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Why are we back in a two-party system?

I could be wrong (I often am) but are the main party leaders polarising the electorate?

By Jonn Elledge

You’d think I’d have learned by now to stop making political predictions. In the last few years I’ve confidently predicted events including Hillary Clinton’s election as president of the United States, a 90-seat majority for Theresa May and eternal disgrace for the disgraceful Liam Fox. I’m thinking of starting a sideline in which people pay me to predict unprecedented success for their enemies. I think it could be very profitable.

Anyway. One of the many things I’ve got wrong came shortly before the last election but one, on our pop-up election site There I wrote about what I called the “Disillusionment Index”: the steadily widening gap between how people voted and the House of Commons they actually got. Fairly key to the whole argument was the fact that the share of the voters opting for one of the two big UK-wide parties had been in steady decline since the 1950s.

True to form, last month’s election came along and blew all that out of the water. In 2010, the last election when I wrote that piece, just 67.6 per cent of all voters opted for Labour or the Tories. Seven years later, that number was up to 82.3.

Theresa May might have failed to win a majority, but she got the Tories’ highest share of the vote since 1983. Labour, meanwhile, did better under Jeremy Corbyn than it had since 2001. It was the two parties’ best combined performance since 1970.

Why the big two should have seen this resurgence – aside from the obvious explanation, that I’d predicted they wouldn’t – is a question much cleverer people than me are likely to be thinking about for some time. One possibility is that it’s somehow connected to the referendum. Such national campaigns can energise groups who had previously been unlikely to vote: witness events in Scotland in 2014-15. Perhaps, it’s simply that the passions brought on by last year’s campaign somehow persisted.

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There’s an obvious problem with this theory, though. While it’s easy enough to see why Leavers would back Theresa May’s promise of a hard Brexit, it’s less clear that the Remain vote would flow naturally to a Labour Party whose attitude to the EU was somewhere between ambivalent and incoherent.

Some of it clearly did so anyway – by framing a vote for her as a mandate for her vision of Brexit, and making a series of statements that weren’t so much dogwhistles as foghorns, May gave a new meaning to the act of voting against her, too. But if the election really was about Brexit, you’d have expected the subject of Brexit to have popped up rather more frequently than it did. You’d also expect more than about half a dozen voters to have opted for the Lib Dems.

That leads me to a second possibility: that the resurgence of the big two was actually about the collapse in vote for the third and fourth national parties. The Lib Dems have yet to be forgiven for the legacy of coalition; victory in the referendum means that Ukip has lost its entire reason for being, and has seen its votes eaten by the Tories. Both parties struggled with terrible leaders. Perhaps the rise in vote share for the big two wasn’t really about the big two at all.

But there’s another factor, I think – one I suspect that many on each side are only half aware of. Last week a Tory activist – liberal, moderate, someone with whom I’ve been known to agree – told me that he thought this parliament would last the full five years. The party, he argued, was so terrified of a Corbyn-led government – not just of losing, but of who they’d be losing to – that they would cling to power for about as long as they could.

The thing that struck me about this is that it’s exactly mirrored on the left. There are those who were Corbyn-sceptic simply because they didn’t think he could win; but there were others who had – still have – serious concerns about his views and his allies.

And yet, both anecdotal evidence and Labour’s 40 per cent vote share suggest that many of those people voted Labour anyway. Why? Because whatever their concerns, the alternative, Theresa May’s full-fat brand of Toryism, looked far, far worse.

Maybe I’m wrong – as noted, I very often am. But it strikes me that one of the things most likely to get your vote to turn out is your opponent. Turns out that all the two-party system needed to revive it was a pair of leaders the other lot could find utterly hateful.

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