by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2014
Here’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here yesterday. It was given the headline “British politics is more fragmented than ever” which is a more accurate reflection of what I said than my own click-bait version. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.
It’s not playing out according to the script. Rewind to the start of the Coalition, Conservative and Labour strategists were both agreed on two things. On only one of them have they been proven correct.
First, they said the Lib Dems entering into coalition with the Conservatives would be electorally disastrous for Nick Clegg’s party. Fair do’s. Since the Coalition was formed my party’s lost 1,500 councillors, 11 of our 12 MEPs and about a third of our membership. I guess I’ll have to give that one to the strategists.
Secondly, they said that as the Lib Dems were crushed under foot, two-party politics would once again assert itself. To begin with it looked like those strategists might be annoyingly right once more. By spring 2012, the Conservative and Labour parties had bounced back from the 65 per cent they polled at the general election, and were regularly sharing 80 per cent of the vote between them. The duopoly had struck back! Politics could revert to its good ‘ole binary ways without those pesky Lib Dems interfering.
But then something happened: George Osborne’s disastrous March 2012 budget. The Granny Tax, Pasty Tax, Church Tax, Charities Tax… whichever way the Chancellor turned there was another interest group incensed at his decision to target them for revenue. Eventually he U-turned on it all, ‘getting the barnacles off the boat’ as Lynton Crosby pragmatically termed ditching unpopular measures which weren’t worth the electoral pain. But by then Tory support had taken a hit from which it hasn’t recovered, down from 37-40 per cent to the 30-33 per cent where it’s been stuck ever since.
And then something else happened: in May 2013, Ukip came from practically nowhere to win 22 per cent of the vote in the local elections, a feat of added significance given the seats up for grab had nothing to do with Europe. Their surge hit the Tory vote, down from 31 per cent to 25 per cent compared with the previous year’s local elections. But it hit the Labour vote harder, down from 38 per cent to just 29 per cent.
So it was that, just 14 months after the Conservative/Labour duopoly had appeared to be back on track, those two parties which have dominated post-war politics attracted just 60 per cent of the vote. Worse was to come, of course. Last May, less than half the electorate — just 47 per cent of those who voted — put their ‘X’ by either Labour’s red rose or the Conservatives’ tree-squiggle in the European elections.
Perhaps there are still some Conservative and Labour strategists who believe this five-year Coalition will yet prove to be the springboard for the two-party politics’ comeback they assumed it would be. Maybe those who campaigned so ardently against the Alternative Vote, for example?
I don’t want you to think, by the way, that as a Lib Dem I remain tortured with bitterness by the overwhelming rejection by the voters of electoral reform (even if it was AV, that “miserable little compromise” (© Nick Clegg)). Honestly, I’m not. You think I’m protesting too much? Consider this:
1) The Lib Dems now depend on first-past-the-post for our continuing significance. Chances are my party will win at least 30 seats next May thanks to the ‘incumbency factor’, the tenacious grip our MPs exert on their stamping grounds. By contrast, Ukip will struggle to win 5 seats even if they out-poll the Lib Dems. I tell you: I’m so over proportional representation.
2) If the Alternative Vote had passed, it’s hard to imagine the Lib Dems would have vetoed the re-drawing of constituency boundaries (even if House of Lords reform had been kicked into the long grass by Tory backbenchers). New constituencies would likely have destroyed much of the Lib Dems’ incumbency factor: our much-talked about wipeout would have been far more likely than it is, and not even AV would have saved us.
3) Much as Lib Dems rightly care about electoral reform (and much as far-sighted Tories should if they want to re-build their party in places where it’s long been extinct) it’s of minimal importance to the British public. The bruising AV defeat has forced the Lib Dems to stop banging on about it and to start focusing on the retail issues which voters do actually give a damn about.
It’s impossible for those of us who support electoral reform to suppress our grinning schadenfreude, as we now watch Conservatives panicked into considering a pact with Ukip and Labour similarly troubled by the rise of the Greens. If only there was some way in which voters could mark a first and second preference in the confidence that their vote would still count, eh?
You can tell what a funk the Conservative part is now in: it’s started listening to Ken Clarke again. At a private meeting of Tory backbenchers last week, according to James Forsyth, the former Chancellor warned his party against trying to out-Ukip Ukip by attempt to satisfy the public’s ‘insatiable appetite’ for action on immigration. Instead, he said, the Tories should concentrate on the economy. “A surprisingly large number of Tory MPs … feel that the old stager has a point. They worry that the leadership is losing sight of its own agenda and they complain that the party has said almost nothing in the past fortnight about the popular tax cuts it unveiled at its conference earlier this month.”
There’s no rocket science here: the tax-cuts for low-earners which the Lib Dems have made the centre-piece of this Coalition are, by some distance, the most popular policy achievement of this Government. And even though David Cameron branded them unaffordable in 2010, 26 per cent of voters credit the Conservatives with the policy. That irritates the hell out of my party (though 41 per cent do at least correctly credit the Lib Dems). And it irritated them even more when he promised in his conference speech to push the personal allowance still higher (long-standing Lib Dem policy) and was rewarded by immediately seeing the Conservatives over-take Labour in the polls. Thankfully, after this brief experiment in appealing to the mainstream the Conservatives have once again reverted to banging on about Europe, benefits and immigration again. You’ll never learn, it seems, for which your opponents, I promise you, give much thanks.
While Conservatives talk once again among themselves, the remorseless fragmentation of British politics continues apace. A YouGov poll last week showed its lowest ever combined Conservative/Labour vote: just 63 per cent. Intuitively, it seems likely this will rise between now and May as the electorate properly focuses on who it wants to govern the country for the next five years. But there are no guarantees. The nihilistic desire of voters to kick against all three main parties and beggar the consequences cannot be ignored.
The British economy has suffered the longest and deepest recession in any of our lifetimes. It would have been a miracle if it had not also shaken up British politics and its parties. The old script’s been rejected, the new script’s still being written, and no-one’s sure how it all ends. But this is a sequel, not a repeat, and the cast list of protagonists is growing.