Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control.
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism