Guest article: do we have the wrong political parties?

Guest article: do we have the wrong political parties?

A guest contribution by Innocent Abroad

A tired third-term government with a leader past his sell-by date is a recurrent theme in British politics. The Tories have been there often enough, and the Liberals too, just before World War I. This is Labour’s first experience of it – the party has never held office (discounting the wartime co-alition) for more than six years at a time before. What is new is the inability of the Tories to achieve the kind of opinion poll leads – at least double digits, if not 20% plus – that oppositions have typically racked up in these circumstances previously. And truly independent candidates have won five seats outright at the last three General Elections (and just held one of those in a by-election) – whereas no such independent was elected at all between 1950 and 1992.

The mould is broken – but what do we have instead? One possibility is that Blair has inadvertently “Canadianised” our party system – with NuLab as their Liberals, and our Lib Dems electorally if not ideologically their New Democrats. (And an ineffectual Second Chamber, too…) It doesn’t sound too bad from a NuLab standpoint – longish periods in office following centrist policies, with occasional breaks for recuperation and renewal while a minority Tory administration minds the shop…

Such ‘mapping across’ is only helpful up to a point. Our history, let alone our geography, is quite different to Canada’s, however tempting the parallels between Quebec and Scotland may appear at first sight.

It might be truer to say that none of our parties, as they stand, are fit for purpose. True, the Tories’ achievement in actually surviving as a single Party since 1997 is noteworthy – despite a lot of noise and except for elections with a ‘party list’ element, right-wing populists have made no political headway – Hague, Howard and IDS (together with the populists’ own incompetence) saw to that, at least. But the gap in the market is there, and Cameron is not the man to fill it.

Whether Labour can survive electoral defeat as stoutly remains to be seen. There remains a market for social democracy, as the 20th century understood it, in Scotland, Wales and England north of the Trent. But in Scotland and Wales the nationalist parties are in that market, and well placed to pick up the votes of those who want, in the old Irish phrase, to vote as left as they can. But there are thin pickings for social democrats in ‘middle’ England – I am far from convinced that Labour in defeat can square this circle – I predict it will lose seats at each of the next two, if not three, elections.

As for the Liberal Democrats, no one thinks they will drop below forty seats at the next election, and they may yet surprise us and come back with sixty or more. Either way, enough to make deals in a hung parliament. The prospect of this is all that holds together their unlikely co-alition of green libertarian anarcho-syndicalists and orange pro-market anti-Statists. After they’re outplayed by the big boys in the next House of Commons, and blamed on all sides for the election after next being held three years ahead of schedule, they too may struggle to hold together in one piece.

So perhaps the next election isn’t going to settle very much because the electorate are being offered the wrong choices – and the reason why so many people who tend to think it’s time for a change are still unsure of which way to vote – and that may be because the ‘identity’ politics of class and Church-versus-chapel that sustained the broad co-alitions that were our 20th century parties are no longer strong enough glue for the 21st.

Innocent Abroad was a Labour activist from 1974 to 1990. He is a regular contributor to discussions on this site.

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