What’s happened to the Others?
“Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government!” David Steel’s rather premature exhortation to his activists at the 1981 Liberal Conference is remembered – to the extent that it’s remembered at all – as a classic example of over-optimism verging into hubris. It shouldn’t be. For a brief moment, there really was a genuine chance that the old Lab-Con dominance had been broken. At the last poll before the conference, the SDP-Liberal Alliance had pushed the Conservatives into third place; by the end of the year, they would record an astonishing 50.5% with Gallup.
As we know, that surge would prove ephemeral – they were already on the slide before they were overwhelmed the next year by the Falklands factor – but when the Alliance score settled down, it did so into the low-20s that would be a decent benchmark for the Lib Dems through to the point when they finally succeeded in entering government. It did, however, prove that there were a huge number of people willing to support parties other than the old Big Two, even if in the end they didn’t actually do so.
Furthermore, as the years went on, and other parties such as the Greens, UKIP and the SNP became stronger, the narrative of the breakdown of the Two Party System became an acknowledged truth. By 2010, the share of the two big parties was down to 65%.
And then something odd happened: the smaller parties suddenly lost half their votes. That of itself wasn’t all that odd: the combination of the Coalition and Brexit was always likely to prove extremely challenging for Lib Dems and UKIP respectively.
No, the odd thing is that despite the political world moving on at an unusually rapid pace, despite Labour being led by an over-promoted rebellious far-left backbencher, and despite the Tories being headed by an chief administrator rather than a leader, Labour and the Conservatives continue to poll 80-85%. Even with all the opportunities of those circumstances, the rest have made no impact as all.
Why so? One obvious answer remains that the other parties remain unusually irrelevant. UKIP might have been struggling for a purpose even if it weren’t so chaotic and rudderless – though we shouldn’t be too certain on that point: the government’s Brexit is likely to take longer, cost more and be softer than many Leave voters would have liked. A well-run UKIP could have made something of that, though it wouldn’t have the same potency as advocating Leave itself; Europe remains a niche subject.
And just as the Tories have adopted UKIP’s central policy, so the Greens have found Labour tanks all over their lawn (and one or two of Michael Gove’s too). It’s not at all obvious what Caroline Lucas offers that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t.
But the biggest conundrum is the Lib Dems. As in the 1980s, the drift of the two larger parties to their respective outer wings should be an opportunity for them, yet their poll rating has more-or-less flatlined at around the 7% they scored at the 2017 election. The Coalition might be part of that explanation but at best it is only part of it. From around December 2016 through to the end of April 2017 – after the general election was announced – the Lib Dems averaged around 10-11%. This was in the same May/Corbyn/Brexit/post-Coalition era we’re in now (apart from the collapse of UKIP: that didn’t happen until the 2017 election was called). If people were being attracted back to the Lib Dems then, it can’t be that a legacy of the Coalition is putting them off now; we have to conclude that it’s some other pull factor keeping them with the Tories or Labour, or some new push factor keeping them from returning to the Lib Dems again – or both.
We can explain a good deal of the Lib Dems’ decline during the 2017 campaign in terms of voters who’d previously defected from Labour returning to that party. What’s harder to explain is why neither they (nor other members of Labour’s coalition), nor Tory voters from 2017 have switched since. Apart from in a few pockets, it seems that Tory Remainers have gone straight to Labour, despite Corbyn’s own ambivalence to Brexit (and indeed, his other policies). The unexpectedly quiet leadership of Vince Cable can’t have helped.
Perhaps also, the changed nature of the Lib Dems is also a factor. It’s been much remarked that more than half of Labour’s membership has joined since 2015, so changing greatly the internal dynamics of that party. But the same is true of the Lib Dems too. I wonder whether the new members are not the same sort of pavement politicians who traditionally built up the Lib Dem profile locally, and that the enhanced membership numbers isn’t translating into community action.
For all that, I don’t think it can go on. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum – and a big gap in the centre with the Lib Dems on 7-8% is near-enough a vacuum. What I’m not so sure of is what fills it.
One possibility is that the Lib Dems themselves do, for which they’d have to win votes from both Tories and Labour.
Another is that in a re-run of the 1980s, a new SDP breaks off from Labour: that’s far from impossible but nor should we get carried away by speculation. Emotional and practical ties bind MPs of all parties to their movement.
A third possibility is that the Tories make a pitch for the ground. For all the talk of the Tories heading to the right, when it comes down to it, there’s only really Brexit which stands that contention up; on domestic and fiscal matters, the Tories are, if anything, drifting left. If May or her successor can make good on the intentions she laid out when she entered Downing Street, it’ll impress a lot of centrist floating voters – though that means not getting too distracted by Brexit or allowing it to undermine taxes excessively, as well as tackling and making progress on difficult and ingrained social problems.
And the final (and least likely) possibility is that Labour does, as Blair did. It might seem implausible now given the left’s ascendency but sometimes the wheel turns quickly and one thing about short-term members is that disillusion can easily turn to departure, from where many things become possible.
The problem is that none of these look particularly likely and yet surely something has to give, somewhere.