They’re all Mr Less- Than-Ten-Per-Cent
The remarkable fact that no UK party won even 30 per cent of the votes cast last week marks a new low in the disintegration of the old order.
The most remarkable result in last week’s local elections was not that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) achieved 23 per cent of the votes cast. It was that, for the first time, none of the major parties managed to claim even 30 per cent of the total vote.
On an estimated overall turnout of about 31 per cent, that means no party persuaded even 10 per cent of those eligible to vote that it was worth ticking their box on the ballot paper.
Britain is not in a new era of multi-party politics so much as no-party politics. The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats are all suffering a terminal-looking crisis. None of them has a clear set of political principles to stand on or a solid base of support. They are political parties in name alone. The sudden emergence of UKIP is simply a symptom, the rash that expresses the sickness at the heart of the body politic.
In the latest elections to English (and one Welsh) county councils and unitary authorities, the Tory and Lib Dem parties of the coalition government lost seats, while the opposition Labour Party made some unspectacular gains. So far, so unsurprising for mid-term elections.
The real story came when the parties’ share of the votes was projected on a national basis. This put Labour on 29 per cent, the Conservatives on 25 per cent, UKIP on 23 per cent, and the Lib Dems down on 14 per cent. These figures were revealing in terms of both the collapse of support for the governing parties and the lack of momentum behind Labour’s alternative. Taken as a whole, they confirm the isolation of the political elite from the electorate. Never before have all the parties fallen below the 30 per cent mark.
To put this in some perspective, it is worth comparing the share of the votes with previous UK General Elections since the Second World War. Even making allowances for the fact that these were local elections, the contrast is striking. Political parties that stood for something had deep roots in the electorate.
In 1945, for example, when the first majority Labour government was elected in a landslide, the party won an impressive 49.7 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives were crushed – yet still won 36.2 per cent of votes cast. By 1959, the Conservatives were recording their third successive electoral victory with a 49.4 per cent share of the vote. Labour lost easily but with 43.8 per cent – a total any party would kill for today.
The rot started to set in during the 1970s. In the two General Elections of 1974, it was considered remarkable that neither the Labour nor Tory party reached 40 per cent of the vote, Labour scraping in with 37.9 per cent in February and 39.2 per cent in October.
During the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were able to dominate British politics without ever achieving the sort of share of the vote enjoyed by earlier election winners. In 1979, Thatcher won 43.9 per cent, compared with Labour’s 36.9 per cent. In the 1983 post-Falklands General Election, the Tories’ share actually slipped slightly to 42.4 per cent. Thatcher was able to convert that into an electoral landslide, thanks largely to the opposition vote being split between Labour and the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Yet even then, at an historical low-point that was hailed as the death of Labour, the party managed to win 27.6 per cent of the vote – only slightly less than the allegedly ‘resurgent’ Labour Party managed last week. In the 1987 election, the high tide of Thatcherism, the Tories won 42.2 per cent. Labour was hammered yet won 30.8 per cent, with the SDP-Liberal Alliance on 22.6 per cent.
In the New Labour era, Tony Blair won three resounding electoral victories with a steadily declining share of the vote: 43.2 per cent in 1997, 40.7 per cent in 2001, and just 35.2 per cent in 2005 – the lowest share of any winning party since the Second World War, well below what the losing party achieved in most elections until the 1980s. These unimpressive totals converted into large parliamentary majorities for New Labour because the Conservative share of the vote, while rising, never got above 32.4 per cent (in 2005). The Liberal Democrats, successors to the Alliance, won 22 per cent in that poll.
The last General Election, in 2010, marked another stage in the disintegration of the old party system. Despite having been well ahead in the opinion polls for a long time, the Conservatives failed to win a parliamentary majority, managing a 36.1 per cent share of the vote – almost exactly what the wiped-out Tories got back in 1945. Labour won 29 per cent and the Lib Dems 23. It was a General Election that nobody won, and Britain was left with its first coalition government of modern times as the Conservatives and Lib Dems formed an alliance for which nobody had voted.
Fast forward to last week’s elections, and the harsh reality that no party managed even 30 per cent of the votes cast on a national basis. What was once a two-party system and then a three-party one might now appear, however temporarily, to have become a four-party system. There would be nothing wrong with that if we were talking about a flowering of real political alternatives. But this is nothing of the kind. It marks the disintegration of the postwar political order, the hollowing out of the old politics, but without anything of substance to replace it. It is a no-party system in any meaningful sense.
When no major party can attract 30 per cent of the votes cast nationally or even 10 per cent of the total votes available, it suggests that mainstream politics has become an irrelevant charade in most people’s lives. No matter how many headlines prime minister David Cameron grabs with a bit of immigrant-bashing in the Queen’s Speech, it will not solve the profound crisis of political legitimacy and authority afflicting the political class.
Last week, Cameron, the Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband all acquired a new title: Mr Less-Than-Ten-Per-Cent. Even that seems an overestimation of their chances of rebuilding genuine mass support for the ghosts of parties past.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.