British politics trundles towards the abyss – what are we doing about it?


cliff edge

The Labour Party’s response to a worsening polling position has been remarkably sanguine. For a long time, there was a stable Labour lead. Not an enormous lead, but a stable one. Labour was 4/5 points ahead, consistently, and that was enough to win the election. Then the lead slipped, to just a couple of points, and the Labour Party held its collective breath.

Now, a further fall. A desperate, terrifying fall – and all of a sudden, we’re level-pegging with the Tories. Four of the last five polls have Labour and the Tories in a polling dead heat. Whilst some within the Labour hierarchy may believe (as I reported earlier this year) that “if we draw we still win”, but that’s a very dangerous game to play, when the polling trend looks like it does for Labour, sliding inexorably downwards.

And yet how is the Labour Party – MPs, candidates, activists – reacting to this? Still relatively sanguine. Remarkably almost inexplicably sanguine.

Now of course, in recent days the Labour Party has been focussed on events in Scotland (and what’s happening in the Scottish Labour Party is incredibly important, and speaks to some of the deep-rooted problems with our party), but with a general election a mere six months away, we simply shouldn’t be where we are now.

And it’s not being tied with the Tories that’s the crux of it (bad as that is) it’s that deeply troubling downward trend.

Wily old campaign veterans have told me for years that I shouldn’t focus on individual polls, but on the trend. Well the trend is very clear – we’re tied with the Tories and our vote share is collapsing. Yet this new polling position is thanks to no great achievement on behalf of the Tories. They have not surged lately. Indeed they have fallen in the polls over the past year, just not as far as we have.

Those same veterans told me not to look at the gap between the two parties, but instead focus on the share of the vote – that makes for more gruesome reading still. Labour now consistently sits just a fraction above the paltry 29% we achieved in 2010. If 2010 truly was the floor from which we could only bounce upwards, we haven’t bounced far over the past four and a half years.

It’s not just Labour who faces these problems though, it’s mainstream British politics as a whole facing an existential crisis. Discontent that has been bubbling away for decades now pours forth openly and publicly. Anti-politics is the order of the day. The angry lament that “you’re all the same” which all canvassers know so well is now practically the norm, and the rising tide of the non-voters increasingly feel they now have a home to go to (UKIP or sometimes the Greens) that means they no longer feel ignored or taken for granted. The two “major” parties of British politics risk being “major” in name only, with only 60% of a poor turnout of the electorate bothering to vote for the pair of them.

An election “won” under such circumstances could trigger a crisis of legitimacy – whoever won – and rightly so. Their ability to claim the consent of the people would be technical rather than comprehensive. And we’d find ourselves in a world terrifyingly reminiscent of the 1920s and 30s, where democratic legitimacy was challenged across Europe in the wake of an economic catastrophe, leading to inward looking societies, war, division and – in some cases – extremism.

If none of this gives you pause for thought, then I’m not sure what else I can suggest to get you to wake up. Except possibly this. I can now see a set of events in which it’s possible in the coming decades that the major parties of British politics – including the Labour Party – will no longer exist. And what they might be replaced with we cannot know.

For some, the response to this crisis is “electoral reform”. The disillusioned masses speak of little else of course. When I’m at the pub with my mates on a Friday night the conversation sometimes turns to what’s wrong with politics, but never turns to multi-member constituencies, pure-PR parliaments like the Knesset or even the D’Hondt system…

Yet for all of the jokes (and I could make jokes about the overwhelmingly middle class concern of electoral reform all day) it’s increasingly looking like a structural necessity – albeit one I have little enthusiasm for – to prevent governments of questionable legitimacy ruling 100% of the population with the votes of a tiny fraction of the populace. Whilst in the past I’ve feared that some form of electoral reform might allow in extremist elements, now I fear that without it, such extremists could overwhelm our fragile and often indefensible system of government.

But electoral reform cannot be the Labour movement’s sole – or even main – response to this potentially terminal draining away of support. The reason Labour’s vote share has fallen in the past year isn’t because of discontent with the electoral system, it’s due to discontent with politics and a lack of enthusiasm for what we’re offering the country. This is about us losing many of our “core vote” who no longer know what we stand for. It’s not about policy, it’s about knowing what we’re about, and who we stand up for. That’s not to say policy can’t do that, but it needs to be big enough to impress those who have given up on politics, and believable enough to get past their understandable distrust and disdain.

And that’s where the opportunity comes for Labour. We can be the change that people want to see in the country – eliminating poverty pay, giving young people the chance of a decent job, providing homes for families and ensuring we’re taken care of in old age. Most of all, we have it within us to inspire hope, if we choose to take that road.

We have just six months to go until the toughest election for a generation. Whatever the result, the 2015 election will define the future of our country, our politics and our party. And yet we are still slipping backwards, caught by the public’s hatred of the status quo when we should be harnessing that justifiable anger. It’s not too late to turn things around – but do we have the will to do so?

Or will we continue to be sanguine, and hold our breath, as British politics trundles towards the abyss.

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