another half of a party between them. These minor parties together achieved 7% of the vote in 2005, higher than the minor party total at any previous UK election in the last 50 years and considerably more successful with a haul of 12 seats.

The period between 2001 and 2005 saw a number of events, which contributed to the rise of the minor parties. The first of these was the continuing boost in publicity achieved by minor parties through the mechanism of assemblies outside Westminster. Whether the European or devolved assemblies the ability to elect representatives along with the influence and publicity this gave helped provide a boost to the position of UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru, and to a lesser extent various minor Scottish parties as well as the BNP and Greens. Especially important to this was the 2004 European elections which gave the greatest boost to minor party support seen over the parliament and saw the decisive breakthrough of UKIP with 16% of the vote and 3rd place across the UK.

The Second mechanism has been alluded to before, namely the curious and infrequent scenario following the Iraq war whereby both of the two major parties were relatively unpopular, with neither regularly polling more than 40%. This is accentuated by the fact that political support in the UK has become considerably geographically polarised, with evidence seeming to indicate that some minor parties have gained support in areas where one of the two major parties no longer offers serious opposition, such that when voters get sick of the dominant major party in that area, minor parties move into fill the gap instead. An example of this would appear to be the success of the SNP in Scotland and the BNP in the north of England. Both of which have large areas where there is just no effective Conservative opposition to traditional Labour domination. A much more localised version of this phenomenon, perhaps with the addition of the influence of strong local personalities and celebrities, can be seen in the success of Respect and the Kidderminster Health Concern.

The third of the reasons for this trend has been the increasing influence of single issue pressure groups in society. These have grown more widely influential in society in the form of NGO's and pressure groups, but only recently have they begun to gain serious strength as political parties. The textbook example would be the Greens, but in a different way also the BNP or UKIP, though with very different single issues. Perhaps the most remarkable event in this regard, since 2001, has been the rise of these parties. The UK has had a long history of minor political parties, but the only successful ones have been, until the last decade, almost solely the local nationalist parties in the home nations outside England. The rise of UK wide minor parties, or even perhaps more accurately significant minor parties within England, which has always politically dominated the Union (and in most other ways), but has always proved resistant to the growth of minor parties. This changed in the 2004 European and 2005 general elections with significant growth seen by UKIP, BNP and Greens, to the point where UKIP overtook the SNP's long held position as the 4th largest party by number of votes.

The years since the 2005 election have only seen the intensification of these trends on all fronts. A continuing rise in the prominence of environmental issues has seen an increase in the profile of the Green party, continuing fears about immigration and disillusionment with Labour in its working class heartlands has fueled the rise of the BNP and disillusionment with Labour in Scotland lead to the SNP narrowly winning the 2007 Scottish parliament elections, giving it a minority administration and all the chances to grandstand, on behalf of the Scottish people of course, that comes with it.

The 2009 European Elections were expected to see a retreat of the performance of the minor parties, with a widespread expectation that UKIP would fade without the vast publicity afforded to them by the campaigning of Robert Kilroy-Silk in 2004. Then the Expenses scandal broke in early May 2009 and the whole game changed. With all three major parties roughly equally embroiled in the Westminster expenses scandal the field was left open for the minor parties, who saw an unprecedented spike in their opinion poll ratings, reaching 30% in one poll and across the average peaking at 18% of the (Westminster) vote. They would then go on to achieve 43% of the vote in the European Elections in a climate of unprecedented distrust of all 3 major parties, with UKIP itself actually managing to push the governing Labour Party into 3rd place, the first time that one of the two major parties has been in 3rd place in a nationwide election in the history of the UK.

The importance of the Expenses scandal to UKIP and all the minor parties could not be exaggerated. By simultaneously damaging the reputation of all three major parties almost precisely one year before a general election it gave them an unparalleled boost in support in a parliament that has been dominated by a duel between Labour and a rejuvenated Conservative Party. To the leaders of the three main minor parties it must have been as though all their Christmases had come at once. Without this event it would probably be a safe prediction that the minor parties would increase their vote in 2010, but by probably only a small amount, and with insignificant change to their representation. As it is, although their support in opinion polls has decreased steadily since June the minor parties still are registering unprecedented levels of support for this close to a general election, well into the teens in all opinion polls.

For these reasons I believe that 10% must be the benchmark for Others in 2010. Passing this threshold at a general election would represent an unprecedented level of support for the larger and also for numerous smaller minor parties. It also would represent the likelihood of seeing UKIP, BNP or Greens finally succeeding in electing an MP under FPTP, which would be an remarkable step for them. These three parties, as well as the SNP in Scotland will all be hoping to seriously increase their vote at the next election helped by the expenses scandal and the serious unpopularity of the Labour party. If possible this would be a serious achievement as well, representing an almost 40% increase on the minor party vote in 2005. This would seem an unlikely target if not for the remarkable success of these 3 main minor parties who have been incredibly successful at rallying support in their respective constituencies, their collective vote at the 2005 general election being more than 1 million, compared to little more than 200,000 in 1997.

In light of these figures and their relatively high profile in the national media, they and the SNP/Plaid along with various other minor parties have, I believe, a serious chance of achieving this total. It must be said though that if they do not pass this total at this election then it seems unlikely that they ever will. The 2010 election would appear to be both the height of continuing momentum for the Others and favourable political circumstances, both in terms of the expenses scandal and the distrust and decline of Labour and the Conservatives as national institutions.

Whichever way these events go in terms of this spread it becomes clear that 2010 is likely to be a once in a generation shift in British politics, in many ways equivalent to 1886, 1906, 1918, 1945, 1979 and 1997. We only have a 7 month wait to see which way it will go, and though events between now and the election will doubtlessly affect the outcome we may predict now, though in what way we cannot foresee. I believe that this spread still bares relevance to the significance of whatever result does occur.


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