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UK politics is becoming ever more atomised

The latest polling data from Ipsos-MORI on whether the UK should stay in the EU is encouraging for pro-EU supports but is counter-intuitive when taking the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) into account. However,  few political parties are anything like as homogeneous as they once were and UKIP is no exception, writes chief political correspondent Tim McNamara. 

Ipsos Mori said “The polling shows the majority of Britons would vote to stay in the European Union in a referendum, indicating the highest support for British membership since 1991 …. Some 56% would vote to stay in the EU, compared with 36% who would vote to get out; eight percent answer that they do not know how they would vote. This translates to 61% support for Britain’s EU membership and 39% opposing after excluding ‘don’t knows’. This is the highest support since December 1991, when 60% said they would vote to stay in the European Community and 29% wanted to get out.”

It should be noted that the same poll reveals that the ‘Outers’ vote has hardened from 29% to 39% over the same period. This is probably the effect of UKIP’s popularity attracting voters to their cause, but one should also take into account a significant number of Tory voters who share the same view. Nevertheless, the more people discuss the politics of leaving the EU, the more voters in the UK seem to back away from espousing/supporting policies that would lead to UK withdrawal.

Yet when one drills down into the opinions of UKIP supporters, some of them don’t support leaving. Some see migration as a major issue but don’t necessarily oppose free movement in the EU. Like may people in the UK, voters rarely completely support the policies of the parties they indicate they will vote for.

The UK has a long (and proud?) history of adversarial politics, mainly based around two dominant parties. What was once a clear choice between the right (The Conservative and Unionist party) and the left (Labour and Co-operative party) made for a clear delineation between two competing ideologies.

There was an era (late 50s/60s/ early to mid 70s) when there was a great deal of consensus about the role of the state between ‘One-nation’ Toryism and the centre and right-wing elements of the Labour party. This all changed after the rise of Thatcherism, the rise of the left in the Labour party and the schism within Labour that led to the birth of the centrist Social Democratic party.

Thatcher’s electoral success led to 18 years of Tory Governments followed by 13 years of Labour Governments. The two-party system held sway and smaller parties were marginalised. It was only in the elections to the European parliament (under proportional representation) that the smaller parties were able to win some seats.

Most of this was due to the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system used for elections to the national parliament. The candidate with the most votes won the election, even if the proportion of the vote won was small.

Yet, even under first-past-the-post, it appears that the two-party system is irrevocably weakened. The 2010 general election ended in deadlock with no party commanding a majority in the House of Commons. For the first time since the Second World War, the UK ushered in a coalition government. All the indications are that the 2015 election will also produce a parliament with no party having overall control.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that party loyalties are no longer as strong as they were. The rise in support for the nationalist parties (especially the Scottish nationalists), UKIP, and the Greens is mirrored by the decline of the major parties including the Liberal Democrats (who did relatively well at the last election).

With the decline of print media, the plethora of available news feeds via the internet, and the advent of the ‘populist’ approach to news and particularly the coverage of politics by TV outlets (infotainment?), voters no longer rely on a very small number of outlets for their information about Westminster. This atomisation of information sources leads to individuals taking a multi-layered approach to political choices.

Hence even UKIP has different nuances about the EU. A lot of polling data indicates that UKIP, for example, gains a lot of support from nationalists, the economically disaffected and what Marxists identified as the lumpenproletariat. The issue of EU membership is not even the major concern of a significant number of party members.

Will atomisation lead to alienation from the political process? The mood of anti-politics and anti-status quo is growing. It is becoming increasingly difficult to discern the real motives of voters who won’t vote for either Tory or Labour.

Yet the first-past-the-post system offers a great deal of security to the two largest parties. But does it act as a logjam to voters’ real intentions? If the logjam breaks then who knows what style/form of government will be formed in the general election after next (2020)?

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