Never has the electoral grip of the established parties at Westminster seemed under greater threat. With six months until the general election, Ukip’s popularity has surged and it has already secured two by-election successes. Polls suggest the Scottish National Party may capture a large majority of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats, and support for the Greens is the highest it has been since the 1980s. Together, these three parties now have the support of over a quarter of voters.
By contrast, none of the three established parties are doing well. Support for the Liberal Democrats slipped below 10 per cent after Nick Clegg took on Nigel Farage in a pair of televised debates last spring and lost. Conservative hopes that it will be rewarded for its stewardship of the economy have not been realised; the party continues to languish at little more than 30 per cent in the polls. At the same time, the double-digit lead over the Conservatives that Labour enjoyed 18 months ago has gradually been eroded. Neither of the two largest parties can be sure of winning an overall majority.
So how has this come about? And why is the Labour party struggling to benefit from the unpopularity of the coalition government, despite being the only party that is capable of offering an alternative administration?
One problem is that the days when voters had a strong emotional commitment to one party are over. According to a recent British Social Attitudes survey, fewer than one in three voters say they are a strong supporter of any of the parties. This trend means that the traditional parties can no longer rely on the unconditional support of large numbers of the electorate.
Another explanation for changing voting patterns is globalisation. The modern economy rewards individuals with the skills to compete internationally, but in high-wage countries such as the UK, low-skilled workers struggle – particularly as they face competition from migrant labour.
After the 2008 financial crash, voters endured an unprecedented decline in living standards. This followed a period of high inward migration, partly because Labour granted freedom of movement rights to citizens from countries such as Hungary and Poland in 2004, much earlier than most other EU member states. In combination, these experiences have raised questions about whether the EU should have the right to “interfere” in Britain’s affairs.
All three insurgent parties can be seen to represent a response to the challenges posed by globalisation. This is most obviously true of Ukip, who have successfully linked opposition to the EU with immigration. They have tapped into a concern about the perceived cultural consequences of immigration that is most common among older voters with relatively few educational qualifications. Ukip supporters are also distinguished by their economic pessimism.
In Scotland, the independence referendum can be regarded as a product of globalisation. Institutions such as the EU facilitate continued access to a relatively large ‘domestic’ market, making it easier for smaller countries and regions to pursue independence. The campaign echoed the debate about globalisation: the nationalists’ questions about the legitimacy of Westminster rule are not dissimilar to those Eurosceptics raise about being governed by Brussels. Support for the Yes campaign was higher among those in more working-class occupations and particularly high among those living in the most deprived parts of Scotland, suggesting this demographic has a greater willingness to believe that independence would deliver a brighter economic future.
The Green party, in contrast, does not have a particular appeal for globalisation’s “losers”. Their core constituency is composed of young, well-educated graduates who are better able to compete in an international labour market and less likely to be concerned about the cultural consequences of migration. However, this is a party that worries about the environmental impact of economic growth and that urges a return to a more locally focussed and equal economic system.
There is nothing inevitable about the fragmentation of Britain’s parliamentary system. The response from the established parties matters too, yet at the moment they seem unable to respond effectively to the challenge. When the Liberal Democrats entered government they gave up their role as the “party of protest” and, once they were offered that opening, Ukip made good use of it. At the same time, at no point in the post-war era have all three party leaders been so unpopular.
The only way the established parties can regain support is by addressing the concerns of those who are reacting against the current economic system. This is a special challenge for Labour, traditionally the party of the least well-off, a role it carved for itself before capitalism was globalised. It now risks losing that mantle.
Following the referendum, the SNP has claimed to be the party of social justice north of the border. Working-class voters now make up a higher proportion of Ukip supporters than they do of Labour supporters. And, at least half of the increase in Green support this year has come from those who backed Labour in 2010 but have now become disillusioned.
Labour needs to remember that its chance for victory in May depends on its ability to speak for globalisation’s losers. Otherwise, the party may find itself adrift in an increasingly fragmented democracy.
John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a columnist for Juncture
A version of this article appeared in edition 21.3 of Juncture, IPPR’s quarterly journal of politics and ideas