In the 1974 UK general election, the Liberal Party were – as their reformed selves still remain today – the third party in the British political system. Unfortunately for Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals, they were brutally beaten by the dominant Labour and Conservative parties.
Edward Heath led the Tories back in those days: a man who has been satirically described by political commentators as the Labour leader before the times of Margaret Thatcher. In short, many on the Right viewed Heath as a man who could have sat quite happily on the benches with the red ties. The Telegraph’s Tim Stanley describes Heath as “another Tory politician who was just trying to get elected”. This is not an unorthodox view: many would argue that Heath dodged the tricky situations, and would much rather a platform of consensus than a Thatcherite controversial edge.
Heath, like many Labour MPs on the other side of the house, was a politician who believed in the renationalisation of failing industries, social democracy, and frankly, – aside from his leadership for entry to the European Common Market – bog-standard ideas in that political era. He was viewed by many as too moderate, too complaisant, and too weak.
Because of this similarity of views between Labour and the Tories, you might have expected that the number of seats won by a protest party would have significantly increased, especially in an era where inflation was high, coal prices had rocketed up due to global economic factors (as well as Mining strikes), and the Three Day Week was introduced. And whilst I concede that the Liberals did see an increase of 8 seats in 1974, – taking them to 14 – an unavoidable problem of the British voting system is that their percentage of the vote had more than doubled to 19.5%.
This relates in more ways than one to 2015, and more vocally on UKIP; the new British party of protest.
The Liberals suffered in 1974 due to their support being spread too thinly around the UK. 2010 for example, saw Nick Clegg lead the Liberal Democrats to 57 seats with only 3.5% more of the vote than the party received in 1974.
Quite the difference.
Like the 1974 Liberals, support for UKIP is also thinly spread around the UK. The party’s results in the South Shields, Croydon, and Middlesbrough by-elections have shown that whilst the Eurosceptics can come 2nd or 3rd, they are trailing the winner by some margin. Eastleigh showed signs of potential for UKIP, but this was at a time when the future looked bleak: economic and austerity news was prominent, much more so than today, and furthermore, due to the negative figures in Britain, scorns were magnified towards the European Union as the source of these problems. Today, you would be forgiven for thinking that the future is looking up for both parties in the Coalition; especially the Conservatives.
This is UKIP’s biggest problem. When Election Day comes by in 2015, are voters going to opt for the party that ‘couldn’t quite’ at a by-election held during times of acrimony and uncertainty? History would suggest they won’t, if that was anything to go by.
Britain has been the benchmark model for scholars to understand how a two party system operates. Flick through the pages of history and you will find that British politics has been dominated by either red or blue ties; seldom any yellow.
In fact, the majority of times where power has been divided has been during a national crisis: the 1918 Coalition began a month after the end of WW1; Ramsay MacDonald’s National Coalition was brought about by the 1931 Wall Street crash; a Coalition was formed during WW2 to expand consensus; and most recently, the 2008 financial crisis tore apart the developed world, and that emergency led to the separation in party support once again.
Aside from that, British politics has been rather binary: a collection of either Tory or Labour governments. And this is because of that repetitive choice British voters have had to make at General Elections: ‘Do I vote for who I want, or do I vote for who I think can win?’
This is the mountain UKIP will have to climb in 2015: Britain is arguably one of the most stable party systems in the developed world (aside from the United States); so what hope is left for a party of protest? If this was Belgium, or PR voting, UKIP may already be dominating in parliament, just as the N-VA constitutional reform party has done; a party which was recently founded in 2001.
But for the UK, 2015 could be similar to 1974. Cameron has been criticised by right-wingers as being too soft, too progressive, and too moderate; whilst meanwhile, Labour support for the austerity cuts has far-left voters criticising the reds of actually being blues. In reality, what we do when we discuss British party politics is discuss meagre differences. Labour may have the rhetoric to convince some that life would be different under their government, but make no mistake, their 2010 manifesto pledged to halve the budget deficit in four years; austerity would have reigned supreme as well.
The variety between the major parties is a divide of a few digits; that’s British politics. But unfortunately for Nigel Farage, the modern day Jeremy Thorpe, that may not be much help to expand his crusade, because for voters, the disillusioned and fed-up British voters, the idea of risking your vote on an outsider party is not up for debate if it means that those ‘bloody socialists’ or those ‘poor hating toffs’ get the top spot; when in reality there is little overall difference between both parties.
British politics is inflated rhetoric and convolution. But that is the mixture that makes it terribly difficult for the likes of Jeremy Thompson and Nigel Farage, yet on the other hand, a unique opportunity for the consensus chasing, ubiquitous Edward Heaths of Westminter.
Ultimately, the protest party in 2015 – whoever that may be eventually – was never in for much luck. If it will be UKIP, you may be happy at the prospect of their demise, or perhaps not; but ultimately, it is the downfall of the democratic process which should concern us far more than anything else.