At least once every five years the British people get what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called their one day of freedom - the chance to elect their government. The media go mad, politicians get very excited and polling companies make a lot of money. But the philosopher went on to say that the People 'makes such a use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it'.
It seems many are coming to share Rousseau's exasperation. The old two-and-a-quarter party system is collapsing, propped up only by the post they're all so desperate to be first past. Record numbers of people aren't bothering to vote. Others are shifting to smaller parties. Historic new trends are in train, but they are concealed by the voting system. It's as if the magma below the surface is volatile, but so far the electoral crust has remained intact.
Turnout has been in rapid decline since 1992. The 2001 and 2005 elections had the lowest turnouts since 1918 at around 60 per cent. Labour won in 2005 with just 35 per cent of the popular vote. More people abstained than voted for the government. A close election may see turnout rise this year but it would be a huge surprise if it returned to 1992 levels.
An even more remarkable phenomenon has been the severing of people's attachment to a particular party. Figures quoted by Helena Kennedy's Power Commission show that while 43.8 per cent of people had a 'very strong' identification with a party in 1964, by 1997 that figure had fallen to 14.7 per cent. Party memberships have tumbled spectacularly. The Conservative Party has gone from more than two million members in 1970 to fewer than 300,000 today.
Labour loses out
But Labour has the most to worry about. New Labour's relentless pursuit of the centre ground has alienated swathes of working class voters. According to analyses such as the University of Essex's British Election Study, many feel that the Labour Party no longer stands for their interests and ask why they should vote when politicians are 'all the same'.
In the past few decades a class differential between voters has developed. Before 1987 working class people were just as likely to vote as those from the middle class, but by 2001 the gap had become pronounced. This coincided with the dropping of class from the language of mainstream politics and the abandonment of radical social change as a goal.
So far this hasn't hurt Labour electorally. Safe Labour seats have the lowest turnout of any, but this has no impact on the result because Labour still wins them. Yet in this year's much closer battle the obsession with 'Middle Britain' could plausibly lose Labour seats and even the election if working class people don't see any point in voting.
One analysis by Ipsos MORI has suggested that low turnout hits Labour hard, while a higher number of voters boosts Labour's share and reduces that of the Tories. It found that the less certain people are to vote, the more likely they are to be inclined towards Labour.
Lewis Baston at the Electoral Reform Society has projected how many seats this might be costing Labour. Based on a ward-by-ward study of the Crawley constituency (the most marginal, with a Labour majority of 37 votes), he found that turnout in Labour-supporting wards was significantly lower. Had turnout been equal, Labour would have won by 1.3 per cent instead of 0.1 per cent. Projected across the country, that differential turnout could have cost Labour six seats in 2005.
Baston thinks this is 'at the extreme low end of possibilities'. Using the same method on the Burton constituency in Staffordshire revealed that Labour would have won by 7.2 per cent instead of 3 per cent if turnout had been equal. According to Baston, 'If Burton is typical, within-constituency differential turnout cost Labour something like 23 constituencies.'
Record support for alternatives
The convergence of parties in the centre ground has not only resulted in more abstentions but has boosted support for smaller parties. John Curtice, a renowned psephologist and professor of politics at Strathclyde University, believes that the 2010 election will see 'record support' for parties other than the big three. While he concedes that first-past-the-post has under-represented the shift in voter behaviour, as shown by the greater success of alternative parties in European, devolved and local elections, nevertheless the phenomenon 'is not wholly unreflected at Westminster'. 'The system is much more fractured than before,' he says, 'but it's not true that this isn't apparent in parliament. There are more nationalist and independent MPs than ever and a large number of Liberal Democrats.'
If the two-party system is receding, what is filling the vacuum? There isn't one clear pattern, but a number of trends in different places. In Wales and Scotland the nationalists are rampant; in traditional Labour areas the BNP especially, but sometimes Respect and other socialist candidates, are doing better; in middle class constituencies the Greens are on the up; in true blue Tory regions UKIP and the English Democrats are taking votes from the Conservatives; in places with expenses-grabbing MPs wild-cards such as Esther Rantzen may do well - and across the country more people are opting to vote for none of the above.
There appears to be no direct link between turnout and the success of alternative candidates. As psephologist Rob Ford puts it, 'Turnout tends to be high where the Greens stand but low where the BNP or Respect stand, because they appeal to particular kinds of voters who just so happen to be interested or disinterested for other reasons.'
The BNP targets traditional Labour areas - of the 34 constituencies where they polled over 5 per cent in 2005, 33 elected Labour MPs. Although these tend to be low-turnout areas, the BNP's presence can actually increase the numbers by prompting counter-campaigns and mobilising people who don't usually vote. The party thrives in safe Labour seats that have been taken for granted and neglected, as Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas has highlighted. So far it has had no impact on general election results - one of the few advantages of first-past-the-post. That could change this year in Barking, where Nick Griffin will stand against Margaret Hodge in a high-profile contest.
But below the electoral surface the BNP is building a base. A study by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin of Manchester University has shown that the party generally has most success with middle-aged, poorly educated manual workers in former industrial areas of the north.
Socialist candidates tend to stand in similar places, shying away from constituencies where a split on the left could hand the seat to the Tories. This strategy ensures they too have no effect on the national results. One candidate whose celebrity could buck the trend this year is actor Ricky Tomlinson, who may stand for Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party in Liverpool Wavertree.
Respect is the most successful electoral force on the left as the only one with an MP. Ironically, it appeals to a similar demographic to the BNP, except its core vote is Muslim. Respect operates an extreme form of targeting, and is wholly focused on three seats in 2010. George Galloway has moved constituency to Poplar and Limehouse; Abjol Miah is contesting Galloway's old seat of Bethnal Green and Bow; and Salma Yaqoob expects to do well in Birmingham Hall Green.
Meanwhile the Greens have a great chance of getting their first MP, with Caroline Lucas polling very well in Brighton; the party is also strong in Norwich. Their voters fit a very different profile - census data shows Brighton Pavilion to have a high proportion of well-educated home owners and students. Unlike mobilised Muslims or disgruntled whites, Green supporters tend to be the kind of people who are engaged and would turn out to vote anyway.
So from a confusing picture it looks like wins for Lucas and Galloway and defeat for Nick Griffin are the best results the left can hope for in this election. These would be considerable achievements, but they are such particular examples that they wouldn't provide a blueprint for action across the country. That is a reflection of an increasingly fractured electorate. But such successes would act as signposts to new electoral paths that must be made as the traditional two-party system reaches the end of the road.