British politics could enter a new era in which multi-party administrations and government defeats become the normby Peter Kellner / October 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
YouGov’s latest voting intention figures contain three records: the lowest Labour share since just after the 2010 general election (32 per cent), the lowest combined Labour plus Conservative share of this parliament (63 per cent) and the highest share for the Greens (7 per cent). Ukip, at 18 per cent, falls only just short of its record, set earlier this week, of 19 per cent.
In part, this can be explained by reactions to last week’s Clacton by-election, which has lifted Ukip’s support and hurt both Labour and the Conservatives. Indeed a case can be made for saying that the post-Clacton polling turbulence is modest by past standards. Historically, the Liberal Democrats (and the Liberals before them) have achieved much more spectacular by-election boosts to their national ratings. In September 2003, when Sarah Teather won Brent East, the Lib Dems jumped 12 points to 30 per cent, with Labour and the Tories both down five points. It proved short-lived: a fortnight later the Lib Dems had lost two-thirds of their post-Brent gains. In contrast, Ukip’s post-Clacton peak of 19 per cent was just five points up from its pre-Clacton rating.
Nevertheless, even when we strip out the short-term effects, something fundamental is going on. Even before Clacton, the combined Labour plus Conservative vote share was lower than normal—and “normal,” in this context—a combined Labour plus Conservative vote share of 66-70 per cent—was already low by historical standards.
Much political debate in recent months has dwelt on the short-term implications of this. This is neither wrong nor surprising: the politics of insurgency brought Scotland to within six percentage points of voting for independence, not to mention Ukip’s recent victories in local and European elections as well as Clacton. The long-term decline of both Labour and Tory support is likely to ensure that neither of them wins a clear majority in next May’s by-election. If the Lib Dems lose half their seats, we may end up with a messy outcome, in which there is not even a working majority for either Lib-Lab or Lib-Con coalition.
That may not be a one-off aberration. If Ukip builds a lasting base in England, and the SNP breaks Labour’s stranglehold in Scotland’s central belt between the Clyde and the Forth, then Westminster could enter a new era in which multi-party administrations and government defeats become the norm.
One of America’s iconic political films was Mr Smith Goes to Washington, made in 1939, in which James Stewart plays the young idealist confrontingv the bad old habits of Capitol Hill. Maybe our Parliament will soon justify its own feature-length drama: Borgen comes to Britain.