Tony Blair was the last Prime Minister to win a majority. He did so eschewing the narrative which had played itself out for a near century – The worker versus the rest – and reached out to make Labour more appealing to more people – more cosmopolitan, economically Liberal, distanced from the unions – unencumbered by the nationalisation ethos of the past – so that people who had never considered voting Labour found the party chiming with their values.
New Labour wasn’t just a marketing technique – Blair realised before most that the received wisdom was dying on it’s feet. People were becoming less tribal – more socially and geographically mobile. Technology helped to empower people to take action for themselves and old style political parties seemed stuffy and boring.
Cameron too saw this lesson with his ‘modernisation’ of the Tory party but too late. By the time he started it looked cynical, a poor copy of the New Labour original.
But inevitably changing your parties core message only reaps dividends for a limited period of time – Blair knew in 1994 that the left and the working class had nowhere to go and he could make the case that a wider tent meant an end to Tory Rule – but it couldn’t last – the Greens and the SNP of today are draining Labour’s core vote precisely because of New Labour, alternatives didn’t exist in 1994 – they do 20 years later.
The same can be said of UKIP and the Tories – shifting ground means that people you once considered your core start to look for alternatives and Thatcherite libertarians are anything but collective.
Why the history lesson? Because we are now in a general election where no party will win a majority, where no one will rule alone and it seems voters aren’t willing to compromise. Parties have tried to game the electoral system and voters have responded by becoming even more fractious, fractural and demanding of choice.
And they shall have that choice – the 7 way debate on Thursday will remind everyone that it exists.
It is possible that Labour will win the most votes, that the Tories will win the most seats, that the SNP will win 50 seats with less than 5% of the vote but the Greens and UKIP will win less than a dozen with 20% of the vote between them.
The Lib Dems will cling on. The party has never run a national campaign in the traditional sense and has learnt in a system which has given it a quarter of the vote but only a tenth of the seats, to ruthlessly target it’s vote. Where it has MP’s, controls councils or has a mayor its MPs will be murder to unseat no matter how low the polls go.
And the result will be chaotic. Newsnight last night released modelling suggesting that a Conservative-UKIP-Lib Dem grouping would have 319 seats and that a Labour – Green – SNP – Plaid – SDLP alliance would also have 319 seats. It becomes near impossible to command a majority for any period of time.
In such circumstances no Government can work – the Conservatives talk of Labour ‘Chaos’ if Ed Miliband makes it to Number 10 – I think the term applies more to the rag tag five party coalition that would emerge than the man himself.
This way lies madness and a second election. If a truly hung Parliament were to emerge with no stable government both major parties would want to pitch to the electorate for the tools – and MP’s – to do the job alone. But the public are in no mood to reward politicians or an electoral system which no longer adequately represents voter’s views.
And if politicians are in no mood to work together or change the system? Well, something has to give way but it won’t be the society that’s changed when her Politics has lagged behind.