It is tempting to imagine, as the surge of support for the Liberal Democrats shows little sign of abating, that we are witnessing a fundamental shift in British politics, of the sort that took place in the early decades of the twentieth century or in the 1980s. A century ago, the Liberal Party, dominant for much of the nineteenth century, imploded and came eventually to be replaced in Britain’s two-party system by the Labour Party. In the eighties, Margaret Thatcher crushed the old Labour Party, from the rubble of which New Labour emerged.
On the surface, a similar form of realignment is taking place today. May 6 could mark the end of two-party politics and the arrival of the Liberal Democrats as a major player in a future dominated by hung parliaments and coalition governments. Yet, if realignment it is, it is of a different kind than that which took place in the past. Those two great reshapings of the twentieth century political landscape were expressions of significant ideological changes. The first saw the emergence of social democracy and the creation of the welfare state as an institution central both to British political life and to the nation’s self-image. The second marked the erosion of the ‘postwar settlement’, the rise of neo-liberal economics, the disintegration of the left, and the growth of a more atomised society.
Today, the political chips are in the air less because of a fundamental shift in ideology than because of a fundamental lack of ideological argument. The most fractious debate over the past fortnight has been not about policy but about whether or not a hung parliament would be a good thing. Certainly, reform of Britain’s archaic electoral system and the introduction of some form of proportional representation is overdue. But electoral reform is only a means to an end. What really matters is not how representatives are elected, but what they are elected for. And, in this post-ideological age, that is often difficult to discern. So much so, in fact, that Hang ‘Em, the national campaign for a hung parliament, encourages people to vote not ‘for a candidate whose views you agree with (and is likely to lose)’, but rather for any ‘third party’ candidates who ‘has a chance of winning’. It doesn’t matter whom you vote for, or what they stand for, so long as they are not ‘fascists and purveyors of violence’ – or ‘Labour and Tory loyalists’. Not exactly a cogent argument for democratic renewal.
Clearly there are policy differences between the parties. New Labour, the creator of 3600 new crimes in its thirteen years in power, seemingly possesses not a libertarian bone in its body. The instincts of the Lib Dems appear more progressive on issues such as free speech and state surveillance. Yet, as all the parties loosen their ideological attachments, and view politics largely in managerial terms, so there is a mix-and-match quality to policy. David Cameron proposes workers’ co-ops. Gordon Brown is reluctant to bash bankers. Nick Clegg became party leader promising to keep Trident and cut taxes - and has changed his mind on both.
Not only do policy differences often appear arbitrary, there is also little discussion about alternative value systems. Take the economy. The Conservatives, we know, would start the cutting the deficit earlier than the other parties, and would place greater emphasis on public sector cuts than on tax rises as a means of doing so. But all three parties, as the IFS pointed out this week, are committed to an age of austerity, though none will truly acknowledge that, nor debate any alternatives.
Or consider immigration. The Lib Dem proposal for an amnesty for some illegal immigrants has predictably drawn fire from the other parties. Yet, not only did Nick Clegg try to disown the idea of an amnesty in this week’s leaders’ debate, but the Lib Dems also propose a regime of internal controls to force migrants to live in particular areas. This policy alone calls into question the party’s progressive credentials. (It is a measure of the arbitrary nature of contemporary politics that the mainstream politician with the most liberal policy on immigration is, as Clegg pointed out with evident relish, a Tory – Boris Johnson).
The end of tribal politics, in the sense of a blind attachment to a political party simply because of a historical tradition, is to be welcomed. But the detachment of parties from their moral and ideological anchors carries with it a two fold-danger. First, it opens the door to the politics of identity. From the BNP to the Christian Party to nationalists of various stripes, we can already see the emergence of such movements. And, second, as political parties replace their moral core with the stuff of pragmatism, any hung parliament may become a forum not for political debate, but for struggles over special interests. The hope is for democratic renewal. Pork-barrel politics could be the reality.