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Why voters will make a monkey out of Cameron’s midterm elections

A good point is often wasted in a lost argument. It will soon be the first anniversary of Britain’s decision to reject the Alternative Vote (AV) system for deciding parliamentary elections. Commemorative candles will stay unlit. Even the Liberal Democrats, for whom defeat in that referendum was a political catastrophe, know they must move on. Electoral reform lies in an untended grave.

But buried with it is a crucial observation: British elections are organised as if everyone belongs in one of two camps – Blue and Red – when the evidence shows that they don’t.

To prove it, on 29 March six out of ten voters in West Bradford chose a candidate from none of the mainstream parties. George Galloway’s victory was peculiar to the area. Leftist populism blended with young Muslim disaffection does not extrapolate into a national campaign. But that is the point. It is the feebleness of nationwide messages pumped out of central party machines that enabled a maverick charmer with a knack for animating local passions to snatch the seat from Labour.

Party affiliation has been in decline since the 1950s; so has voter turnout. Distaste for the usual parliamentary brands soured into disgust during the MPs’ expenses scandal. Coalition, heralded as a new kind of politics, has turned out for most people to be indistinguishable from the old variety. When the three main party leaders’ popularity ratings are combined, they make the lowest aggregate score since records began. It is fertile terrain for NOTA candidates – None of the Above.

Ukip, you lose

Galloway’s Respect party might have peaked in Bradford but it would be unwise to bet against another intrusion at the Westminster clubhouse before too long. Tory strategists are constantly wary of Ukip. In the run-up to last December’s by-election in Feltham, Conservative activists were reporting mass defections to the monomaniacal anti-Brussels party. The exodus was halted by David Cameron’s veto of the European fiscal union treaty a week before polling day.

But the demands of sensible diplomacy and partnership with the Lib Dems make Cameron bound to do something that leaves Europhobes feeling betrayed. Ukip can expect a strong showing in elections to the European Parliament in 2014. In the last such ballot, the party won the second-highest national vote share. (On the same night, Britain acquired two MEPs from the BNP.

Those are just the English preoccupations. The party spectrum has long been more diverse in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, something that most of Westminster and the London-based media generally see as exotic fringe pluralism. Only the prospect of a referendum on Scottish independence – turning “None of the Above” into “Not Even the Same Country” – has focused English political minds.

Cameron does not want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who oversaw the dissolution of the United Kingdom but he is being advised that the best service he can render the campaign to preserve the Union is to absent himself from it. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are tarnished by association with the Tories. That leaves Labour to bear the burden of an anti-nationalist campaign, but the party’s Scottish operation is short on talent and its campaign machinery is rusted through. Senior Labour figures are now looking at the failure to generate enthusiasm on the ground in Bradford and worrying that the same will happen on a much larger scale in Scotland.

Even in the London mayoral election, a contest in which the old Labour-Tory duopoly appears to hold, party affiliation is not the determining factor. Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson stand for their own, eponymous brands. If Johnson wins, it will be because his genial “Boris” persona overcomes anti-Tory prejudice in the liberal-lefty metropolis and because swaths of Labour-supporting Londoners – one in three, according to one poll – refuse to back the party’s official candidate.

Later this year, a number of English cities will elect mayors for the first time (precisely which ones has yet to be settled). On the same day – 15 November – 41 regional police commissioners will be installed by popular vote. Although this new wave of devolution is a Tory manifesto commitment, there is a feeling among many MPs and some Downing Street officials that the consequences of holding a “Super Thursday” of midterm ballots, inviting a surge of protest votes, were not thought through.

They, robot

The potential for upset is vast. In May 2002, H’Angus the Monkey, mascot of Hartlepool United FC, was elected as that town’s mayor. In June 2009, Doncaster picked a mayor from the English Democrats, a right-wing reactionary faction in the Ukip mould. The rise of social media and web-savvy activism in recent years raise the prospect of a Westminster giant being felled by viral online mischief.

The challenge for the main parties will be crafting a message that resonates at a local level, while sticking to anodyne soundbites that have been tailored for national media consumption. Voters want candidates to speak like human beings but the official playbook of Westminster politics, with its emphasis on line-toeing discipline, turns decent people into robots.

Austerity adds another constraint, limiting the three main parties to anaemic offers of penny-pinching change. Labour, Tory and Lib Dem candidates operate in recognition that public funds are scarce; local insurgents can pretend they aren’t. Galloway’s campaign pledges were a menu of unrealisable fantasies.

Snatching by-election seats that way used to be a Lib Dem speciality. In Bradford, the party’s candidate lost her deposit. The collapse in support for the third party since it joined the coalition is a parable of politics. Few leaders in history can have captured the public imagination and swapped it for scorn as efficiently as Nick Clegg did in making the transition from righteous opposition to practical government.

That spectacular fall offers no comfort to Ed Miliband and David Cameron. It is, after all, their parties that represent the status quo of power, generations old, that British voters seem increasingly desperate to reject.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue