Thursday, 25 October 2012

Winter is Coming

A recent post dealt with the way British political parties have started to redefine themselves in response to rapidly worsening public opinion; now is a good time to look at how the structure of party supporter bases has contributed to a stagnation of British politics in the first place, and how the situation is beginning to radically change.



The wealth gap in this country has been the topic of considerable discussion recently, with certain regions, such as much of the North of England, being seen as poverty traps that can be extremely hard to escape. Beyond financial reasons, and those to do with poor provision of services such as education, there is talk of a "poverty of ambition", a mindset brought about by persistent daily experience that both familiarises a person with poor living standards and discourages him or her from imagining a better way of life at all, as their lifestyle has become an important aspect of their identity. Likewise, support for a particular political party has in the past for many people been an important issue of identity, as can be determined from the very small proportion of the British electorate composed of the sort of "swing voters" able to strongly influence the outcome of elections.

Recalling the 2010 general election for example, the scandal of Gordon Brown, the incumbent Prime Minister, publicly referring to Gillian Duffy, a voter in Rochdale vocally opposed to rising immigration and national debt, as a "bigoted woman". Surprisingly, rather than publicly switching her allegiance to a different party in outrage, she claimed in an interview with the Daily Mail that she simply threw her vote away. That is, when personally insulted by the leader of the party she previously enthusiastically supported, she opted to waste her vote rather than show disloyalty by changing her allegiance. What this episode suggests is that, for Duffy at least, what a person's support for a political organisation says about their self-image is much more important than the political consequences of that support. When initially offered the chance to talk to Gordon Brown, she was not asked whether she would be voting for Labour in the election, but whether she was "a Labour voter". To switch support would transform her into a "Liberal Democrat" or worse a "Conservative", an alteration of identity she was unwilling to make. Nor is Duffy's stance an unusual one. The Labour Party in particular is predicted to suffer from the unpopularity of national politics in the next general election, not on account of rising support of any other political group, but due to poor turnout from committed Labour supporters who are nonetheless disillusioned with "their" party.

Needless to say, none of this is particularly good for British politics. In such an environment, campaign managers are much more likely to focus their efforts on energising those who are already dedicated supporters of their party, thereby failing to take any interest in persuading hidden pockets of undecided voters or in converting supporters of opposing parties. Indeed, in my own albeit brief experience of political campaign strategy it is an accepted norm for volunteers to avoid at all costs those who might disagree with their views (it is, believe it or not, quite common for members of opposing parties to attempt to delay campaigners on their doorsteps for as long as possible to prevent them from completing their work elsewhere!). Such an attitude discourages the dialogue and flexibility that is essential for a healthy democracy.

This situation has the potential to change very quickly. A recent study by the Hansard society has revealed the sharpest ever fall in the proportion of people who intend to vote in the next general election when compared to previous years. Party membership also at a low ebb, and it was recently pointed out by The Economist that the RSPB, a charity interested in the preservation of Britain's avian wildlife, currently has a much larger membership than that of the three main parties combined. This is no coincidence. Issues concerning everyday life are becoming much more important to the British people, with the Hansard's statistics showing that many people, including a large proportion of those who claim no interest at all in central government, have become increasingly interested in the administration of their local area. What this suggests is that the party politics of Parliament is, more than ever, failing to stimulate the interest of an increasingly agitated electorate.

Opinion formers have spoken of a "toxic" political culture that is leading the average voter away from mainstream political involvement. There has also been talk of the problems of party "branding" serving only as an abstraction to further distance what is increasingly being viewed as a "metropolitan elite" from the interests of the average member of the public. This is particularly problematic when there exist many bigger and more powerful "brands", such as increasingly diverse religions or cultures, that already occupy a position more relevant to the self-image of many. For all of its "one nation" pretensions, Ed Miliband's Labour Party is still struggling to reinvigorate its core vote. While recognising many of the problems it faces, its leaders nevertheless continue to recommend a return to strongly centralising policies that ignore what should be perceived as a strengthening public desire for localism. The Tories fare better here, with the Hansard study showing their core vote to be much (10%) more politically engaged than that of Labour. Perhaps as a side-effect of this however, Conservatives are a lot less uniform in their beliefs, with the party beginning to show serious divisions that both threaten its leadership and allow support to leak away to alternative groups, such as the UK Independence Party.

Pulled into the centre
John Redwood recently highlighted an important problem faced by the major British parties. He notes that, in a seemingly endless struggle to avoid radicalism and appeal to the mass of voters that apparently cluster around the centre of the political spectrum, both Labour and the Conservative Party seem locked in a race to make their policies as centrist as possible, giving rise to the common complaint that there is often very little to distinguish them from one another. Striving to please undecided voters leaves parties with the serious problem of motivating their newly acquired supporters to actually go out and vote. While this happens, they are likely to neglect parts of the electorate which, while often possessing divergent political opinions that refuse to slot neatly into the centre, are largely self-motivated to do so. A recent YouGov study detected that a significant portion of former Labour voters (around 1.3 million!) now support non-mainstream parties. It is a safe bet that these individuals with strong opinions are people who will make sure they have their voices heard in the next election.

This is actually good news and should serve as a breath of fresh air to the system, opening to discussion many views that were previously forced outside the political norm. Nevertheless, observers should be cautious of the rise of the same kind of radicalism that is beginning to plague countries within mainland Europe. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the most apathetic group of voters, those under 25, is also the least open to the radical views discussed in a previous post. The larger parties should focus on attracting the interest of this "mild youth" while stimulating more discussion within their own ranks of faithful. With this in mind, the schisms within the Conservative fold may yet turn out to be an advantage.