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.