The long drift from the two party system

Andrew Curry writes:

“I can accept chaos”, said the young Bob Dylan, in one of his typically cryptic sleevenotes. “I’m not sure whether it accepts me”.  For some reason, the line crept into my head while staying up too late last night to watch the election coverage, as seasoned media professionals struggled to make sense of the results unfolding in front of them.

Some of the unpredictability was down to the number of redrawn seats, perhaps with unreliable estimates of how the 2005 vote might have gone; some was an echo of the expenses scandal, influenced by the high number of incumbents stepping down; some down to tactical voting; some was down to the fact that the ‘swingometer’ – designed for two-party contests – is less useful as a measure of change in three- or four-party contests.

But the strong sense of the map was that the further one went from the south-east, the weaker the Cameron effect was, vanishing almost completely as it crossed the border into Scotland. Indeed, one of the most memorable pieces of pre-election commentary, by Ian Jack, described the Conservatives as the party of the ‘Southern Metaphor’, in which Britain is “romantic, illogical, muddled, divinely lucky, Anglican, aristocratic, traditional, frivolous”. Even in a relatively small and affluent country such as Britain, differences of history and geography make its electoral world bumpy, not flat.

As if to further confuse spectators, voting problems in some constituencies seemed symbolic of an electoral system which is no longer fit for purpose. Before the election, research by nef calculated that voters in the most marginal seats have one hundred times more influence on the outcome than those in the safest seats. Prior to the election, one of the striking features was the number of competing campaigns promoting electoral fairness. Taking a long view, these are each a symptom of the decline of two-party politics since the 1970s. During the campaign, Election 10 published a compelling graph using twenty-five years of Guardian polling data showing the decline in overall support for the two main parties; it fluctuates, certainly, but trends only in one direction.

This in turn reflects a change in the sources of political identity, as Simon Szreter argued in History and Policy:

Whilst a generation ago, individual voters would identify their allegiance with a party’s ideology before enquiring about its policies, this has now been turned on its head. Voters think first about what policies they support and then seek to match this with a political party, often using web-based tools. Yet the electorate is unable to give proper expression to such sophisticated political judgements.

Or, as another historian, Simon Schama, put it on the BBC’s election programme this morning, “the country has not just spoken, it’s holding it’s nose”.

Is this a conservative moment? Judging from some of the models we use in our long-term futures work, looking at 30-year scenarios and beyond, we’d say not. Generational analysis suggests that a ‘crisis’ phase represents a transition from predominantly individualist worldviews to more communitarian ones. Likewise, Carlota Perez’ work on technology change argues that the years after a financial crisis tend to increase the emphasis on social and public wellbeing. In all, this speaks to an underlying political crisis which is unlikely to be resolved quickly.

The photo at the top of this post, of a cake shop window in York, is © Kate Stuart, and is used with thanks. There are more of her pictures on her Flickr photostream.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew Curry. Andrew Curry said: http://bit.ly/crObxC UK post-election thoughts on the long-drift from the two-party system. New post. #ge2010 #hangem [...]

  2. [...] Posted in politics, trends by thenextwavefutures on 8 May, 2010 I published a post on the UK election at The Futures Company blog yesterday. Here’s an [...]

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