Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Troubled times for Westminster politics

I commented the other day on opinion polling which found that all the three main political parties are, in different ways, doing badly: falling approval ratings for the coalition government, declines in the personal ratings of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, and an awful result for Liberal Democrats in the survey of voting intentions.

The governing parties are faring poorly but there's little enthusiasm for Labour, which is simply soaking up disaffection with the Lib Dems. The political backdrop is a fragile coalition of convenience attempting to make deep cuts to public services, but also a broad consensus among all three main parties that cuts are 'necessary' in the context of a crisis for capitalism.

Now there's another reason for the Tories to worry. And yet another warning to Labour leaders not to complacently assume they can sit back and allow the coalition to self-destruct. The Tories' problem is members; Labour's worries are financial.

The Mail on Sunday reported a significant fall in Tory Party membership since 2005: 'Under Cameron’s leadership Tory membership nationally appears to have fallen by about a third, from 259,000 to 177,000.'

This may come as a surprise. In 2005 the Tories lost a third successive general election. Cameron took over from Michael Howard. Since then, you might think, there will have been a rise in party membership. Yet the opposite is true.

If membership keeps falling at this rate, the Tories will struggle to maintain an activist base to help deliver it election victories on the ground. Business donations keep the party well funded, but for campaigning purposes it also helps to have a solid base of activists and members.

Meanwhile, Labour List comments on Labour's funding crisis. Membership has grown since last May - though it's still under half of the 400,000 members the party had in 1997 - but the level of donations from members and supporters is very poor.

Labour's reliance on union funding makes it especially vulnerable when you remember there could be legislation massively curtailing how much the unions can donate. If such proposals become law the Labour Party could face an even deeper financial crisis than it has now.

Ed Miliband's new package of 'reforms', which were the subject of much media attention a few days ago, are unlikely to mark a break from the past. As one blogger notes: 'His hopes for Party 'reform' are of a piece with the New Labour project of detaching the Party from unions and working class communities, substituting instead a centralised leadership pushing a consumer politics to a passive electorate.'

In summary: the Tories are rapidly losing members, Labour doesn't have any money, and the Lib Dems may have members and money but nobody will vote for them.

The Lib Dems have collapsed because they went into coalition with a viciously right wing Tory Party, thus losing their left-of-centre voters. Labour is scarred by its failures over 13 years in office and still failing to articulate an alternative to the government, especially on austerity, and thus can't generate popular enthusiasm (and the donations which follow).

The Tories' falling membership is, I would speculate, linked to two phenomena. One is the fact there isn't - contrary to claims from some commentators - a resurgence of right-wing politics among the population. This is not like the 'Loadsamoney' era, with a cocky right wing in the ascendancy. Tory support is more grudging, cynical and guarded, and there's a strong bloc of left-of-centre public opinion.

The other, interrelated, factor is the general wariness of mainstream politics and its institutions, symbolised by the expenses scandal but not entirely caused by it.

Does this crisis of mainstream politics mean there is a flourishing of alternatives either to the left or on the far right?

The good news is that the fascist BNP had awful results in the local elections last year and again this year. It has as good as collapsed. UKIP may get some decent results or polling, but I see no evidence to suggest they should be treated as more than a fringe irrelevance.

Unfortunately the radical left has done rather terribly in recent elections, with Respect struggling to retain its few council seats and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) failing to get off the starting blocks. The Scottish radical left also got poor results in May.

The 'First Past the Post' system doesn't help. The Labour-union link remains a serious obstacle too. The tendency for left-wing voters to 'rally to Labour' as a bulwark against a Tory-led government is also a problem.

The Green Party is doing better, though not as well as some might expect. Perhaps it isn't really big and mainstream enough to capitalise on disillusionment with the main parties.

The only party doing well, it seems, is the Scottish National Party. The SNP's success means a whole separate analysis is required to explain Scottish politics. Its recent victory in the Scottish Parliament was on the back of opposition to all the Big Three UK-wide parties, maybe suggesting an alternative to Tories, Labour and Lib Dems can score electoral success when it is perceived as credible.

I'm reluctant to make predictions. There are positive and negative potential consequences from all the above. One point to note, though, is that any possible social unrest - like in Spain or Greece - will emerge in a context where established, 'official', politics is weaker and more hollowed-out than ever before. Exactly what that means for the future of British politics is hard to say.


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