For a long time now now various pundits have been predicting the death of the Conservatives and Labour, or at least the death of the Conservatives. Years of PC policies and sucking up to the Guardian have alienated most of the Conservative voters, so it seemed a reasonable prediction. Alternative right-wing parties, and alternative left-wing parties, would spring up and gradually take the place of the dinosaur parties, just like is happening in Europe.
But it never happened. The Conservatives and Labour continued to dominate elections, while the alternative parties went nowhere, even when those alternative parties had policies more in line with what a great many voters want.
This fact is usually attributed to the British people being more suspicious of fringe politics than the Europeans. There is some truth in that, but it’s hardly the whole story. Another big reason, I think, is that British voters don’t want to vote for parties that don’t have a chance of winning, because they don’t want to let the parties on the other side of politics get in by splitting the vote on their own side. That’s why so many people have for decades voted for the main parties with a peg on their nose.
No-one has happily voted for the Conservatives for a long time. Anyone who has voted for them has done so unwillingly, as a matter of duty, to keep Labour out. They haven’t voted for UKIP instead, partly because they’ve been told so many times that UKIP are a bunch fruitcakes, yes, but also because they know most other right-wingers are going to vote Conservative, so a vote for UKIP just makes it more likely that Labour will win. They vote for the party that’s in with the main chance.
So that’s one of the principal reasons why the main parties’ vote share has been so robust over the last twenty-odd years, despite the hollowing-out of genuine support for them. British people vote for the party on their side that most others like them are going to vote for, in order not to split their vote. That’s why it’s been hard for alternatives to make inroads. That’s why the hard left voted for New Labour, rather than the Socialist Workers’ Party. That’s why Blairities still vote for Corbyn’s Labour, even though the LibDems more closely represent their politics. And it’s why conservatives have kept voting for the Conservative Party. It’s because the Conservatives have been the only right-wing party with a chance of winning.
But that has resulted in the Conservative Party having a false idea about the support they have. They look at the fact that they got over 40% of the vote at the last general election, and they think they’re doing well. But that vote share doesn’t get across how fragile their support is, and how many people are despairing of them, and desperate for an alternative that has a chance of winning.
What can happen in these sort of scenarios is a sudden flip. You can get a mass of voters on one part of the political map collectively deciding, en masse, that they’ve had enough of the party they all used to vote for, and most of them decide to shift to an alternative. They do this because they all come to realise, at around the same time, not only that they’ve had enough, but that everyone else on their side has had enough too, and then they realise that now it’s worth voting for the alternative because everyone else is going to as well, and the alternative is now the party that is in with a chance of winning. In that situation it’s voting for the old party that risks splitting the vote. So after years of the vote for the old party holding up, overnight it disappears. There was no gradual tailing off. Rather, one day it was there, and the next day it’s gone.
This is what happened to the Progressive Conservative Party in Canada at the elections (who lost all but two of their 156 Federal seats), and it’s what may happen to the Conservatives in the UK. Once the flipping point has been reached, and the Conservatives are no longer considered the party with the main chance (or if it’s thought that the Conservatives are not worth voting for even if they are the main chance), then their fragile vote share could collapse quicker than a house of cards.
That tipping point has perhaps already been reached. The Brexit Party is getting astonishing support for a party that has only just been formed, and has hardly any policies or candidates yet. That tells us that the dissatisfaction with the Tories is so intense that it’s not going to take very much more for their side of the see-saw to suddenly sink to the ground. Certainly the longer the Tories take to get rid of May, the more chance there is that the flipping point will be reached. They don’t seem to understand that. Talk of May going in mid-June is dangerously naive.
Update: But of course it may not happen like all that. It may be that enough Tory holdouts remain, and the vote just ends up being split. And of course the Brexit party’s candidates may turn out to be useless squishy Establishment types who are, Brexit apart, no different to the Tories, and the same old problems will arise once more.
Update 2: See also my later post ‘Zombie Party Confirms It Is Dead‘.