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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:11pm

The Big Two beware: when political realignments happen, they do so with brutal speed

By Rob Ford

A series of opinion polls published in recent days have shown something unprecedented in British politics: four parties in a statistical tie. The UK vote is now split evenly between the long-dominant incumbents, Labour and the Conservatives, and two challengers benefiting from a Brexit backlash – the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

This four-way dead heat is more than a statistical curiosity: it could signal a realignment. The powerful incumbency benefits of our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which have protected Labour and the Conservatives, depend on the established parties maintaining a lead over the upstarts. If that advantage is lost, FPTP can be turned against the establishment with brutal speed.

The key mechanism here is not electoral, but psychological. If voters believe new challengers have no hope, they hold their noses and back the least worst of the two incumbents. This protects the traditional parties and suppresses support for newcomers. But if voters start to believe the upstarts can win, locally and nationally, they no longer have to accept second best.

Think of it as the electoral “Tinkerbell effect”: if people believe new parties can win, then that belief becomes self-fulfilling. If people cease to believe the old parties are unbeatable, they become beatable.

This is the reason for the Liberal Democrats’ long-standing and much-ridiculed obsession with (often misleading) bar charts showing they are the only local opposition capable of “winning here”, as their placards put it. The party knows, from long, bitter experience, that the biggest hurdle the electoral system throws up is convincing people it is a credible challenger.

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If the handful of polls showing the Brexit Party or the Liberal Democrats ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives turn into a pile, belief in the old red and blue Tinkerbells may ebb away, and belief in the new yellow and turquoise Tinkerbells may take wing. The political landscape could then change overnight in a way we haven’t seen since Labour first emerged after the introduction of the mass franchise in 1918.

The recent polls may prove to be a European election-related blip, with normal service restored soon after. But there are reasons to think they may not be. Voters’ tribal attachments to the traditional parties have been weakening for decades, and the newcomers are mobilising deep divides in the electorate – over education, identity and diversity – that have been building for a long time in England and Wales.

Layered on top of that is the split over Brexit, which takes these structural divisions and cements them into new “Leave” and “Remain” partisan identities that are stronger than the waning attachments to the establishment parties. It is unlikely any Brexit outcome will bridge these divides or satisfy the increasingly polarised voters of Leave and Remain.

The established parties might stand a chance if they had charismatic and popular leaders who could combat the appeal of purist alternatives on Brexit. Yet this is not the hand fate has dealt them. Jeremy Corbyn is, by any measure, one of the most persistently unpopular and divisive leaders the Labour Party has ever had, and his attempts at compromise on Brexit have resulted in a position of “constructive ambiguity” that few voters understand and most dislike.

Theresa May is leaving office with miserable poll ratings, having united the country in opposition to her Brexit proposals. Whoever wins the Tory leadership contest will face the same Brexit dilemmas that have undone May’s premiership. The candidates’ early campaign exchanges do not suggest much willingness even to think about these problems, let alone overcome them.

Rapid realignments of party systems have happened before under FPTP. Canada has had two in the last three decades – in 1993, when the governing Progressive Conservatives collapsed, losing 154 of their 156 seats; and in 2011, when the New Democrats supplanted the Liberal Party. The Liberals came back, the Progressive Conservatives did not.

We have also seen the process unfold closer to home, and recently. In Scotland, in the 2015 general election, the Labour Party lost 40 of its 41 seats (Scotland has 59 Westminster seats), following the largest swings in any constituent UK nation since the 1918 Irish election, when Sinn Féin swept aside the Irish Parliamentary Party in the last contest before the Irish Republic left the union.

After 2015 the Westminster political conversation moved on too quickly to Brexit for the lessons of what had happened in Scotland to be properly absorbed. Scottish Labour’s collapse shows no party, no matter how deeply rooted in class, regional, social and national identity it is, has a right to rule, or even to exist. Then, as now, the forces of electoral destruction were unleashed by a closely fought constitutional referendum (that on Scottish independence in 2014).

It would be hard, at the best of times, for the major parties to retain the loyalties of an electorate that respects neither their leaders nor their policies on the dominant issue of the day. With no end in sight to the Brexit crisis, it may prove impossible.

When other parties are making a credible bid to break Britain’s long-standing political duopoly, by-elections such as that in Peterborough on 6 June acquire an outsized importance. If one or both of the challengers can overhaul the big two in such local contests it may begin a feedback loop, with success reinforcing credibility, which in turn begets further success. Such a monumental shift looks unlikely now, but then again, as rueful Scottish Labour or Progressive Conservative politicians will testify, these things always do, until suddenly they don’t.

Rob Ford is a professor of politics at the University of Manchester