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18 December 2014

Is today’s “political crisis“ facing Britain’s parties simply the new normal?

Business as unusual.

By Tim Bale

As the 2014 political season draws to a close, the leaders of our political parties will have more cause than most to yearn for a Happy New Year. Indeed, as the glasses clink this Christmas, many of our sitting MPs will know that their wishes for 2015 are made more in hope than expectation.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this of course.

By now, or so the story went, the electorate should have tired of messy, coalition politics – welcoming with open arms the return of the traditional two-horse race.

For good or ill, that’s not how it’s turned out, and while both Ed and Dave are undoubtedly making all kinds of lists – and checking them twice – it doesn’t look like voters are going to play Father Christmas to either Labour or the Tories any time soon.  Indeed, it sometimes seems as if both of them are about as popular as a power cut on Christmas Day.

Today’s report from the Electoral Reform Society, “The Future of the Political Party”, underlines the challenge facing both Labour and the Conservatives. In a specially commissioned poll of 40 marginal Conservative-Labour constituencies, a clear majority preferred a system where multiple parties compete for votes. This is bad news for both parties, with 67 per cent stating – even in these knife edge marginals – that “the rise of smaller parties such as Ukip and the Greens is good for democracy”.

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The poll found not much love for our centuries-old, winner takes all politics – 78 per cent thought “the Opposition should work with the government on issues they agree on”, while 54 per cent believed “parliaments work best when no party is too dominant so that cross party agreement is needed to pass laws”.

This rejection of “politics as usual” is reflective of a similar mood across Europe – and across the Irish Sea. Despite its stewardship of a recovering economy, the ruling coalition government has seen its support collapse to a combined 25 per cent, down from just over 50 per cent in the 2011 general election. Indeed, the most popular party in Ireland today is not a party at all, but the “Independent and Others” grouping, which is polling at more than 30 per cent.

Yet, as the American political scientist, EE Schattschneider, wrote way back in 1942 “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties” – which is presumably why, despite the low esteem in which they hold parties nowadays, people remain willing to go out in their millions and vote for them, however reluctantly, every four or five years.

Many parties are losing members, it is true, with Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Tories a case in point. But, as Ukip, the SNP and the Greens have recently shown – and as today’s report points out – it is more than possible to buck that trend if you offer people an alternative that inspires at least some of them with fresh hope or a sense of connection and authenticity.

And if the traditionally dominant parties are losing the loyalty and affection of those sections of the electorate that they used to call their own, that may be no bad thing.  It suggests that people are increasingly making up their own minds about who to vote for rather than relying on atavistic, tribal instincts.

Partly as a result of rising voter volatility and dealignment, Labour and the Conservatives are going to find it more and more difficult to garner the kind of vote shares necessary to produce single-party governments capable of controlling the House of Commons. Again, though, this can be seen as a good rather than a bad thing. It forces parties to put together coalitions based on a majority rather than a minority of the electorate. It also encourages the legislature to stand up to the executive.

So while everything may be changing, all is by no means lost.  Parties can be remarkably resilient. They are even aware – even if only dimly – that they must adapt.  Why else has there been so much talk amongst them of ideas that would not have been considered or deemed workable a few years ago – ideas like primaries for candidate selection, reforming the membership structure to bring in non-fee paying ‘supporters’, new methods of e-campaigning, and more effective internal democracy.

Of course many of these innovations involve trade-offs: “open primaries”, for example, sound wonderful – until we remember that they remove one of the few remaining incentives to joining a party, namely being granted the exclusive right to select candidates for one’s party of choice.  But these are trade-offs that will have to be navigated and negotiated if these organisations which are vital to democracy, however unpopular they seem to have become, are to survive.

In short, we need to stop banging on about today’s parties being in crisis and realise instead that, for tomorrow’s parties, this is the new normal.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics Queen Mary University of London and author of The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron