Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

What to do when the system fails you?

John Curtice writing today (16 July 2014) on Democratic Audit says:

Labour needs to watch the Greens because the Greens are potential alternative form of protest for Lib Democrat voters as are to some degree UKIP.
Democratic Audit 16 July 2014 : Five minutes with John Curtice: “The problem facing the Conservatives is that so far this is a voteless recovery”

I think all parties need to watch both the Greens and UKIP but not just as parties of protest but as serious potential challengers. First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral systems like ours tends to concentrate power into the hands of the least unpopular parties – usually giving the least unpopular an absolute majority on a minority vote. So the big two / three may think that the next election is a private battle between the three of them (at least in England). They could be wrong.

But FPTP is inherently unstable and can give (coalition) results like last time – which might be thought of as an aberration – or even stranger results when the support for other parties reaches the 20 to 30% level. At this point it all becomes highly unpredictable. In theory, in a five party system, a seat could be won with a little over 20% of the vote – and parties that are used to ruling may find themselves excluded.

Now “old party” strategists may say this is highly unlikely and need not be considered outside the corridors of academia. But that is to ignore the level of disillusion felt by many in the electorate. At the moment this leads to apathy but if it led to real anger, we might in 10 months time actually go out and vote.

It is not necessary for our anger to all be focused on a single issue for the electoral balance to become highly unstable. People can be actively angry for a number of reasons:

  • A “recovery” that seems to benefit the elite but not the many
  • A parliamentary system that will permit emergency legislation to allow the Home Secretary to snoop on us, but will not pass emergency legislation to make tax avoiders pay their share
  • Cuts that seem to be biting on the most vulnerable
  • A Government that believes that less than a year out from an election “Window dressing” is more important than real benefits to us all
  • A fear that our country is “no longer ours” but run for the benefit of scroungers and immigrants (especially appealing to Daily Mail readers)
  • A fear that our country is “no longer ours” but run for the benefit of the CIA and NSA (especially appealing to Guardian readers)
  • A general feel that the system is ineffectual

If the media was to give a decent share of voice to the alternatives (and not a share based on voting performance last time), what alternatives might we hear?

  • “Red in tooth and claw Socialism” (and a confusing range of variations). Potentially appealing to the angry dispossessed, but likely to frighten the rest of us.
  • The “Green agenda” arguing that the current global economic system does not serve the people of our world and that we should trade an element of economic wealth for a better life style and global justice. Pragmatically many of us will feel, “fine but what then happens when the US, China and India etc. don’t follow us but continue trying to pursue global economic domination?”.  But it is probably the most coherent alternative.
  • The isolationist “little Englander” agenda – wanting to go backwards to Macmillan’s time believing we have never had it so good as then and if you could only turn the clock back and let England [sic] take its rightful place in the World once again all would be well. John Major’s “country of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers, and old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist.” When people are frightened a cosy comfortable and seemingly familiar refuge has its attractions, no matter how unrealistic.
  • The far right – the “solution” in the last century for so many countries. The trains may have “run on time”, but the totalitarianism which seems to be a corollary of extreme right-wing regimes is deeply unattractive to the majority.

It would be a profound shock to the system if any of the above where to gain significant seats at the next election and possibly hold the balance of power (or more). The old parties would have to be very wary of what they did in response. A secret deal to permit the largest (minority) party to rule or even an out-right red-blue coalition to keep these pesky outsiders out of power might only inflame the situation (being seen as a further slap in the face to the now active angry).

I don’t know what would happen and I don’t believe that the old parties intend to do anything about  what they see as remote possibilities. Seen as “remote” because they are so detached from the anger felt by so many. I fear that they may be sitting on a powder-keg and will remain unaware of the problem until it goes off.

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