Perhaps at no point since 1974 have both main political parties approached a general election in such a state of weakness. As much as the Conservatives draw comfort from Ed Miliband’s poor leadership ratings, the conspiratorial mutterings about his leadership and his disappointing conference speech in Manchester (an exercise in brinkmanship that did not come off), they are no closer to becoming again the natural party of government.
The main effect of the party conference season has been to confirm that the 2015 election will amount to a war of the weak. Even before Ed Miliband had forgotten to mention the Budget deficit in his speech, polls suggested that Labour had done far too little to assuage anxieties about its economic competence. While David Cameron gave an astute and burnished speech to end his conference on a high – significantly, he read it from a lectern, unlike Mr Miliband, who spoke broadly from memory – the Conservatives are turning right in an attempt to bolster their core vote and head off the threat from Ukip. Polls have repeatedly shown that as much as 40 per cent of the electorate would never consider voting Tory.
As for the Liberal Democrats, whose conference finished in Glasgow on 8 October, Nick Clegg’s party’s identity crisis remains unresolved. Its poll ratings – as low as 6 per cent now – show no sign of an upswing. “Being in the centre could mean being seen as mainstream and common-sense,” the Labour pollster James Morris wrote in a widely noticed blog on newstatesman.com. “For the Lib Dems, it means they are seen as a pointless mush.” Harsh, perhaps, but the polls would suggest that many agree with him.
The overall impression is of an age of big problems, small ideas and diminished political leaders.
However, it is possible to detect an emerging consensus on the need for greater infrastructure investment and housebuilding; further devolution, to both Scotland and the English regions; and for a higher minimum wage to reduce what the state spends on subsidising low pay. But there is consensus of a less welcome kind: that further austerity could be confined to aspects of society unpopular in the parties.
In truth, the next government will not be able to remove the deficit merely by increasing taxes on the wealthiest, or by cutting benefits further for the poor and not raising taxes. What is required, above all else, is clear-headed honesty about the deficit, pragmatism and a national plan for reconstruction and renewal. Alas, none of the parties is offering any such thing.
One of the dominant themes of 2014 has been the continued fracturing of our politics and the weakness of the British state. It was evident in Ukip becoming the first party from outside the Labour-Tory duopoly to win a national election since 1910. It was evident, too, in the energising independence campaign in Scotland and the remarkable surge in Scottish National Party membership, which has quadrupled to 100,000 since 18 September.
British politics today is not about two, three or even four parties: add in the Greens, now tying with the Lib Dems in many polls, and Plaid Cymru in Wales, and the 2015 election will be as far from a two-party choice as is possible, with different dynamics in most seats. The psephologists’ idea of a “uniform swing” has never seemed more archaic.
Market capitalism desires choice in all walks of life, and now belatedly we have it in our politics, too. The centre cannot hold. The nation state is fragmenting. The snag is that we have a Westminster electoral system designed for the two-party age. Which could mean that an “alliance of the defeated” – a Labour Party that finished second in the popular vote and a Liberal Democrat party fourth – is the only viable coalition after 2015. The alternative is a minority government that might last as long as the Wilson government that was formed in March 1974 (a second general election in October that year resulted in a three-seat majority for Labour).
Yet would such a weakened alliance be capable of delivering the wide-ranging economic, social and constitutional reform that the United Kingdom urgently requires?