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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle