The unpopularity of British politicians is hardly new. We have enjoyed complaining about our elected representatives for almost as long as we have been monitoring the balance of power on continental Europe and moaning about the weather. When William Hogarth painted The Humours of an Election, his four-canvas masterpiece of 1755, it depicted a mid-18th century contest as a grotesque carnival of vote-rigging, drunkenness and cynicism. Many modern voters would say that not much has changed. In these terms the currently all-pervasive anti-politics mood is merely part of an ancient continuum.
This time, however, there are powerful reasons for saying it could be different. The British system is fragmenting in such novel, curious and entertaining ways that it is questionable whether it can be mended. Both of the main parties are struggling to get anywhere close to 40 per cent of the vote. Meanwhile, the Tory Right has split, with the rise of the Eurosceptic UKIP. All that its leader Nigel Farage need do at the next general election is get somewhere upwards of 6 per cent of the vote to cost the Tories seats by letting other parties through. There is a coalition, and there may well be another after 2015.
Haven’t we been here before, or somewhere similar, in terms of the disintegration and potential death of the party system? Thirty years ago, in the election held in June 1983, Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives stormed to victory with more than 40 per cent of the vote, and her Labour opponents were smashed, although not simply in the traditional sense of being defeated. They were pushed down well below 30 per cent, the party’s worst-ever showing, and there, biting on their heels and surging to fill the gap, came the parties of the centrist Alliance, made up of the old Liberals and the then new Social Democratic Party.
The Alliance, it was said by many commentators, was about to “break the mould” and usher in a three-party system. But in 1983 two young Labour MPs were elected with different ideas. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were at that point united in rejecting defeatism and believing that if the Labour Party modernised itself sufficiently — changing some of its policies and its marketing — then it could win handsomely again. In 1997 Blair’s New Labour duly got 43 per cent of the vote and a thumping overall majority. Their example demonstrated that revival is possible.
However, when David Cameron tried to repeat Blair’s trick in 2010 something went badly wrong. It is not just that the Conservative leader turned out to be an ineffective salesman, compared to Blair. There were clearly deeper structural problems with the Conservative vote. Even with the discredited Gordon Brown leading Labour, and his “end of boom and bust” turning out to have been an illusion, the Conservatives could only get 36.1 per cent of the vote. The party last won an overall majority in 1992.
The erosion of old tribal loyalties based on class and identity, along with falling turnout, has hit Labour hard too. The expansion of consumer choice, accelerated by new technology, seems to have made voters much less liable to back a major party. Uncontrolled immigration has had an impact too, as David Goodhart notes in his recent book The British Dream. It is difficult to build a notion of common endeavour when millions of new arrivals seem even less interested in our institutions than the disaffected natives. Even if some new immigrants are interested potentially, the depleted parties have done almost nothing to reach them (on living standards, patriotism and opportunity) beyond mouthing relativistic multicultural platitudes.
Devolution has also played a part. When the Conservatives used to get overall majorities they won significant numbers of seats in Scotland. Now they are almost extinct there, with just one Westminster seat and little prospect of more. Equally Labour, shifting leftwards, finds it increasingly difficult to penetrate in the south.
As a result the UK could be in for a period in which its institutions and system of government undergo further significant transformation, and probably not in a good way. After another hung parliament it is likely that the Lib Dems will demand proportional representation as the price of a coalition deal with Labour, and it is likely that Ed Miliband, an advocate of voting reform, will accede. If no party can command the levels of support that used to be the basis of strong single-party government capable of major reforms on the Attlee or Thatcher model, and PR happens, there would ultimately be little reason for the Tories or Labour to remain as currently constituted. Rather than the parties being broad umbrella organisations they could splinter.
To avoid this outcome one or both of the main parties needs to be completely reinvigorated. That will require an entirely new model of party, in which members are recruited online, can choose their level of commitment and are incentivised to recruit others. In terms of communication, using the internet and direct mail, the membership model of organisations such as the 4 million-strong National Trust has a lot to teach the parties. But in the case of the Conservatives, genuine power should be devolved to the grassroots. Members used to having choice in many other aspects of their lives are hardly going to sign up any longer for blind loyalty.
It is also worth thinking about those millions of recent immigrants, even if your contention is that the flow should be slowed or the door closed. Those who are here are mostly here to stay. They are having children, putting down roots and in many cases paying taxes. Eventually, they may even be persuaded to vote in large numbers. If the Conservative party in particular is serious about saving itself then its leadership will have to be nimble. It must find an optimism-drenched way of winning back the party’s traditional supporters it has dismissed, while reaching out to new aspirational voters and persuading them that the Tory party stands for work, community, responsibility and the nation. That could be a winning combination.