The rise of fringe parties….
Today, it has been reported that UKIP are in talks with two Conservative MP’s about the possibility of defecting. UKIP have been steadily rising in the polls and now are close to parity with the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, Labour is still reeling from the Bradford West by-election defeat. It is tempting to dismiss this phenomena as voters merely letting-off steam, confident that in time the two-party dynamic will eventually reassert itself. Indeed, the electoral system mitigates against the rise of smaller political parties. However, there are a few reasons to believe the likes of Martin Kettle are wrong and we are seeing a fundamental re-alignment of our politics.
Firstly, there is now no obvious protest Party. Traditionally, those dissatisfied with the Lab-Con duopoly could vote Liberal Democrat and pour into them whatever hopes and dreams they had. However, they have now joined the ‘establishment’ and therefore are a tainted receptacle of the voters spleen. The space therefore exists for, at least, the rise of one Party to replace the Liberal Democrats. It looks like UKIP could fit the bill, especially if the prospect of it having two MP’s is a realisable one. This is not good news for Labour, mainly because UKIP take Labour votes too. It is a complete fallacy to see UKIP as merely a Conservative-vote grabbing machine, some aspects of the UKIP message, sadly, chime with our core support too. Furthermore, as David Osler points out it is not good news for the wider left either.
The problem with Kettle’s premise is that it fails to take into account the severity of the economic crisis which is being accompanied by a crisis of confidence in representative democracy. It fails to factor-in the alienation of the mainstream parties from their core supporters and increasing alienation from the wider electorate, a slow-burning crisis that is only likely to be accelerated by the economic crisis. Smaller parties are successful by attaching themselves to sentiment that feels excluded from the establishment consensus. However, they directly impact on that consensus as it adapts to survive, the rise of UKIP on the Conservatives right-flank would push them, and probably Labour too, further to the right, which in-turn would alienate more left-wing opinion.
UKIP are a Party that ultimately operates within an electoral framework, although they could easily be a Party that will eventually nullify our limited democracy. Meanwhile, the out-of-Labour left is a fish out of water waiting for the social revolution that never comes and it is uncomfortable with electoral politics. It is the original Doomsday Cult of modern politics, preying on the very real social distress that capitalism causes but with very little to offer in terms of a solution other than the mythical revolution. Indeed, locally the left-of-Labour challenge is coming in two of Peterborough’s most deprived and neglected wards. They tell a convincing story of abandonment and alienation but have no solutions to offer.
This is the challenge that the rise of the fringe parties pose. They challenge the mainstream parties to reconnect with the wider public and offer solutions to the real problems that people are facing. Also, they are challenges of ideology, to tell a story about the better world we need to create. This is a very real process that is happening and that will fundamentally change (and maybe even extinguish) our representative democracy. Rather than complacently dismiss them, it is important we rise too them and that the Labour Party rises to them too….