Published on September 11th, 2012 | by TAY0
Coalition politics: becoming the norm?
In 2010, for the first time in 36 years, the British electorate returned a hung Parliament. Labour, although resoundingly kicked out of office, were not affected to the extent that some may have predicted, while the seemingly strong Liberal Democrats ended an initially promising campaign with a disappointing net loss of five seats. The Conservatives, although the largest party, fell some way short of the ‘magic number’ of 326 which would have brought them an overall parliamentary majority.
The resultant Coalition Government was the first to be formed since the 1977 Callaghan Lib-Lab alliance. This was history in the making. But will our present Liberal-Conservative administration continue?
The last two decades of British politics have seen something of a sea-change. A rush to the centre ground of the political spectrum has involved the main political parties converge of a multiplicity of issues – even if they might not admit it. Centrist defence and international affairs positions, as well as large segments of economic thought, have increasingly found adherents, be they red, blue or orange.
Tony Blair’s victories, although landslides at best and overwhelming at worst, evidenced this. His appeal to the crucial swing voters that helped him win the 1997 election was formed from his centrist values – e.g. tough on law and order, proactive on the international stage and relatively liberal economically. These policies could and perhaps should have been espoused by the Conservatives who unsuccessfully opposed him. Adding these crucial variables to the constants in terms of Labour’s ability to mobilise urban voters and appeal to the working class was a winning combination. Amending Clause IV of the manifesto – to remove explicit support for nationalisation – symbolised this neatly.
The political system in Britain has essentially distilled the key characteristics of the ‘British Voter’. A belief in some social unity and coherent institutions – e.g. the NHS – permeates the mainstream. The average ‘British Voter’ is of the view that free will and the market should not be wholly subjugated in the name of the state. Also apparent is a desire to be ‘tougher’ on immigration and crime, more sceptical about Europe – the list goes on.
However, although the policies of the parties have converged their images remain distinct. Many people would ‘never vote Tory’ just as others ‘wouldn’t see the point’ in voting Lib Dem, whilst more still would see voting Labour as tantamount to installing a socialist Britain. These images have been created by years of campaigning and are in many ways just as relevant as the policies the parties choose to use.
Therefore, although policies become increasingly indistinct as time goes by party images have remained largely solid. Each party has its base – an increasingly hard core of the electorate holding on to an idealised version of who they have voted for – with an ever increasing centrist pool of voters whose patronage will depend on whatever issue matters most to them. Thus, whilst each party can count on achieving a sizable return from its own ‘die-hards’, the swing voters – influenced by a complex mix of their own perceptions and the policy points that they care most about – will more regularly fragment. As the base of each party shrinks, replaced by fierce competition for the unattached masses, hung parliaments are becoming increasingly likely. Parties can no longer rely on ‘safe seats’ and assured returns. If nothing else, this should make Westminster more interesting.