Talk about false dawns. Those invigorating in-between times – those by-elections and local elections and European elections – always fool us into believing they’re the harbingers of political earthquakes rocking the foundations of the two major parties; and yet, the real threat to the red and blue corners’ century-old monopoly of power, if it comes at all, tends to come from within rather than without. The Labour and Conservative Parties are more than capable of destroying themselves without any assistance from outsiders. Give them the exclusive right to elect their respective leaders and look what happens. Having said that, however, their joint ability to overcome these internal disasters is either a tribute to their admirable capacity for survival or a damning indictment of not only the other parties snapping at their heels, but the first-past-the-post system – and possibly even the electorate itself.
Two and-a-half years ago, pre-General Election talk was of the death of two-party politics; come polling day, the nation chose to give Labour and the Tories the biggest share of the vote they’d had since 1970. This time round, pre-General Election talk was of the death of two-party politics; and now, just days away from polling day, all focus has shifted back to the usual suspects. The first half of this year was dominated by the formation of TIG and the overnight Euro success of the Brexit Party, yet as we approach its end all talk of a major break with the old politics seems as deluded as putting money on an unlikely club winning the Premier League simply because they topped the table after the opening weekend of fixtures. Regardless of unrealisable spending plans, anti-Semitism or born-to-rule arrogance, like the Old Firm poised to do battle in today’s Scottish League Cup Final, it’s the same teams playing for the trophy once more, with everyone else relegated back to making up the numbers.
Naturally, nobody was expecting anyone other than Boris or Jezza as PM from the kick-off; but perhaps the unique, if unenlightening, head-to-heads the pair have taken part in on TV have served to remind voters that when it comes to deciding who runs the country there’s only ever a choice between two – even if the two on offer are the worst two in living memory. The quick-fire format of those debates doesn’t promise much more than the enticing prospect of a heated argument to make for good television, anyway; even if the electorate had faith in either man, it’s doubtful watching such a programme would make up the mind of a floating voter. Viewers come away remembering Jezza’s wonky glasses or the laughter greeting Boris’s theories on trust in politics – whereas ‘the message’ is lost somewhere along the way, buried beneath instantly forgettable catch-phrases and vapid sound-bites.
Lest we forget, one issue continues to dominate discourse, and I suspect without it the Tories would be toast, even up against such an unpopular opposition; the Brexit factor will save their skin, for when Leavers look around and are confronted by wall-to-wall Remainers, there’s only one party that can (in theory) ‘get Brexit done’ – and that won’t be Nigel’s barmy army, something even he acknowledged when announcing his decision to pull out of several seats where his party’s presence could split the vote. On the eve of the campaign, the Leave/Remain votes appeared to be spread evenly, yet the defection of four prominent (ish) Brexit MEPs to the Tory cause last week suggests most Leave voters will probably back Boris; similarly, the Remainers now seem to be favouring Labour more than the early frontrunners for the pro-EU vote, the Lib Dems. And so, the traditional equilibrium is restored just in time for polling day.
Outside of General Elections, it’s as if the electorate are a philandering husband who repeatedly tells his Lib Dem and Brexit Party bits-on-the-side he loves them and will definitely leave his wife for them; then, as soon as a General Election is called and the reality of the gamble hits, he heads back home to the familiar certainty of the marital bed. Characteristically overconfident, premature bravado on the part of Jo Swinson having now been quietly swept under a carpet once belonging to David Steel, the Lib Dems have slipped back to recognising their realistic place in the scheme of things; as with both the SNP and DUP, they can cling to the possibility their presence might count for something in the event of a Hung Parliament; but that’s the best they can hope for.
If the smaller parties serve any purpose beyond their own interests, one could say they exist to give the big two a rejuvenating kick up the arse; any by-election drift away is swiftly addressed as the factors that tempted previously loyal voters to look elsewhere are absorbed into the Labour and Tory machines, luring the faithful back home. It happened way back in the early 60s, most dramatically at the Orpington By-Election of 1962; the appeal of Eric Lubbock and the Liberal Party to the red-brick graduates was noted by Harold Wilson when he took charge of the Labour Party a year later, wooing the Liberal voters by presenting Labour as the only modern, dynamic alternative to the Conservatives – and the only party capable of ousting them from office. And what did the Tories do when the likelihood of haemorrhaging votes to Farage on the biggest stage of all threatened to scupper their chances of victory? They allowed the ERG wing to take control and Boris purged the party of dissenting voices, thus presenting themselves as the ‘real’ Brexit Party come this Thursday.
Corbyn’s cabal have taken a similar path by forcing moderates out of the Labour Party and ensuring all new recruits are loyal to the leader’s vision, though Labour don’t have a Brexit-like issue that will attract the floaters, regardless of how much everyone professes to love the NHS. The big two are now controlled by what used to be their respective lunatic fringes – and if it wasn’t for the good fortune of all the other parties promoting the Remain cause, the Tories would be as buggered as the opposition. But what of those who voted for Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005 – or even David Cameron in 2010? Where do they go now? Even the traditional welcoming harbour for voters lost at sea – the Lib Dems – have undoubtedly been tarnished by having a crack at their own version of extremism; and they’ve left it too late to repair the damage and offer the usual bed-for-the-night to the politically homeless .
It’s hard to see any ‘good’ outcome to come here; whoever is declared winner on Friday or spends next weekend cobbling together a coalition, it’s nothing to look forward to. Whichever candidate receives my cross next to their name on Thursday, there’s no way I’ll be able to walk out of that polling station without feeling an overwhelming sense of shame and embarrassment having momentarily endorsed a party boasting more I vehemently disagree with than agree with. There’s no pride in 2019.
© The Editor