Power of two: Ed Miliband and David Cameron at the State Opening of Parliament in June. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The end of the “two-party” party

The Conservatives and Labour could once boast of membership of over two million. Today the figure for both is under 200,000. The decline has deleterious practical effects for them.

In 1951, 97 per cent of the electorate voted for one of the two main parties in Britain. By 2010, this had fallen to 65 per cent – and, according to a new poll published by the psephologist and Tory peer Michael Ashcroft, just 59 per cent of those who vote in May’s general election will opt for the Conservatives or Labour.

Rather than seeking to expand their electoral base, both main parties are defensively pursuing core vote strategies. As George Eaton writes on page 22, “Unable to inspire itself, Labour has never seemed further from inspiring the country.” Little better can be said of the Conservatives. Relentless tub-thumping on immigration, including the notorious “Go home” vans, demonisation of welfare recipients and “banging on” about Europe of the sort David Cameron once railed against have combined, in the argot, to retoxify the Conservative brand. The latest ruse from George Osborne was to send letters to taxpayers showing them how their money was spent. In and of itself, such transparency should be applauded but lumping unemployment benefit, in-work tax credits, disability living allowance and public-sector pensions under the banner of “welfare” was disingenuous.

The Conservatives and Labour could once boast of membership of over two million. Today the figure for both is under 200,000. The decline has two deleterious practical effects for them. First, it reduces their campaign funds. This is particularly problematic for Labour, which will be outspent by at least two to one in the election. It also matters for the Conservatives, increasing their dependence on hedge fund managers and leading to the drip-drip of donation stories that reinforce the perception of them as the party of the rich. The second consequence is a lack of activists on the ground, limiting the parties’ ability to mount powerful campaigns outside their heartlands. The collapse in membership could be disastrous for Labour in Scotland: the SNP now has more than 80,000 members, compared with less than 10,000 for Labour north of the border.

The Blair government’s decisions to devolve power to Scotland and Wales and introduce proportional representation in the European elections were a boon to challenger parties. But if these decisions accelerated the growth of insurgent parties, they are not singularly responsible for them. The spasm of “Cleggmania” at the last election and the rise of the SNP, Ukip and even the Green Party are manifestations of the long-run simmering loathing of the political class. Both the Conservatives and Labour have been acquiescent in this.

In many ways the decline of the two main parties is deeply unsatisfactory. It is not good that the Conservatives appear to have written off most of Scotland and much of the English north; the same is true for Labour south of London. Given the scale of the social and economic challenges that the UK faces, the prospect of no government (even a coalition) having a mandate after the next election is worrying. Britain remains lumbered with a voting system that is a two-party relic in a multiparty age.

It could be worse. In the US, on 4 November, the Democrats suffered a bruising result in the midterm elections, confirming that Barack Obama will govern for the last two years as a hugely diminished president. But if this was a protest vote, it was not clear what the US public was protesting against. In an exit poll, just 19 per cent of voters said that they approved of Congress, yet they opted to return the overwhelming majority of these congressmen to office. This owes nothing to satisfaction with them. It is the result of the financial, constitutional and administrative barriers to entry that the Democrats and Republicans put up to prevent the rise of challenger parties.

While Britain does not follow the proportional voting systems favoured by continental Europe, it does allow for a more pluralistic politics. The duopoly of Labour and the Conservatives cannot be maintained indefinitely unless they find new ways to engage with voters. If that is bad news for both main parties, it also means that the British electorate has never been more empowered. 

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Show Hide image

Brexit confusion is scuppering my show – what next?

My week, from spinning records with Baconface, Brexit block and visiting comedy graves.

I am a stand-up comedian, and I am in the process of previewing a new live show, which I hope to tour until early 2018. It was supposed to be about how the digital, free-market society is reshaping the idea of the individual, but we are in the pre-Brexit events whirlpool, and there has never been a worse time to try to assemble a show that will still mean anything in 18 months’ time.



A joke written six weeks ago about dep­orting eastern Europeans, intended to be an exaggeration for comic effect, suddenly just reads like an Amber Rudd speech – or, as James O’Brien pointed out on LBC, an extract from Mein Kampf.

