D-Day for British politics

The electoral landscape is bleaker than ever before, with fringe parties of both left and right set

What does the following statistic say about the state of British democracy? On 10 June the two parties that have governed the country for the past century may between them receive the endorsement of only one-fifth of the electorate. There will be nothing super about "Super Thursday".

Even allowing for margins of error caused by a mixture of insouciance of respondents and questionable methodology of pollsters, the most that Labour and the Conservatives are likely to receive is between 30 and 35 per cent of the vote each. Add those and divide the total by a turnout of, say, 30 per cent (around the middle of current predictions, but higher than for the last European elections), and the extent of disillusionment is laid bare.

The protest vote is a conventional concomitant of the midterm election, from the National Front in local votes in the 1980s and the Greens performing strongly 15 years ago in the European elections, to the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and the Greens in 1999 and the British National Party in the last local elections. What is different this time, however, is that all the so-called fringe parties on the left and the right are expected to figure strongly.

Add to that the Liberal Democrat gains anticipated in several major cities - with their vote holding up, particularly in the local elections, at upwards of 20 per cent - and a picture emerges of British voting habits more splintered than at any point previously.

"What is interesting is the blindness of the political class since 2001," says Philip Collins, director of the Social Market Foundation. In the last general election, when turnout tumbled below the 60 per cent mark, politicians attributed the fall to the "foregone conclusion". Once the Conservatives become a serious threat, so the argument ran then, voters will be galvanised again to exercise their democratic right. "That argument may no longer be valid," Collins concludes. He believes that the more instrumental voters feel - the more they see their vote purely in terms of getting what they want, rather than exercising a broader duty of citizenship - the more they will keep the habit of protesting or staying at home. The decision to hold exclusively postal voting in four English regions, a decision that has led to organisational chaos in places, was a last-minute attempt to counter the turnout trend.

Iraq did not create the sense of alienation, but it has raised it to an altogether new level. The immediate electoral consequences of Tony Blair's decision to go to war there and of the debacle of the reconstruction are likely to be hugely damaging. That is why Labour headquarters has for weeks been trying to manage expectations downwards. Party workers have as good as given up on the Muslim vote this time. They are reconciled to a strong performance by the Lib Dems in a number of metropolitan areas (the Lib Dems might win Newcastle, for 30 years a Labour stronghold), by the Greens in the vote for the London Assembly and by Respect in individual areas of high Muslim population.

For Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, this election is crucial. If he does not make further inroads into the Labour vote after the war, more questions will be raised about his leadership.

According to senior figures in the government, the longer-term electoral impact of the war - the sense of the powerlessness of conventional means of voting - has yet to be fully understood. "We have yet to start dealing with the deficit between people's views, such as the big Iraq march last year, and our actions," says one adviser. Neal Lawson, a long-time Labour strategist and now chair of Compass, a party -supporting campaign group, talks of a "crisis of legitimisation" in which previously "rock-solid" Labour voters will not, having got protest out of their system on 10 June, necessarily return to the fold at the general election. He sees the alienation of the "thinking Labour voter" as long-term.

Ken Livingstone has spent virtually all of his campaign for re-election as London's mayor avoiding any reference to the Prime Minister, but Livingstone's apparently waning support raises further questions about his eagerness at the turn of the year to seek readmission into the Labour Party. The advantages for Blair in reconciliation with Livingstone - he avoids the possible humiliation of being beaten into fourth place in the capital - were obvious. There seemed less in it for Livingstone. Now he is making it clear to Labour headquarters that he will not allow it to seize on a victory in London on 10 June as a vindication of government policy.

To Blair's relief, the Tories' aim of using the local and European elections as a springboard for next year's bigger poll is not proceeding as they might have wished. They still have strong hopes of capturing major towns and cities - among them Birmingham and Derby - but their confidence in the European elections has been punctured by forces from the right.

Michael Howard's attempts to counter the rise of Ukip attest to the degree to which progressive forces in British politics have abdicated their responsibilities. The Tory leader described his position as being in the centre of two "extremes" - Ukip's call for withdrawal from the EU, and the Labour and Lib Dem positions of greater integration. Blair, for all his talk of "making the case for Europe", has not even begun to fight his corner. In so doing, he has left the ground open for the clarion criers of Europhobia. Ukip is now looking at increasing its number of MEPs from three to perhaps a dozen, even though the total number of British members of the European Parliament is being cut (in common with other countries, following enlargement) from 87 to 78. Some forecast that Ukip's share of the vote could rise from 7 per cent to as much as 20 per cent.

The long-term consequences of this will be destructive. Ukip will, with some justification, argue that its voice must be given due weight by broadcasters. The policy of withdrawal from the EU will become mainstream and respectable. It will be juxtaposed to advocacy of more integration and these positions will be given political equivalence. A referendum on the EU constitutional treaty will become even more difficult to win than it is already. Britain under Blair is no further forward in understanding and accepting Europe than it was under John Major. It may have gone backwards.

Paradoxically, there is one aspect of the European landscape that groups such as Ukip and the BNP would appreciate - proportional representation. Even with a cut-off minimum vote, such as the 5 per cent in Germany, the political spectrum in the UK would look very different. Advocates of voting reform argue that giving these groups representation is the best way of discrediting them. Experience of the past two decades in Europe - from Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands to Jean-Marie Le Pen in France - suggests the practice produces mixed results.

Labour strategists are concerned with a much more immediate problem. How will they spin their way out of potentially disastrous results on 10 June? How will they prevent those results from further imperilling Blair's position? Their main hope lies in the outcome being messy, in newspaper editors facing a multiple choice of headlines. Should it be: "Labour rout as voters shun Blair over war" or "More trouble for Howard as Tory progress halted" or "Kennedy says Lib Dems now the real opposition" (that could also be "Lib Dems eclipsed by Ukip") or "Ukip triumphant" or "Alarm as BNP wins Euro seat in north-west"? Blair would be relieved with such an outcome: he can promise to "learn the lessons" and claim it is time to "move on".

The timing of the results may help him. They will be announced in dribs and drabs, on Thursday night, throughout Friday, and then on Sunday evening after polls have closed in the rest of Europe. By Monday morning 14 June, the newspapers may well be focusing more on the England v France football showdown in Euro 2004 than the elections. (If you think that this kind of remark is flippant, you need only look at Labour's fabled "grid" to see how important the party sees sporting and showbiz headlines as a means of deflecting bad press.)

The two main parties will hope that the electoral system provides succour for them next year. Their campaign machines will move on to the big prize, dismissing the uncomfortable truth that, where they have been offered alternatives, many Britons have strayed on to the margins of politics.

Meanwhile, the long slow disconnect between the major parties and the public will continue. People will feel less of a duty to vote and they will feel less represented by those whom they vote in. Having lost a sense of identification with their core supporters, the parties will be searching for any transient applause they can pick up. Politics by gesture, by momentary initiative, will become the norm, because there may be little else to bind the governed with those who seek to govern them.

All this after seven years on Blair's watch.