Party politics: realignment or disintegration?
With recent elections throwing up unpredictable results, ‘you can’t take the electorate for granted’ has become a common refrain in recent years, repeated regularly by politicians, pollsters and critics alike. Where voting patterns once appeared stable and politics staid, the story of recent years has been the seeming decline of traditional loyalties and party affiliations, creating challenges to the long-standing political order across the Western world. Nowhere has this been more evident than the UK. After the unexpected vote for Brexit in the EU referendum, the 2017 general election campaign started with predications of a Conservative Party landslide victory, and ended with a minority government reliant on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party.
So how can we make sense of the changes in politics? After all, the main characteristic today seems to be a fluidity of parties and electorate affiliations leading to, for example, the rise and disappearance of UKIP within the space of little more than a decade and, in Scotland, the decline of Labour, upsurge then retreat of the SNP and recent re-emergence of the previously obliterated Conservatives. The results of the 2017 UK local and general elections seem to suggest a shift in British politics, with divisions between the left and the right perhaps no longer explaining how voters think. The Conservative Party made big gains in Labour heartlands, picking up a significant portion of the vote of those in lower-skilled occupations or holding few educational qualifications.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn appear to have found a new base of support in metropolitan areas and university towns. One of the most striking aspects of the general election was the dramatic increase in turnout by under-25 voters who mostly voted Labour, dubbed by the press as a ‘youthquake’. Notably, Labour was able to take long-held and affluent Tory seats such as Kensington & Chelsea and Canterbury. Some commentators pointed to these changing demographics as evidence of political realignment in the UK, whilst others were quick to note the fact that support for the two mainstream parties actually rose in 2017 at the expense of others. For all the obituaries about the major parties, there is little sign that the smaller parties and independents have made any progress.
In this age of political upheaval, is there space now for a new kind of politics? The success of a new breed of politician across Europe, including both Macron in France and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, seems to suggest that voters want more than rusty old machine politicians and predictable, technocratic political parties. Some suggest the future may lie away from the tribal and dogmatic allegiances of party politics, where childish and sectarian political pantomime often stands in the way of useful social action. In the words of the tragically murdered MP Jo Cox: ‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’ It is argued that if MPs could only put aside the often slight differences that make them choose red or blue and work together, we as a country could achieve far more. Or, without party ideologies, would politics become too bland and insipid? Does the willingness of voters to switch votes so often and so easily represent the death throes of the party system? Must we now start to think past the old divide of left and right? Are we truly living in an age where, in the UK, the Conservatives are the party of the ‘left-behind’ working-classes and Labour of the well-educated and affluent? Does realignment open up space for a new politics which offers more to the voter? Or are we destined to fall back in to the tried and tested political party machine?