A rude riff on Sarah Vine and 2 Girls 1 Cup runs aground because there are fewer people now who remember Vine than recall the briefly notorious Brazilian video clip. I realise that something that gets a cheer on a Tuesday in Harrogate, or Glasgow, or Oxford, could get me lynched the next night in Lincoln. Perhaps I’ll go into the fruit-picking business. I hear there’s about to be some vacancies.



I sit and stare at blocks of text, wondering how to knit them into a homogeneous whole. But it’s Sunday afternoon, a time for supervising homework and finding sports kit. My 11-year-old daughter has a school project on the Victorians and she has decided to do it on dead 19th-century comedians, as we had recently been on a Music Hall Guild tour of their graves at the local cemetery. I wonder if, secretly, she wished I would join them.

I have found living with the background noise of this project depressing. The headstones that she photographed show that most of the performers – even the well-known Champagne Charlie – barely made it past 40, while the owners of the halls outlived them. Herbert Campbell’s obelisk is vast and has the word “comedian” written on it in gold leaf, but it’s in the bushes and he is no longer remembered. Neither are many of the acts I loved in the 1980s – Johnny Immaterial, Paul Ramone, the Iceman.



I would have liked to do some more work on the live show but, one Monday a month, I go to the studios of the largely volunteer-run arts radio station Resonance FM in Borough, south London. Each Wednesday night at 11pm, the masked Canadian stand-up comedian Baconface presents selections from his late brother’s collection of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s jazz, psychedelia, folk, blues and experimental music. I go in to help him pre-record the programmes.

Baconface is a fascinating character, whom I first met at the Cantaloupes Comedy Club in Kamloops in British Columbia in 1994. He sees the radio show as an attempt to atone for his part in his brother’s death, which was the result of a prank gone wrong involving nudity and bacon, though he is often unable to conceal his contempt for the music that he is compelled to play.

The show is recorded in a small, hot room and Baconface doesn’t change the bacon that his mask is made of very often, so the experience can be quite claustrophobic. Whenever we lose tapes or the old vinyl is too warped to play, he just sits back and utters his resigned, philosophical catchphrase, “It’s all bacon!” – which I now find myself using, as I watch the news, with ­depressing regularity.



After the kids go to sleep, I sit up alone and finally watch The Lady in the Van. Last year, I walked along the street in Camden where it was being filmed, and Alan Bennett talked to me, which was amazing.

About a month later, on the same street, we saw Jonathan Miller skirting some dog’s mess and he told me and the kids how annoyed it made him. I tried to explain to them afterwards who Jonathan Miller was, but to the five-year-old the satire pioneer will always be the Shouting Dog’s Mess Man.



I have the second of the final three preview shows at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre in London before the new show, Content Provider, does a week in big rooms around the country. Today, I was supposed to do a BBC Radio 3 show about improvised music but both of the kids were off school with a bug and I had to stay home mopping up. In between the vomiting, in the psychic shadow of the improvisers, I had something of a breakthrough. The guitarist Derek Bailey, for example, would embrace his problems and make them part of the performance.



I drank half a bottle of wine before going on stage, to give me the guts to take some risks. It’s not a long-term strategy for creative problem-solving, and that way lies wandering around Southend with a pet chicken. But by binning the words that I’d written and trying to repoint them, in the moment, to be about how the Brexit confusion is blocking my route to the show I wanted to write, I can suddenly see a way forward. The designer is in, with samples of a nice coat that she is making for me, intended to replicate the clothing of the central figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 German masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.



Richard Branson is on the internet and, just as I’d problem-solved my way around writing about it, he’s suggesting that Brexit might not happen. I drop the kids off and sit in a café reading Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem. I am interviewing him about it for the Guardian in two weeks’ time. It’s 1,174 pages long, but what with the show falling apart I have read only 293 pages. Next week is half-term. I’ll nail it. It’s great, by the way, and seems to be about the small lives of undocumented individuals, buffeted by the random events of their times.

Stewart Lee’s show “Content Provider” will be on in London from 8 November. For more details, visit: stewartlee.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage