Socialist Worker

Electoral support for mainstream parties falls

Britain’s political landscape is rapidly shifting as voter participation and traditional party loyalties come under strain, writes Charlie Kimber

Issue No. 1950a

Election count (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Election count (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The general election results have demonstrated that millions of people are deeply alienated from the entire political establishment. British politics is fracturing and being shaken up in an extremely volatile manner.

The Iraq war and Blair’s abandonment of what many people thought were “traditional Labour values” has torn apart all the political certainties for millions of working people.

Support for the two major parties is collapsing. In 1979 some 61 percent of the entire potential electorate voted for either the Labour or the Tory party.

That fell to 51 percent in 1983 and to just 43 percent in 2001. This time it was even lower — 42 percent.

Fewer people back the major parties. Even those who do are not enthusiastic about them. Only 16 percent of Labour and 14 percent of Tory voters say they are “strong supporters” of their chosen party.

This figure reflects both the increasing willingness of people to consider voting for new forces and the historically low turnout at recent elections.

In 1992 78 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Five years later that had fallen to 71 percent and by 2001 the turnout had fallen to 59 percent.

This time, despite persuading three times as many people to vote by post and despite the result being more in question than in 2001, the turnout remained miserably low.

At 61 percent it was the second lowest since 1918 — and turnout in Labour seats was 7 percentage points lower than in Tory ones.

This is not because people are apathetic. The vast majority of people say they are interested in national political issues. But traditional politics does not provide a focus and a channel for that interest.

The same study recorded that although two thirds of people wanted a say in how the country is run, only 27 percent feel they actually do have a say.

Coupled with that is a strong sense that there is very little difference between the major parties. In the early 1980s 80 percent of people thought there was a gulf between the Tories and Labour. Today that’s down to 27 percent.

British politics is in turmoil. What seemed to be fixed points are now shifting uncertainties, and loyalties are under strain.

One example of this is the fate of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Less than a year ago it rocketed to prominence, capturing 16 percent of the vote at the European elections. This time it got just 2 percent and is left to pay for 340 lost deposits.

UKIP’s best known figure, Robert Kilroy-Silk, left to stand for his own party — Veritas — and was truly humiliated.

Millions of people are looking for a new political home. They can be drawn towards the hope offered by Respect, or to the scapegoating and division fostered by UKIP or the Nazi British National Party.

Some at this election voted for the Liberal Democrats. But there is every chance that these votes were simply lent for a single anti-Blair purpose, not banked for the longer term.

New opportunities are emerging — new challenges that demand bold answers.

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Sat 7 May 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1950a
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