There’s been a lot of analysis, soul-searching and heartache this week – and celebration, in certain quarters – in the wake of the UK Independence Party’s win in the Rochester and Stroud by-election. Much of the debate has been around whether this and the perceived rise of UKIP signal the end of the three-party – and, let’s face it, mostly two-party – political system that’s dominated for at least the last century.
I don’t think it does signal the end of that tradition; I think the beginning of the end pre-dated UKIP. The signs were in the results of the 2010 general election.
We don’t have much experience of coalitions in this country, but the outcome of the 2010 election was to oblige one of the main parties – the Conservatives, as it turned out – to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Voters almost certainly didn’t vote for a coalition, but they did vote for something between a plague-on-all-your-houses and the political equivalent of Whatever and a coalition was the outcome. The mould of traditional politics was broken and I suspect that any number of king’s horses and king’s men can’t put that together again.
And I see UKIP’s rise – and, perhaps more importantly, the decline of voting on the lines of traditional political parties – as part of a chain of events that first came to prominence with the need to establish a coalition.
Politicians can no longer assume that people will vote on party lines, although some will. But when everyone considers that their view is valid (and see the 26 Oct blog entry on Everyone), political parties feel horribly irrelevant.
The shift has happened and events will take some time to play out, but politicians shouldn’t be distracted by the red herring of UKIP. There’s something far more fundamental afoot in UK politics.