looks like winning on 36% of the vote – the lowest share of the vote for a
winning party in the modern era. Between them, the two leading parties look
like gaining less than 70% of the vote, unprecedented in the post-war period. The
Lib Dems had their best result since the 1920s, fuelled by large swings in some
key constituencies where anti-war tactical voting (Hornsey) and student votes
(Manchester Withington) played a role.
The bigger picture should also look at the remarkable 8% taken by 'others' - smaller parties and independent candidates. Abstentions are still very high too: turnout is only up around 2% on its record low of 2001, standing now at just over 60%. This shift can largely be accounted for by the rise of postal voting.
High levels of abstention and the rise of smaller parties are not unusual to the UK. A similar pattern has been seen elsewhere in Western Europe in recent years. Major parties have been haemorrhaging support, as their vote is fragmented across a whole range of smaller parties. The most notable instance of this is probably in France, where far left and far right have both recorded large gains in national elections. There are important political reasons for this fragmentation: with major parties converging on a neoliberal economic model, there are no longer serious political disputes 'at the centre', which means that the losers from that system are left looking for another home. This doesn't mean, of course, that these discontents will be expressed as renewed strength for the left.
In Britain up to now, the First Past the Post (FPTP) system has acted as a check upon this fragmentation. When political commentators start to reflect on this, many will no doubt see it as an additional argument in favour of Britain's current electoral system.
left may be tempted by this argument too. Certainly, squeezing the electoral
preferences of the nation into a winner-takes-all model of single member,
single vote constituencies does make
the electoral rise of far right (as well as far left) more difficult: it is
hard to imagine an equivalent to Le Pen breaking through in Britain as has
happened in France. But it does not make the rise of far right politics any trickier. This election
campaign has seen attacks on immigrants and gypsies, as scapegoats are sought
to explain away social discontents. This political strategy, spearheaded by the
Conservatives' authoritarian populist campaign, but acquiesced by Labour too,
is designed to appeal to an imagined, reactionary core of the British
electorate – the 'middle England' voters who populate the marginal seats that the parties know determine their fate in electoral competition. As a result, the political centre has been pushed further to the right during the campaign – and the electoral system, which encourages this kind of pandering to a lowest common denominator, is a part of that big picture. OR, 7.22am