The electorate has a critical impact. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The polls appear positive for Remain but below the surface the picture is less rosy

If you take out the effect of the drift towards phone polling, the last month has seen an improvement in the Remain vote of just 1 per cent. 

The last couple of weeks have looked very good for the Remain campaign – the polls have moved in their direction, the media focus has been on their home-ground issue of the economy, and Leave have had to concede the trade argument and move on to something else.

But, beneath the surface, the picture is less bright. Each of those strengths is somewhat illusory.

While the polls appear to have become more positive, most of the change is a result of shifts in what pollsters are doing, not what the people they poll are thinking.

Analysis by Professor John Curtice shows that early in the campaign just 1 in 7 polls was conducted by phone. Now it is up to 1 in 3.

This makes a big difference to how the race appears because phone polls consistently show much bigger Remain leads. If you take out the effect of this drift towards phone polling, the last month has seen an improvement in the Remain vote of just 1 per cent.  Internet polls are still showing a tied race, compared to a 10 point lead for Remain back in February 2015. All the advantages of incumbency and cross-party support are not shifting the numbers.

Remain’s dominance of the media agenda is also more a function of circumstance that it may appear.

Part of it comes through the use of the civil service machine to generate stories, something every incumbent has the right to do. That advantage ends today as election rules kick in which legally prohibit the government from producing pro-Remain news. The civil servants who did everything from crank out Treasury analysis to plug in Barack Obama’s microphone will have to twiddle their thumbs till the end of June.

The other reason Remain was able to keep the focus on the economy was that Leave wanted the spotlight there too. The defining feature of the official leave campaign was its desire to neutralize Remain’s lead on the economy so that people can afford to vote on issues like immigration and sovereignty.

Leave have clearly failed in that aim. Their pro-trade arguments ran aground when President Obama said a post-Brexit Britain would be ‘at the back of the queue’ for such deals, and they have not found a way back. Remain have restored their dominance of the economy, which for a time looked shaky. Just as importantly, the proportion who say the economy is key to their decision is up 17 points since February, and it now outranks immigration in Comres’ data.

The question is whether that increased salience of the economy will persist or not.

The next few weeks will not see the same convergence of agenda. Leave were always going to focus on immigration at the end of the campaign. They hoped to do that from a position of strength but they will be doing it out of weakness - either way, the effect is the same.

The palate of issues is about to broaden. Broadcasters will no longer be able to run a single story saying “today Remain said leaving was bad for the economy, while Leave said it wasn’t”. Instead the news will have to balance a range of issues including immigration – and so the terrain will shift to help Leave.

Remain have done nothing to try and close down Leave’s strongest issues, and now it is too late. Their plan from here on in has to be to try and make risk, and in particular economic risk, the only thing at the front of voters’ minds.

The next few weeks will be the real test for both campaigns. If Remain can keep the focus on the economy, they should glide home comfortably, and their media team will deserve enormous praise. But if Leave can shift the agenda, perhaps aided by incidents that inflame the tabloids and force broadcasters to pay attention to the issue in the same way voters do, then things could still move towards Brexit.

James Morris is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and worked as a pollster for Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader.