Saturday, 11 October 2014

...but to be old was very Essex

Some thoughts in the wake of the by-election results in Clacton and in Heywood and Middleton, with the impressive results for UKIP...

One of the joys of posing as a historian is that it kind of absolves you from the need to predict the future - that's someone else's territory. But fortune-telling is all the rage at times like these, so I thought I'd better have a go at it myself. Or rather, I thought I'd dust off some of my previous predictions and see if they still stand up (in my eyes).

After the European elections earlier this year, I said that I thought UKIP had reached its peak level of support at around 4.35 million votes. If you hadn't voted for them on that occasion, I reckoned, you were unlikely to do so in the 2015 general election. I still think that's true. For the last couple of years, UKIP have been enjoying high turnouts while supporters of the established parties have had a tendency to stay at home. This is likely to be reversed in the general election.

But I'd also restate the same proviso that I made in May: UKIP could do a whole lot better if they changed their leader. Nigel Farage has won as much support as he's ever going to; if you've not been convinced by him yet, you won't be in the next six months either. But now - for the first time since the frabjous days of Robert Kilroy Silk - there exists a potential rival for the leadership in the shape of Douglas Carswell. It's too late to change before the election, but I would assume that by this time next year Farage won't be the leader.

(Incidentally, I wish commentators would stop talking about a swing to UKIP in Clacton. Our constituency system is based on the premise - or at least the pretence - that we vote for individuals, not parties. So Carswell's share of the vote went up from 53 per cent to 60 per cent, while he lost 1,750 actual votes.)

My prediction for UKIP in the general election was 2.5 million votes and fewer than five seats. On sober reflection, I now think that might creep up to eight seats, but I still think five more likely. Which would make them the sixth largest party in the House of Commons. I still expect David Cameron to be the prime minister.

But all of this might seem to run counter to another post on this blog two years ago, when I wrote about my conviction that the political system as it stands is unsustainable. 'New political forces will emerge, whether within the existing parties or outside of them,' I wrote. 'It feels to me that there is a parallel with the 1970s, and that things are about to change quite radically.'

That does still seem to me to be the case. The parties as they currently exist are clearly inadequate. But I don't think UKIP are yet a significant element, save perhaps to hasten the change. Under Farage, they're a symptom of uncertain times, not the future. The psephologists I've heard all talk about UKIP's support being disproportionately comprised of the old and the academically unqualified, a finding that chimes with the radio phone-ins to which I listen with such enthusiasm. That's not the basis for a major national party. It's not an image that inspires converts, as Carswell's acceptance speech at Clacton seemed to indicate; he didn't sound overly enthused by the company he's now keeping.

So maybe UKIP do well enough next year that they decide to present a serious challenge. They change their leader, change their identity and become a coherent - if hard-right - party. I still think Cameron can win an outright majority, but if not and he has to cobble together a new coalition that excludes UKIP, there will be unhappy Tory MPs who could defect. And there'd be even more unhappy Tories after a European referendum, when a majority of the country decide that they don't want to be associated with UKIP and vote to stay in the EU. On balance, I think UKIP are likely to recruit more defectors in the next parliament than in this.

It's also perfectly possible that we see the dissolution of the LibDems, with the party effectively being absorbed into a Euro-friendly Conservative Party on the one side and into Labour on the other. Which would result in a new two-and-a-half-party arrangement on the old model, but now with Tory, Labour and UKIP, the centre of politics having moved more decisively to the right

And yet that's not sustainable either, because the country is not moving to the right at all. It feels to me as though there's a strong centre-left consensus waiting to be built.

And in this context, I should be clear that my point about 'new political forces' did not necessarily refer to new parties. I pointed out that the last time there was this much dissatisfaction in the country, it resulted in Margaret Thatcher staging a coup within the Conservative Party. And still, above everything else, the most frustrating thing in modern British politics is that fact that Labour Party have missed so comprehensively their opportunity to articulate a new vision for the party in the same way that Thatcher did for hers.

This is not - not this time - a criticism of Ed Miliband. It's a criticism of Tony Blair. The possibilities that were open to Blair in the late-1990s, before he got into invading other countries, were almost limitless. All squandered, all lost. It'd be nice to think that a new populist party of the left could emerge, but it doesn't seem very likely somehow - the chance has gone.

In short, something's going to change. But I'm a historian and I have no idea what. There's no point coming here looking for predictions.

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