There is much to say of the General Election just passed. In some senses, the British public are probably somewhat relieved that it is all over: media coverage of the election campaign has been relentless over the past five weeks. Perhaps now we can return to normality. The reality is, however, that British politics will never return to its run-of-the-mill form. The political landscape has been fundamentally altered and this General Election has ushered in a new type of politics.
Gone is the traditional left-right dichotomy. Voters, increasingly divorced from clearly defined partisan links, are no longer voting according to the issue dimensions that run parallel to the Left-Right divide. Half a century ago, one in four voters said they identified very strongly with one of the main parties; now that statistic is just one in ten. Equality versus freedom, public versus private ownership, the working classes versus the economic elite: these divisions retain some relevance but their impact has been significantly diminished by the appearance of new, cross-cutting dimensions. Polarised views on immigration, the environment and Britain’s membership of the European Union are just some examples of the new dimensions that have emerged.
Replacing the traditional Left-Right political jargon is the notion of an ‘insider-outsider’ distinction. Capitalising on voters who feel alienated by the policies of Britain’s ‘insider’ parties, the more populist ‘outsider’ parties – the SNP, the Greens and UKIP in particular – are gaining traction. The increase in support for parties other than Labour and the Conservatives is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but it does reflect the fact that the political landscape is changing in a more permanent way than ever before.
Coalitions and minority government are likely to continue to be a regular feature in the future. And this is despite a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system that provides a significant advantage to the UK’s two largest parties. Fortunately, however, there does at last appear to be some recognition that more consensual, more pluralistic government may be the way forward. The old adage that majority governments generate strong and decisive policy-making continues to retain currency but there is a trade-off in terms of the extent to which the government represents the interests of the people as a whole. Conciliation and compromise are increasingly required to ensure that the interests of a large minority are not neglected.
What then of the future of British politics? This election has paid witness to a very considerable change in the shape of the political landscape but this change is more permanent than many commentators suggest. The elephant in the room is electoral system change. Given that the FPTP system benefits the two largest parties, neither Labour nor the Conservatives appear to have an incentive to support change and the comprehensive rejection of the Alternative Vote (AV) system in 2011 lends weight to the conclusion that electoral reform would simply not be possible.
UKIP are splitting the Conservative vote yet not translating their vote into a largely supportive bloc of right-wing legislative seats. Electoral reform in the shape of Proportional Representation (PR) may not be as far away as some think. Even if the Conservatives do not change their stance, an increasingly disproportionate electoral system is likely to force the issue.
Aside from electoral reform, there is likely to be one additional significant political change within the next generation. Scotland, in despite of last year’s referendum, appears to be moving inexorably towards the exit door. When historians reflect on the 2015 General Election, their focus is likely to be on the extraordinary rise of the Scottish National Party, a rise that does not appear to be on the wane any time soon.
The hegemony of Labour and the Conservatives is not necessarily over but it will certainly be difficult to recover. Voter concerns can no longer be grouped along a simple left-right continuum and the weakening of partisan ties has meant that the outsider parties are coming to the fore. Scottish and English nationalism are both serious concerns but there is some hope that this election will mark the beginning of the process towards electoral reform. A new politics has emerged from this election and it is one that requires conciliation and compromise rather than the conflicted politics of old.