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by Stephen Tall on March 27, 2006

Today marks the second anniversary of the political geeks’ website par excellence, Political Betting. You can read my ‘Monday Guest Slot’ article by clicking here (or just scrolling down)…

Dealing with the new politics

It’s 80 days since Charles Kennedy quit as Liberal Democrat leader, plunging the party into its January mensis horribilis.

Opinion poll ratings dipped as low as 13%, the Daily Telegraph splashed its front page with a report that the party was in ‘freefall’, and several over-hyped and under-sourced rumours alleged three Lib Dem MPs were poised to defect to David Cameron’s shiny new Tories.

Then came the party’s shock by-election victory in Dunfermline (Gordon Brown’s own stamping ground), and in one bound the Lib Dems were free. The emphatic leadership contest result, a canny front-bench reshuffle, and healthier poll ratings, has ushered in a Menzies mirabilis.

How long will this fresh sense of optimism last?

Ming Campbell’s first electoral test as leader will come with this May’s local elections, and the party’s expectations – which just a couple of months ago might have extended no further than bare survival – are once again fixed firmly on reaching dizzier heights. To work out if this is the triumph of hope over experience, let’s have a look at the form-book.

The figures below show the projected national share of the parties’ votes in that year’s local elections compared with the ICM poll rating (in brackets) immediately prior to those elections:

1998: Con 33% (31%), Lab 37% (48%), Lib Dem 25% (16%)
2000: Con 38% (32%), Lab 30% (45%), Lib Dem 26% (15%)
2002: Con 34% (29%), Lab 33% (45%), Lib Dem 25% (18%)
2004: Con 38% (33%), Lab 26% (38%), Lib Dem 29% (22%)

The Tories have added between 2-6% to their ICM national rating in recent local elections; Labour have dropped 9-15%; and the Lib Dems have increased 4-11%.

If this pattern were to repeat itself in 2006 – using the most recent ICM poll (18th March), with the Tories on 34%, Labour 37% and the Lib Dems 21%, as our bench-mark – we might extrapolate the following shares of the vote this May:

Con 39%, Lab 25%, Lib Dem 29%.

The Tories would be content, though perhaps not ecstatic, with such a performance. It would certainly represent progress on 2002, when most of these seats were last fought, but would indicate that Mr Cameron’s pyrotechnics have yet to set alight the world outside the Westminster village.

Such a dire performance from Labour would create huge pressure on Mr Blair to announce his departure from Downing Street, so hastening Mr Brown’s translation from the Last Word of the Treasury to its First Lord.

For Sir Menzies and the Lib Dems, beating Labour and recording a high-20s percentage, would seem like an Olympic gold, Ashes triumph and World Cup glory rolled into one after what has been a truly torrid time. But, then, you have to go back to 1990, the Lib Dems’ nadir, to find a local election result (not combined with a general election) in which the party scored less than 20%.

The stubborn refusal of the third party to lie down and quietly die points to a wider trend: what has been termed the de-alignment of British politics.

If we look at the combined, average general election vote shares of the two big beasts of post-1945 politics, the Tories and Labour, and compare them with the combined, average vote shares of the Lib Dems and other parties for each of the last five decades, the fragmentation of voter loyalties is clear:

1950s: Con/Lab 92%, Lib Dem/Other 8%
1960s: Con/Lab 89%, Lib Dem/Other 11%
1970s: Con/Lab 80%, Lib Dem/Other 20%
1980s: Con/Lab 72%, Lib Dem/Other 28%
1990s: Con/Lab 75%, Lib Dem/Other 25%
2000s: Con/Lab 70%, Lib Dem/Other 30%

Voters no longer identify tribally with one political party based on their self-perception of class or religious interest (or their parents’ views). In 1964, according to the British Election Study, 48% of Tory voters identified strongly with their chosen party, compared with 51% for Labour. By 2001, the figures were 14% and 16% respectively.

As voter turn-out has declined, transforming the electorate into a selectorate, the remorseless march of the de-alignment process has continued apace. The cosy Tory/Labour duopoly is coming to an end.

And, however much Messrs Brown and Cameron might prefer to ignore such a reality, this is the new politics with which all parties are going to have to deal.