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.

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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