George Galloway has just been returned to the House of Commons, this time for Bradford West. He has now repeatedly shown that, wherever there are large numbers of Muslims, they can be persuaded to vote for someone who appears, however improbably, better to embody their prejudices and concerns than the Labour Party candidate. Lutfur Rahman (sp.?), the mayor of Tower Hamlets, is more evidence for this.
Alex Salmond and the SNP have shown that the same applies to Scotland.
What does this tell us? I think it says that a party cannot force its own prejudices and assumptions on its supporters indefinitely without paying a price for neglecting them. That New Labour did not reflect a Muslim world view seems blindingly obvious. That the Scottish Labour Party has succeeded in reducing Scotland to a wasteland in 40+ years of virtual single party statehood equally. Having the adenoidenal Milliband as leader is simply the icing on the cake.
And the tectonic plates don't just shift on the Left. If Cameron attempts to sit in the centre ground, he alienates the lower middle classes and aspirational working working classes who formed the bedrock of Mrs Thatcher's election wins. These people have already got into habit of voting for UKIP in the European elections.
Not to mention LibDems disillusioned by the realities of power.
Remember that in 2005 the two main parties collectively polled some 70% of the vote. This was utterly pitiful; only the vagaries of the electoral system allowed Tony Blair to claim a comfortable third election win. The two party share of the vote fell in 2010 to around 68%, thanks to Labour notching up its second worst election result since 1918; the Tories were unable to form a government unassisted. The fundamental truth is that all parties are now busted flushes.
The current London mayoral election illustrates this perfectly. There are only two viable candidates. The policy differences between them are trivial (which, in light of their notional ideological baggage is quite remarkable) and their appeal to the voters is based almost purely on personality.
So what now?
Not necessarily mutually exclusive possibilities are:
- a prolonged period of coalitions and/or unpopular minority governments
- a realignment of party politics along lines (whether ideological in the traditional sense or not) which more accurately reflect the electorate's hopes and fears
- the charismatic man (woman?) on a white horse (but I do hope not!)
Incidentally, I think that this period of uncertainty started in 2005 (if not earlier) - we have only been able to recognise it since the accession of Gordon Brown and the financial crisis.
We have, in a sense, been here before. Certainly, in electoral terms (although not in political ones), the 1920s looked a lot like this. The decade even opened with a Liberal Prime Minister in a House of Commons with a Conservative majority. The situation eventually resolved itself with the collapse of the Liberal Party and the emergence of the National Government, first with the "Doctor's Mandate" to deal with the depression, and secondly with the War (when it became more genuinely national).
Neither of the main political parties emerging from the Second World War much resembled their pre-war nominal predecessors, whether in tone, personnel or policies.
What's it going to be this time?