Perhaps most revealing about the Twitter affair that engulfed Emily Thornberry MP were the comments of the White Van Man himself, Dan Ware. He is reported to have told journalists that he wasn’t aware that there was a by-election going on in Rochester and Strood, and that he would not have voted even if he had known. In the past he had been a Conservative voter, but now he had joined those who see no point in voting. As he put it: “No matter who you have, it doesn’t matter”.
British politics is passing through a very strange period. There have been many scandals in the past about individual politicians from John Profumo to John Stonehouse to Jeffrey Archer. But the current scandals go beyond the individuals involved.
The release of the facts about MPs’ expenses, even though a majority of MPs were shown to have done nothing wrong, followed by the shocking revelations about Jimmy Savile and his friends in high places, has deepened cynicism about those in public life and led to wild rumours of conspiracies and cover-ups.
The perception that many public figures are self-serving has grown, feeding the widely held view that those who govern us now form a distinct political class which has become separated from those it governs.
As trust and legitimacy have declined, so a crisis of representation has developed. Both established UK parties have been losing support, their leaders have had negative ratings since 2010, their combined share of the vote has dropped from over 95 per cent in 1951 to 65 per cent in 2010.
Party membership is in steep decline, and ageing. Less than 1 per cent of British voters now belong to a political party. The political class has also come to be recruited from a narrower set of occupations. Only 4 per cent of current MPs are from manual working class backgrounds and more MPs have worked full-time in politics in one capacity or another since leaving university.
The parties whose membership is growing, who appear confident and sure of their purpose and who communicate in a much more relaxed and direct way with the electorate are the insurgent parties, the Scottish Nationalists, the Greens and Ukip, all of whom are seeking to overturn the existing party system and to challenge core mainstream policies.
This is a phenomenon not confined to the UK but found in many other parts of Europe, as austerity has worsened in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. So far none of these parties has broken through and disturbed the consensus over core commitments such as maintaining austerity and membership of the EU, but some are getting closer. A victory of one of these insurgent parties in a major European country can no longer be ruled out.
In the UK, the success of the SNP and Ukip threatens to break apart the two Unions, the British Union which is the basis of the United Kingdom, and the European Union which Britain joined in 1973. Support for both are unravelling, forcing the Westminster political class onto the defensive.
The UK has faced political and constitutional upheaval before, notably in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Those years saw a dramatic reorganisation of the British state, the departure of most of Ireland from the Union and the development of a party system based on mass democracy and the opposition between capital and labour. The heyday of this new order was reached in the Seventies when most of the electorate identified with one of the two great blocs, third parties withered away, governments won by-elections, and party membership and trust in political leaders were both high.
Since then the parties have been using up the moral capital which was built up at that time, reflecting the close identification of both parties with particular but distinct common values, purposes and interests. That identification has been gradually eroded both by the professionalisation of politics as an activity and by the rise of a more issue based and instrumental politics as greater individualisation has taken root.
The Labour and Conservative traditions were slowly hollowed out, and the parties have found it much harder to express a sense of common purpose and common values. In the Scottish Referendum campaign with a few exceptions, most notably Gordon Brown, the Unionist politicians found it hard to voice a positive case for the Union. Their campaign stressed all the negative things that would happen if Scotland voted yes.
Until the old parties start to rethink how parliament should be reformed to represent the people and find language and purpose that resonates once more with voters, the prospects for stemming the crisis of representation and the remorseless rise of the nationalists and the populists seem bleak.
Andrew Gamble, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, was speaking at St Edmund’s College as part of The Von Hügel Institute lecture series, ‘Ethical Standards in Public Life’, co-hosted with St Mary’s University, Twickenham