A few days ago, Ed Miliband had his five key manifesto pledges set in stone. Literally. In a move that has already become the stuff of political and social media legend, he had an 8’6 limestone slab engraved with his own promises to the electorate. Fortunately for him, “I will not do a deal with the SNP” does not feature amongst them. This is following David Cameron’s bizarre pledge to create a law saying he has to set a certain something in law, by law, a law that could be undone by him or any other prime minister anyhow. As if we didn’t have enough coming constitutional crises already without the Tories wanting to enshrine in law a law that makes it against the law not to pass certain laws.
It all points to one of the striking features of this election: the two largest parties pretending that the old duopoly is still intact while simultaneously having to live within the multi-party world via sheer necessity. The Tories attacks on the Labour-SNP possibilities being a beautiful example – oh, the two party system is dead for the other guys, but certainly not for us. I understand that parroting the “we’re still on track for a majority” shtick is needed to keep some sort of momentum going with the ground troops, but what I find odd is that both Labour and the Tories genuinely seem to be hiding their heads in the sand in regards to “the new politics”.
It’s as if Labour have convinced themselves the SNP surge will die at the last minute, at least somewhat (Murphy and Douglas won’t really lose their seats, will they?), and the Tories think all the Kippers will “come home” on polling day, getting them over the line to a working majority. They seem unable to truly comprehend that the age of majorities, one that lasted from the end of the Second World War until 2010, is now definitively at an end. Unless the two parties radically invent themselves somehow and get it just right I can’t see it returning anytime soon. The Conservative Party and the Labour Party as we have known them over the past seventy years may be dying. Whichever one manages to navigate the new terrain better than the other may be able to cling on for a bit longer.
You’d think the Tories would have the upper hand in this area having been in coalition for the last five years, but no. They seem more deluded about being able to get a majority on May 7th than Labour is. They had a plan: blame everything on the Lib Dems as both a shielding mechanism and a way of crushing the Lib Dem vote, something that would allow them to take those seats in the South West that prevented a majority in 2010. It seemed to be going so well at first, with the Lib Dems slipping massively in the polls and the Tories actually gaining seats in the 2011 local elections. Now they can’t face up to the idea that they may have got it completely wrong.
Perhaps all it will require for reality to finally hit Labour and the Conservatives good and proper is for Labour to have a SNP related nightmare for a few years and for the Tories to have actually lost to Ed Miliband. But I doubt it: delusion runs deep in the tribes of old. But whatever they do, reality is what it is. Trying to set the past in stone won’t make it hold against the tide.
David Dalley says
I’m not sure either of the big two parties are capable of reinventing themselves… and would a hostile and increasingly cynical electorate believe it anyway? Our ridiculously unfair electoral system will keep the two party “party” going for a while yet. The big two may not get the majority governments they seek, but they’ll still have the lion’s share of seats and therefore, all the clout. Proportional Representation should now be back on the agenda as first past the post is no longer delivering “strong” governments. But turkeys won’t vote for Christmas, so we’ll be stuck with a messy, imbalanced kind of politics for the foreseeable future.
Why are you so sure the two-party system is dead?
In 2010, the major parties got 564 seats between them. In 2005, it was only 550 (admittedly that was a low-point after a fall from over 600 in the ’90s), while seat predictions for this time have them taking around 540 – 500 between them, so not much of a slip and possibly even not a slip at all.
Also the Liberal Democrats are finished as an electoral force, hearing back to where they were pre-Jeremy-Thorpe over the next couple of elections (the only seats they’ll keep this time are those with incumbents with large personal votes, and they will gradually retire over the next couple of Parliaments to be replaced by non-Liberals, as happened 1935-1960), and none of the other smaller parties are making gains (the Greens will probably slip out of Parliament this time, and UKIP is likely to either be down to one MP or swap Reckless for Farage, so no net gain). The NI parties cannot increase their total representation, only swap seats between themselves; and Plaid is sitting still too.
The one small party that is actually making gains is the SNP, and that’s a very particular result of the referendum and the divisive politics of nationalism, not indicative of a general trend.
Apart from that, what we have is not a crumbling two-party system, but a very strong two-party system but one where each party has entrenched its support so that it gets about the same number of seats as the other.
What is missing is the ‘swing voters’, the ones who could turn large numbers of formerly-blue seats red or vice versa.
I suppose you could claim that they have been going to to smaller parties, just (because of first-past-the-post) with no electoral impact; but given falling turnout figures, it would be just as reasonable to say they have just stopped bothering to vote altogether (and that the increase in vote-share going to parties other than the big two represents not actually any more ‘other’ voters is an absolute sense, but merely a bigger slice of a smaller pie).
There is still a majority there to be taken by one of the main parties, if they can come up with a way to get those ‘missing voters’ to actually turn up to the polls for them.
I completely agree. We have only had one election resulting in a coalition. Alright, the next one probably will be too, but that does not mean it’s a trend. The Lib Dems claim the era of single party government is over. They need to check their history, coalitions have happened before, but they usually settle down after a few elections, Labour’s rise was the last time we saw lots of coalitions, but that settled into an even stronger two party system. Very premature to say it’s all over.
Also the Liberal Democrats are finished as an electoral force, hearing back to where they were pre-Jeremy-Thorpe over the next couple of elections
Or, you know, in one single night. Wow.
Edward Wynn says
An observation from some German colleagues. “we’ve had coalitions or arrangements for decades and it works – what’s the problem? Your politicians just have to get used to it. “