Are the old political parties dying?

Sunday 3 November, 12:0013:00, Cinema 2Political futures

Many commentators have observed that Britain enjoys, by European standards at least, a uniquely stable party-political system. In many other European countries, collapsing empires, social uprisings or world wars fuelled new parties and shifting popular allegiances. But Britain is notable for the longevity – and adaptability – of its established parties. Since the 1830s, the Conservative Party has navigated Corn Law dilemmas, the Irish Home Rule crisis and the Thatcherite shift to neoliberalism. The 119-year-old Labour Party has survived the splits over the ‘national government’ in 1931 and even jettisoning the socialist principles in Clause IV of its constitution in 1995. From the mid-1920s to the end of the century, combined support for the two established parties never dipped below seven in 10 voters.

But amid rising volatility, fragmentation and polarisation in the early twenty-first century, are we reaching a historic moment of change?

The 2019 European Elections saw support for the two main parties plummet to 23 per cent. In part, this reflected a surge of support for the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats and Greens in younger, metropolitan areas, but it also showed the evisceration of traditional parties in the regions where the SNP and even Plaid Cymru are filling the gap. Most notable is a trend towards setting up new parties. The Brexit Party was the big winner in the Euro elections, attracting voters disillusioned by the failure to deliver Brexit, while Change UK showed a willingness for leading figures in existing parties to try something new.

Have we reached the point where the two big parties can no longer adapt to shifting political realities? Or are the results in keeping with past Euro elections, where smaller parties have often done well, only to fail to break through at Westminster?

These shifts go beyond the political parties themselves. Experimental initiatives like ‘Flatpack Democracy’, which aims to create independent local politics, have achieved a degree of popularity, while a notable feature of the 2019 local council elections was the rise of ‘independent’ councillors. With longstanding voter allegiances – and even rank-and-file affiliations – either broken or more tenuous, is this the moment for new parties and forms of organisation to make longer-term breakthroughs? And if so, what is needed to realise new opportunities?

Clearly, Brexit has brought some long-term trends to the surface, exposing the void between the electorate and the established parties, and suggesting that political loyalties are reflected in new ways. For example, opinion polls suggest that only nine per cent of people now identify ‘very strongly’ with a political party while 44 per cent say that they are a ‘very strong’ Remainer or Leaver. And while survey evidence is mixed, some polls indicate two-thirds of people recognise there’s a climate emergency, with 76 per cent saying they would cast their vote differently to protect the planet. Add in that age, education and geographical location are all regularly talked-up as influencing how we vote, are the old left-and-right divisions reflected in long-established parties now outdated? If so, how can new aspirations and shifting social and cultural outlooks find a productive political expression?

Is it all over for the traditional parties, and if not, then what should be the priorities to revitalise their futures? Are new parties viable, or is the fate of Change UK a warning that new initiatives face almost insurmountable challenges to succeed? Are new-style political ‘movements’ such as the Brexit Party or independent, local initiatives a promising way forward? Could we be on the brink of a new political landscape and, if so, how should we seek to shape it?