Sunday, March 01, 2015
As the parties sectionalise their appeal, is British politics fracturing?
Nonetheless, the search for new angles can produce some interesting assessment of the current British political condition, and two notable commentators - James Forsyth from the right and Andrew Rawnsley from the left - have produced this Sunday's best conjectures.
Both, through different arguments, are essentially noting the fracturing of the British political scene into areas of geographic or sectional interest. Forsyth, in the Spectator (summarised here on the Coffee House blog) considers the notion that the main parties are no longer properly national ones. This is in large part because they are now so uncompetitive in different parts of the UK that they have pretty well abandoned any attempt to win their 'lost' regions back. Look at the Tories in the north, or most of the large cities. Look at Labour in the rural south. And this is to make no comment on the situation in Scotland, largely of their own making.
In his blog post, Forsyth goes on to note that in addition to their regionalisation, the parties are also competing ever more narrowly on topics that benefit them and their perceived target voters. This is a point which Andrew Rawnsley explores in more depth in his piece for the Observer. From David Cameron's promise to ring-fence the financial well-being of older voters, to Ed Miliband's promise to reduce the tuition fees for students, Rawnsley notes the knock-on effect of such narrowly targeted policies and compares them, in his opening, with the 18th century image of voter bribery that was illustrated by William Hogarth (in the picture that adorns this post).
The fragmentation of British politics in this way is more likely than ever to produce fissures across the UK landscape, in addition to the huge one that continually threaten to split widely on the northern border. It may be symptomatic of the current political leaders' loss of faith in their political principles. It may be the result of their own life-long insularity, which saw their career move through political jobs to youthful party leadership with barely any upsetting intrusion into the grainy, gritty world of most voters. Such a continuous political trajectory makes them all more susceptible to the statistification of politics, where you look for x thousand votes from a particular group or region to ensure you get those crucial key seats that give you a majority. The Guardian's Rafael Behr commented on this aspect earlier this week.
Every election is important. It is just that some are more likely than others to be watersheds. 1945 and 1979 were classic examples of ideological watersheds; without much ideology on the table, 2015 might be a watershed for the very structure of the British polity itself.