The electorate has a critical impact. Photo: Getty
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Forget disillusionment, voters have never been more empowered

The electorate is increasingly promiscuous; MPs have to do more to hold onto their jobs.

In 1951, the apex of Britain’s two-party system 80 per cent of the electorate voted for the Conservatives or Labour at the ballot box. In 2010, just 42 per cent did. The idea of loyally supporting a political party as one might a football club is archaic.

To voters all across Europe leading political parties have become less representative – increasingly identikit politicians arguing ever louder over minute policy differences. The ideological difference between Tory and Labour election manifestos since 1997 has been only a third as large as between 1974 and 1992. A political class has captured leading parties: the number of professional politicians in Westminster has quadrupled since 1979.

These developments have fuelled a loathing of Westminster – a word now said with the same scorn that Americans speak of "Washington". That voters have lost all confidence in mainstream parties to improve their lives is deeply regrettable.

Yet there is a more positive side to this discontent. Voters have never been more empowered: the age of the uniform swing is over and fewer politicians will be able to enjoy jobs for life. The MPs that have long careers will tend to have local roots – 63 per cent of MPs today have pre-existing connections to their seats, compared with 25 per cent in 1979 – and a fierce independent streak. The electorate is increasingly promiscuous, so MPs have to do more to hold onto their jobs. Party affiliation alone is no longer alone.

The electorate welcomes this development. A new Electoral Reform Society report analyses voters in the 40 most marginal Conservative-Labour seats. Because the electorate in these seats have a critical impact on which party forms a government, they might be expected to think highly of the two-party system. Yet, even in these seats, 67 per cent believe that the rise of smaller parties like the Greens and Ukip is democracy – just 16 per cent disagree. Voters prefer to have several smaller parties rather than two big ones by a margin of two-to-one.

Pluralism is here to stay. The trends against the old two parties – the breakdown in class voting, the decline in trade union membership, the collapse in party membership and the proliferation of alternative voting systems beyond Westminster - are overwhelming. As easy as it is to blame David Cameron and Ed Miliband, mainstream politicians all over Europe are experiencing the same problems, as I explored in the magazine last month. Voters feel contemptuous of elites and are rallying against the notion that mainstream parties have ceded power to globalisation.

If mainstream parties are to fight back, it will be by giving up control – allowing supporters, as well as members, to influence policy. The popularity of Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP who has a double mandate – from an open primary and then from the general election – shows how this could benefit parties.

But there is a problem. More MPs like Wollaston would make party discipline even harder. In and of itself this could be welcomed: more politicians independent of the party whips would lead to greater voter satisfaction with their MPs. But, in an age when both the Conservative and Labour core vote has been shattered, more independent MPs – even if it led to a slight upturn in support for the two main parties – would make Britain even harder to govern without resorting to a grand coalition.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.