Forty years ago this week, the Conservative party won the UK general election with 44% of the vote, netting the country’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, a comfortable overall majority of 43 seats and setting her up nicely for what turned out to be more than a decade in Downing Street.
How things have changed. No 10’s current occupant may still be a Tory woman, but she presides over a minority government barely worth the name and she’s unlikely to be there for more than a few months, let alone years. And, zooming out to look at the party system as a whole, the Conservativesnow find themselves in a far more diverse and challenging environment than the one that Maggie confronted as she stood on the steps of Downing Street paraphrasing St Francis of Assisi.
Sure, back then, the party’s main rival was, as it is today, a Labour party racked by internal divisions, albeit led by someone, Jim Callaghan, who was not only genuinely of working-class stock, but who most voters could at least imagine as prime minister, largely because he’d been doing the job for the previous four years. And sure, rather spookily, Labour were on almost exactly the same number of seats (269 on 37% of the vote) as they’re on today. So, indeed, were the UK’s “third party”: the Liberals won 11 seats in 1979 compared with the Lib Dems’ 12 in 2017.
But just look at the differences. The SNP won just two seats in 1979 compared with the 35 they won in 2017 and the 56 they won in 2015. The Greens, who won just over half-a-million votes in 2017 and just over a million in 2015, won only just under 40,000 in 1979, fighting as the Ecology party. Sinn Féin didn’t even feature in that election, while the DUP was still playing second fiddle to the slightly more biddable Ulster Unionists.
Just as importantly, there was no Ukip. Britain’s populist radical right party may have performed poorly in 2017 as Theresa May’s hard Brexit strategy partly did what it was designed to do – hoover up lots of its erstwhile voters. But let’s not forget that just two years earlier there had been nearly 4 million of them – some 13% of the electorate. In 1979, the only alternative on the Tories’ right flank was the National Front, which won fewer than 200,000 votes on a share of less than 1% of an electorate that largely regarded them as beyond the pale.
Zoom out further beyond these shores, and we can see that the voter fragmentation of the party system that has characterised this country has also affected many of the other supposedly liberal democracies. Their systems, and the established parties that dominated them for perhaps too long, have likewise failed to keep pace with a raft of profound and often cross-cutting social, cultural and economic changes, changes that have fractured familiar bases of support and created a less tribal, more consumerist electorate. At the same time, the rise of 24/7 multichannel and social media has encouraged an insatiable public demand for the novel, spectacular and hyperbolic.
All this has helped new parties to gatecrash not just electoral markets but also parliaments and governments the world over. Quite how they do that is the theme of a new book just published by Radix, the self-styled thinktank of the radical centre. In it, authors Nick Silver and Zoe Hodge take a look at political insurgencies, particularly in Italy, France, Spain and Canada, and try to work out what helped them upend the status quo.
True, some will quibble with the book’s broad definition of insurgency. Movimento 5 Stelle, La République En Marche and Podemos, we can probably all agree on. But Justin Trudeau’s Canadian Liberals? Maybe not so much. Still, taken together, their case studies arguably provide us with an off-the-shelf recipe for success applicable to “potential new parties or old parties that wish to reinvent themselves” over here. And, handily, it’s one the authors developed before either the Brexit party or Change UK came on the scene, which, because it wasn’t developed with them in mind, makes it a reasonably objective way of judging their prospects.
Three things, according to Silver and Hodge, appear to be particularly crucial.
First, charismatic leadership by an individual who can convincingly portray him or herself as an outsider would seem to be essential, not least because this leader needs to embody the differences between the new party and the “more of the same” on offer from politicians who are made to look tired, unrepresentative, compromised, even corrupt, by comparison.
However much some people might complain that Farage has been a fixture of this country’s political scene for what seems like for ever, and however much they might admire the guts of Heidi Allen and Chuka Umunna for leaving their old parties, it’s pretty clear that – on this criterion anyway – the Brexiters beat the Tiggers hands down.
Second, process is as important, if not more so, than policies. The emphasis is on new, often digital, methods of consulting supporters in order to arrive at supposedly commonsense yet innovative solutions to problems that established parties have allowed to fester for years, in hock as they are to vested interests of various hues.
On this one, it’s probably a little early to make a proper judgment, especially on the consultation front. But it’s all too easy to imagine the Brexit partybeing happy to travel policy-lite for as long as possible. By contrast, the more earnest Change UK (many of whose existing MPs, after all, have held government jobs in their time) feels obliged sooner rather than later to respond to Labour and Conservative criticisms that it doesn’t yet have a coherent or comprehensive platform.
Third, communication, particularly targeted communication based on harvesting data and involving some seriously savvy playing of the 21st-century media game, is also vitally important. One thing successful new parties seem to share is the ability to use digital platforms to mobilise potential supporters, many of whom may previously have given up on politics. They succeed in moving them from online, initially passive support to the offline, “in real life” activity that helps get voters out on the day.
Here again, the Brexit party seems to have hit the ground running while Change UK has been slow out of the traps. It’s not just the contrast between the launches of their respective candidate lists for the European elections, it’s their online presence. And we’re not just talking better branding – we’re talking basic functionality and financial nous.
Whether Farage can eventually get his second “people’s army” out “on the doorstep” is a moot point: that was always one of Ukip’s problems and the embarrassingly damp squib that was his March to Leave hardly bodes well. Change UK, on the other hand, can look hopefully to the hundreds of thousands who marched through central London and the millions who signed the revoke article 50 petition. But unless the party can actually get hold of their contacts, how much use are they really? Meanwhile, sources tell me that, as of the end of last week, the Brexit party had signed up more than 70,000 “registered supporters” – at a (very profitable) £25 a pop.
Neither of Britain’s two newest parties has members in the conventional sense. That’s by no means unheard of among new parties in other parts of the world. But it does mean any claim they might make to be “democratic” has to be taken with a gigantic pinch of salt. Their belief that intermediate layers of internal governance might somehow break what they see as a sacred bond of trust between leader and followers, and between “movement” and “the people”, means that, in reality, the former rather than the latter remain in charge. Ultimately, then, there is more than a touch of populism about the outfits that seem to be succeeding right now. As such, they constitute a potential challenge not just to the “political class” they love to target but to representative democracy itself.
As new parties in this country have found before, of course, first past the post, the system that delivered Thatcher two even bigger majorities despite her party’s declining support, can prove a very cruel mistress. But if Brexit continues to blow apart traditional political identities, and if the poor handling of the issue by both main parties continues to alienate even the kernel of their core support, we may well find the UK’s political system is rather less resistant than many imagine to the shock of the new.