6 May 2015

Election 2015: how will seven-party politics work?

The polls have barely moved during this election – so let’s start with a graph of what happened last time.


Apart from a slight surge for Labour during the final weekend, the biggest thing in the picture is what we called #Cleggmania, where the Lib Dem leader highhandedly knocked seven percentage points off the Tories on the night of 21 April, in the first TV debate. In effect, the two party system never recovered from that moment.

Now let’s look at a polling graph for the last parliament.


There are three signal events: the collapse of the Libdems, after Clegg reneged on his tuition fees promise; the rise of Ukip and the late surge of the Greens.

If we then mentally superimpose economic conditions over this graph, you can see why it’s sensible to conclude the old British political system is broken.

Labour surged early in the last parliament, when the Lib Dems collapsed. But when the economic recovery began it coincided with the historic surge of Ukip. And arguably at the peak of recovery, with interest rates close to zero and inflation zero, you get the Green surge (which has eased off as the election approaches).

Labour and the Conservatives have successfully made the economy the key battleground of the election. If you listen to the agenda they’ve set, night after night, it’s about how much more austerity we need, the size of the debt and deficit, and the state of public services. It’s as if the potential main parties of government are saying, nightly, “we’ll control the economy better.”

Yet in a way, it’s the economy that is controlling them, and shaping all politics.

Financial crisis

The financial crisis of 2008 left Britain with an existential problem. The boom years of the early 2000s had been fuelled by cheap credit, government spending and lax bank regulation. When the crash came, the economic model implicit in both Labour and the Tories’ policy pledges crashed down with it.

It’s false to say Labour’s borrowing caused the 2008 crash. But the structural deficit was high, and predicated on the idea that growth could go on as it had done for a whole new economic cycle. The Conservatives meanwhile – for those who have long enough memories – had pledged to match Labour’s spending plans.

Election 2015: this morning’s polls show Labour and Tories neck and neck

Bailing out the banks, and the collapse of tax revenues, put a hole in the public finances that made austerity inevitable – but not its form or scale. In the end, what Alistair Darling promised to achieve in 2010 – halving the deficit in 5 years – is what George Osbrone managed, having previously promised to get rid of the deficit altogether.

My reading of what happened in the last parliament is this: Labour, having correctly predicted the Tory austerity plans would tank the recovery, rode high until a real recovery began. This then exposed the problem at the heart of Labour’s policy debates: what does social democracy do in a period where you have to cut spending and increase taxes?

Instead, as the recovery began, Ukip surged, and as it gathered strenght so did the Greens (and of course in Scotland so did the SNP).


Historians will look back on the period since 2012 and see it not just as an economic recovery, but as a peculiar one – in which low wage jobs were created but prosperity did not increase; in which the housing market recovered but left hundreds of thousands of young people trapped in a poorly regulated private rented sector; in which half a million jobs were created for migrants, even as most parties spouted tough rhetoric against migration.

And a recovery in which the main policy driving it – the £375bn of quantitative easing money issued by the Bank of England – was barely understood or discussed.

So the UK electorate is now faced with a very difficult thing. Having fragmented into seven party politics – with five UK-wide parties and two strong nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland – it now has to make the system work.

Election 2015: talking to the SNP – deals and mini deals

Yet the two biggest parties – probably for the last time but no less problematic – have conducted campaigns on the basis that they can form a majority government.

Unless the polls are criminally inaccurate, a majority government is impossible. So the choice facing people as they put their crosses on the ballot paper is like a proxy vote. How best to vote to get the outcome you want: it is going to feel like trying to drive a car with a five second delay between steering wheel and axle.

This is understood implicitly by unionist voters in Scotland, who’ve been telling journalists they intend to vote tactically; and it’s being urged by commentators as different as the Daily Telegraph and Russell Brand. The Telegraph is co-ordinating a campaign for Ukip voters to switch to the Tories; while Brand effectively called for Green voters outside Brighton to vote Labour.

Seven party politics

But it’s a big challenge for UK democracy. In a democracy everybody’s vote is equal. That includes highly clued-in people who read the newspapers and highly clueless people who do not know the prime minister’s name, nor really care.

In the past, people who take no interest in politics could, if they voted at all, go with their gut instinct. Now, though they still can, it means there’s a much smaller likelihood of that vote having its desired effect.

Seven party politics, in a first past the post system, enfranchises the clever, and people with newspapers or Youtube sites who can co-ordinate tactical voting, and disenfranchises the rest. And, contrary to what many people intend, it enfranchises politicians above voters.

Election 2015: get the latest news from the campaign trail

If you look at the whole story of fragmentation – Cleggmania, the collapse of Cleggmania, Ukip, the Greens and the SNP – it is a story of rising distrust in politics. Yet on 8 May every party in parliament will have power disproportionate to its actual support: for those who go on to form a coalition, the power will be greater – for those who don’t it will be less.

Large parts of the country will feel disenfranchised. So when people ask me what’s at stake tomorrow, I don’t say austerity versus higher spending. It is whether the professional political class – who have by and large inured themselves from contact with the public and journalists for the whole campaign – squander our consent some more, or begin a debate about the kind of institutions that can more credibly translate our voting intent into the kind of government (and parliament) we get.

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