It has been popular to suggest that the rise of UKIP means we now have four party politics in this country. But could the election results over the past few days in fact herald the return of two party politics? David Cameron would like that to be the case. He could be right.
The Liberal Democrats have been significantly damaged in these elections. Both the local and Euro elections saw the LibDems lose seats across the country and in areas they would have regarded as strongholds. Two factors appear important.
First, the protest vote moved elsewhere, to UKIP. Voters wishing to express disenchantment with the Conservative-led government or with the Labour Opposition identified a vote for UKIP as the most effective method.
Second, people are finding it difficult these days to work out what the Lib Dems are for. They seem increasingly irrelevant. The Lib Dems no longer represent the best protest vote, their record at keeping the Tories from being too extreme is patchy and open to question, and their policy reversals after a self-righteous general election campaign represent the clearest example of broken promises people can remember. This must be behind some of the local as well as Euro election results.
Labour’s biggest fear about the LibDems has been that they will recover in popularity as the General Election nears because they will campaign effectively on being an honest broker between the two main parties on behalf of the electorate. They will claim that they prevent extremism and keep politics on the centre ground. The recent election results suggest they are running out of time to achieve this unless they do something radical such as leave the coalition, perhaps after the Scottish independence referendum, or change leader.
While UKIP has much to be happy about with these results, that does not mean it will be an effective third force in a General Election. The recent Ashcroft polling suggested that most UKIP voters would vote Tory at a General Election. The Right is split, partly because David Cameron’s team represents only one part. However, while UKIP might gain some representation in Westminster, voters know when they are actually voting for the next government. With a decimated LibDem vote the choice before the country will be clear – we can have either a Conservative or Labour government. Besides, were Parliament to be hung, any UKIP MPs would be unlikely to risk putting Labour in power by voting against a Conservative government promising a referendum on Europe.
Labour should not immediately conclude that its message on Europe is the wrong one as Frank Field has suggested we do. Given Labour campaigned nationally on domestic issues it would be incorrect to suggest its European manifesto was convincingly rejected. Here in the UK and across Europe we are seeing the shock waves of the financial crisis reverberate. There is perhaps a sense that those in power have few answers to the problems ordinary people face or to the challenges ahead. Even our economic recovery, which is helping sustain Conservative fortunes, carries with it a sense of back to ‘business as usual’. For people who felt the squeeze before the recession, that is discouraging. This is why the One Nation rhetoric inspired hope; it spoke to both Labour’s core vote and the marginal voter.
What is required of Labour is that we work hard over the next few weeks and months to establish the Party securely as the government-in-waiting. There is no way of doing this effectively without being credible on spending and having a clear vision for how our country can grow and prosper over the next few years in a way which benefits everyone. The two go together.
Credibility on spending gives us a hearing for all the other things we want to talk about. Getting economic policy right remains voters’ top concern. An understanding of the powerful forces affecting our economy and society, and a clear sense of how to respond are essential if we want voters to put their trust in us.
This article was first published by LabourList
on 27 May 2015.