Is this the return of two-party politics?

Published by CapX (1st June, 2017)

What a strange and suddenly absorbing election. The anticipated coronation of Theresa May, touching 50 per cent support in polls after calling the election, has turned into a tremulous stagger towards the finishing line. Jeremy Corbyn, despite his hard-left manifesto and so much historical baggage, has been performing better than most expected. He seems almost charming and, unlike his rival, comfortable in his skin. One poll even predicts a hung parliament.

Two policies in particular are causing ripples in this divided country: Tory plans on social care that unnerved their bedrock of older backers, and Labour’s regressive pledge to scrap tuition fees that fires up Corbyn’s youthful fan club. Pollsters, freaked out by previous failures, seem all over the place. Yet one thing is clear from their surveys: the two great parties that have dominated government for more than a century look like they’re going to win their biggest share of the vote for decades.

The pair look set to sweep up more votes than at any election since I started voting in an Aberdeen marginal won by the Tories in 1983. This is one more reminder we live in surprising times, ending a trend of decline that dates back to before my birth. If confirmed on June 8th, the revival of two-party dominance might silence recent talk about the dawn of multi-party politics. Yet as with so much in modern life, we should be wary of jumping to conclusions that suddenly appear obvious.

Certainly one thing that unites pollsters is a view that Labour and the Conservatives will sweep up about eight in 10 of the available votes next week. This would make their combined share of the vote the biggest since Margaret Thatcher won the first of her three general election victories in 1979.

It might even be the biggest since Ted Heath’s triumph, in 1970, when the parties won almost 90 per cent. Since then they have seen their combined vote shrink, despite blips, down from 80.8 per cent in 1979 to 67.3 per cent two years ago, when David Cameron pulled off his shock success.

This fall had provoked much discussion that we are seeing slow-burn destruction of the traditional two party-system in an age of voter volatility, declining loyalties and softening of the clash between capital and labour.

So why is there a sudden revival? For a start, the two big parties have shifted from the centre ground fought over since Tony Blair’s “big tent” approach sought to blur the divide between Right and Left. Jeremy Corbyn has taken Labour firmly to the Left, while May tacked significantly Right on issues such as Brexit, immigration and grammar schools.

This ensured both parties reclaimed votes they had lost to the extremes. Labour is the home of angry protest votes once lost to the Greens while the Tories soak back up millions of votes taken from them by Ukip.

We are also witnessing a polarised contest with voters offered highly contrasting visions: Corbyn’s reheated Seventies socialism versus May’s Brexit-inspired nationalism. This forces moderates to remain loyal to leaders they do not much like, or agree with, in order to keep out an opponent they loathe.

More than nine in 10 Tory Remainers, for instance, seem to be staying loyal to May, while key figures in moves to create a new party of the centre-left tell me they still plan to vote Labour despite Corbyn. Such is the power of tribal ties.

Meanwhile smaller parties, who might have offered alternatives, have melted away. For a start, there are fewer candidates standing: just 3,303 in the 650 seats, a big fall from the 3,971 people prepared to hand over a £500 deposit two years ago.

The Liberal Democrats gambled on revival based upon the 48 per cent opposing Brexit in last year’s ballot. This seemed sensible strategy, wooing some disgruntled cosmopolitans and younger voters infuriated by severing of ties with Europe.

But more than half of Remainers now accept the result (although that may change again on the rocky road ahead). And those who feel angriest tend to be young and university educated – the very people who felt most betrayed by the party’s U-turn on tuition fees in government and are now flocking to Corbyn.

Despite Corbyn’s ambivalence on the Brexit campaign trail last year, voters see Labour as less hostile to Europe than the Tories. Many potential recruits are also more focused on domestic public services than strife over Brussels. And the weakness of Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has been cruelly exposed in the spotlight.

The Greens look largely irrelevant since they no longer outflank Labour on the Left while their key policies, such as rail nationalisation, have been plundered by their rival.

Then there is Ukip, a victim of May’s timing. Six months down the road they will be screaming about Brexit betrayal and ministers selling out the people – but right now they look utterly pointless having achieved their one purpose.

Their single MP has defected back to his natural home. And the party is stranded with a joke leader who spews out Islamaphobic nonsense, says he wants to start personally executing people and is seen as something of a fantasist.

Yet be wary of reading too much into this sudden return to two-party politics since disruptive forces still bubble beneath the surface.

Look at the council elections last month: the two mainstream parties took less than two-third share of the United Kingdom vote. This shows traditional loyalties being shattered, fanned by the proportional representation introduced for regional and municipal assemblies and giving smaller parties a foothold in local politics.

The two main parties remain creaking coalitions welded together in the past when class divisions fuelled politics based on the clash between capitalism and socialism. They look outmoded in this age of populism, when divisions of age and education fuel modern battles over borders for goods, people and services.

Labour could still face realignment since it remains so divided between the hard Left and moderates, especially if Corbyn clings on after defeat. It struggles to reconcile the radicalism of young metropolitans with the social conservatism of older voters in northern industrial heartlands, while Scotland remains a rather lost cause.

Assuming the Tories still win despite their dismal campaign, they have seen the shine come off their leader even before she starts the torturous nightmare of Brexit discussions.

These threaten to inflame divisions that have plagued the party for decades. The Conservatives remain riven with fissures over their approach to the world, which could see wedges driven into them by the Brexit negotiations.

Perhaps the parties will cling together, as so often in the past, with their coalitions of diverse believers. But technology, social media, declining deference and a  dwindling faith in politics mitigate against this.

So yes, two-party politics is back in vogue. But the revival is likely to be just a temporary flirtation with a vintage fashion from the past before the body politic returns to more contemporary styling.

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