Political parties are becoming regional parties, and are ceasing to have national appeal. Through tribalism and a perceived encroachment of identity politics, parties are finding themselves locked out of some areas, whilst enjoying impenetrable safe seats elsewhere.
Probably more than most, the Conservative Party are losing the right to call themselves a national party in the true sense of the term. Scotland is now all but written off by CCHQ, and Wales is not far behind. The same is increasingly true of Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sunderland and Birmingham. With the exceptions of affluent suburbs and posher parts of London, the Tories are seeing themselves becoming a party of the Home Counties and rural areas.
Thatcher seemed able to take the Tory message from the Highlands to Hammersmith and all points in between, but over the last twenty years the Tories have failed to make a dent outside the safe seats. Part of the problem was Tony Blair capturing the upwardly mobile lower middle class and upper working class vote in the late 1990’s. The mistake CCHQ have made however has been to try and appeal to these groups now that Labour has forsaken them. The problem with that tactic is that there aren’t many left, and those that do remain are just as likely to vote UKIP.
The Tories failure to appeal to the urban working class is not helped by the detoxification campaign pushed by Cameron and his supporters. Commitments to the environment and increasing foreign aid simply don’t resonate outside the metropolitan middle and upper middle classes. They just don’t. Where once the Tories offered the working class an aspirational alternative to the dead hand of the State proposed by Labour, today they offer the Lib Dems in blue drag. One small mercy for the Tories is that their safe seats are about as safe as they come, with some enjoying majorities of over fifteen thousand.
Labour too are becoming increasingly confined to regional and demographic strongholds. Not since Tony Blair have Labour been able to reach out and gain resonance beyond their traditional base of the inner cities and seaside towns.
Eastleigh saw Labour come in a humiliating fourth, even with a high profile candidate and a late but concerted effort by activists from the surrounding areas. More recently, Labour did poorly in the Local Elections, clawing back less than 300 seats. The massacre of 2009 hasn’t come close to being reversed, and an opposition party mid term and facing an unpopular government should be much better. Tellingly, Labour do not control a single council south of Birmingham.
History is not on Labours side. The population is ageing, and older people tend to be more Conservative. Political manifestation of mass labour is now largely dead in Western Europe as industry has moved in search of more conducive environments. Labour is also facing a crisis of identity; it is no longer seen as the party of the working man, but rather as the party of the State. This is exacerbated by union membership to be increasingly found only in the Public Sector. And when Public Sector unions are bankrolling the party, it’s not surprising to see Labour pledging ever larger slices of the national pie to the retention of public sector workers (read members).
To make matters worse for Labour, nationalists have chipped away at traditional Labour redoubts in Scotland and Wales. Labour will keep their grip on the Northern English cities and the poorest parts of London simply by virtue of not being Tory, but as Bradford West showed, the larger towns cannot be taken for granted.
If I was being unkind I would say that the Lib Dems are an answer to a question nobody asked. Born from the wreckage of the SDP and the Liberals, the Lib Dems have always occupied an odd place on the British political landscape. A favourite of students and middle class lefties with no stomach for socialism, the Lib Dems were the ‘nice’ party. You might not be inspired man the barricades, or whipped up into a free market frenzy by them, but they seems sensible enough. This was translated geographically by seeing them strongest in the South West and middle income parts of the cities.
But try as they might, the Lib Dems are perennial almost party. Labour and Tory voters unlucky enough to find themselves in the wrong kind of safe seat would often tactically vote to at least have a chance of ousting the incumbent when their own candidate stood no chance. Add to that the fact that they were the default party of protest, and the Lib Dems enjoyed an awful lot of second places right across the country. But this was shallow support. Tory modernisation may have cost it some Right Wingers to UKIP, but it siphoned off some Orange Bookers from the Lib Dems. Equally, Left leaning Lib Dems unhappy that Clegg had seemingly sold his soul by going into Coalition have been tempted to slink off to Labour. And finally, UKIP are now the anti-Westminster party of choice, depriving the Lib Dems of even more of their soft supports.
The curve ball in this, like in so many other areas, is UKIP themselves. Having no sitting MP’s, it’s harder to judge the geographic nature of their appeal. In addition, having inherited the mantel of the party of protest muddies the water even further. The stereotype of the UKIP voter being a red faced golf club committee member is becoming harder to sustain, especially when one considers that UKIP’s best results have come in traditional Labour areas. It will be interesting to see how UKIP do if there is a by-election in a Tory area (Corby doesn’t really count as it was always Labour seat. Mensch was an anomaly). There are seemingly no no-go areas for UKIP, in England at least so 2015 could be very interesting.
With political party membership and activism in terminal decline, and trust in politicians at an all time low, perhaps regionalisation of politics was a natural result. What follows however, is anybodies guess.