Here are some predictions that I make with a fair degree of certainty. An indifferent British electorate will shrug its collective shoulders and award Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party the second highest vote total in this May’s European elections. Buoyed by this win, Farage will force his way onto the stage for the party leader debates in 2015. And in the subsequent general election, for the first time in history, four parties will each take more than 10% of the vote nationwide. After trialling an alternative arrangement between 2010 and 2015, the era of big-party government will be over.
Traditionally, the British political system has not accommodated third or fourth parties especially well. The majoritarian election system encourages political parties which combine a strong degree of class identification with a broad and more or less coherent policy platform. And historically, when demographic and ideological trends have shifted, the party system has tended to go through a brief period of flux before resettling in its two-party mould: the replacement of the Liberal Party with the Labour Party as the dominant left-of-centre force in British politics in the 1920s was as swift as it was brutal.
But what we see in British politics today isn’t so much a realignment as a dealignment. Rates of party membership have dropped precipitously. The decline of traditional industry and the increasing fetishisation of London’s lucrative Square Mile have complicated traditional party divides. Apathy is on the rise, particularly amongst the young, and who can blame them? If your formative years coincided with Britain’s decade of scandals, 2003-2013, which saw former paragons of society – politicians, policemen, the press, medical professionals, public entertainers and religious leaders – indicted for corruption and fraud, neglect and abuse, then it’s no wonder your faith in the system is at a lower ebb than that of previous generations. British society has been secularised with all the force of a sledgehammer.
It’s hard to imagine, therefore, a full return to the traditional two-party model of majoritarian government. Britons are too diverse and dispersed – and, in the Internet era, too accustomed to a unprecedented freedom of choice in other areas like media and retail – to take seriously the idea that political change can come from choosing Option A or Option B. We are, if you will, entering the era of the Neapolity: a system in which multi-colour coalitions are the norm rather than the exception.
Yet the neapolitan principle applies not just in the narrow realm of how the government is constituted but also in terms of our political allegiances defined more broadly. Multiple identities per se are nothing new, but in the neapolitan era, these are something to be cherished and courted rather than necessarily brushed under the carpet. Greater racial diversity, improving openness and tolerance around sexual orientation and gender identity, a more fluid labour market (although in a recession ‘fluidity’ encompasses zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships alongside more positive developments) the Internet-enabled rise of single-issue campaigns and our more differentiated self-definition online all make for a more complex, diverse and frankly interesting electorate. Our race, religion, sexual orientation, employment and ideology – in sum, our identity – are less predictable than ever before.
There is though a great irony here. This article started with a prediction that the biggest beneficiary of Britain’s great dealignment will be Nigel Farage: another white man whose major points of distinction with the other three party leaders seem to be that his hair slightly greyer, he likes beer a bit more, and he has a less charitable attitude towards those who aren’t like him. Not exactly the first black president or an impressively open-minded new pope, and hardly harbinger of a more modern, mature and nuanced political system.
But this is to confuse the wood for the trees. I disagree with almost everything Nigel Farage believes in: I can do no better than quoting Stephen Tall on UKIP’s platform, which he describes as “stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off-pull-up-the-drawbridge-nothing-against-them-personally-but-we’re-full-and-another-thing-health-and-safety-some-of-my-best-friends-are–all-the-parties-are-the-same-I’d-emigrate-if-I-could”. On immigration, climate change, gay rights, taxes, the EU: everything he says my blood boil. But there are plenty of people who agree with him on those issues, and moreover approve of his frankness and freedom in expressing them. Contrast this with David Cameron, flawed as a leader because he has neither the conservative heart of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher nor the political brain of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. He’s effective neither as a thermometer nor a thermostat, unable to either take the temperature of public opinion or to raise it – and the same goes for Ed Miliband. But the lifeblood of politics is, well, boiling blood, and leaders who are able to capitalise on visceral disagreement often profit at the polls. (Just ask Barack Obama, whose re-election campaign team read the tea leaves and all but abandoned the hopey-changey, post-partisan rhetoric of 2008 in favour of a light-and-shade approach that drew an unflattering caricature of opponent Mitt Romney – helped, of course, by Romney doing such a good job of it himself. )
Which is what makes UKIP’s rise, as well as stronger left-of-centre forthrightness from Nick Clegg, all the more interesting. The upcoming debate between the two on the EU will, regardless of the outcome, draw a distinction that will serve both men well, in contrast to the defensive opaqueness of Cameron and Miliband. And with Scottish independence on the agenda too, it wouldn’t be surprising to see these issues-based debates coming into fashion. They might even – wait for it – help to make the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions sessions more substantive and less viva voce.
Of course, if multi-party, neapolitan-style government is to work, staunch disagreement during a campaign needs to translate into stability in government. But the experience since 2010 has suggested this is at least possible: with the stability of fixed term parliaments and the clarity of a coalition agreement, governing parties (and more importantly civil servants) have a road-map to work from. And future coalitions would do well to remember that it is not merely difference in opinion but strength in opinion which characterises party support, as the university fee raise taught Liberal Democrats and as right-wing euroscepticism continues to remind the Conservatives. Manifestoes in 2015 will be less about red lines and more about yellow highlights, in anticipation of coalition negotiations.
If some of this seems far-sighted at best and far-fetched at worst, I’d argue that that’s only because the British political system has hitherto been so slow to take account of the changes occurring in society. Our system doesn’t suffer from the gridlock of the American constitution – as the arrival of coalition government showed, change can happen quickly in a country missing a codified constitution. By itself, 2010 doesn’t prove too much, taking place as it did in a state of economic emergency. But a repeat experience in 2015, with multiple parties campaigning on myriad issues leading to a coalition government with a broad and diverse mandate, would freeze a nascent Neapolitan system in place.