The 1997 comeback of celebrated 80s Indie artisans Echo and the Bunnymen, one that benefitted from the brief vogue for sweeping majestic rock ala The Verve, more or less began and ended with an unintentionally prophetic hit called ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. The band’s resurrection certainly didn’t, but the title of that song has rarely seemed more relevant than it currently does within the crumbling environs of the Palace of Westminster.
Because memory is naturally restricted to our own lifetime, certainties often appear immortal and unalterable. Some of the more…er…mature regulars to this blog may be able to remember a time before Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne, but the fact that one has to be at least 65 to remember crowding around a tiny TV screen to watch the Coronation as it happened leaves the rest of us with the distinct feeling that Her Majesty has always been, and will always be, the nation’s figurehead. She’ll be opening Parliament once again today, and yet one would have to be nudging towards a ‘telegram’ from our sovereign to recall a time when her speech hadn’t been penned by either the Tories or Labour. After the past few weeks, however, is Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote that ‘nothing in this world can said to be certain except death and taxes’ now especially applicable to this country’s corridors of power?
None of us can cast our minds back to 1830, but if we could we’d be witness to the Whigs being back in power after a generation. Viewed as the party of reform, the Whigs were nevertheless drawn in the main from the same privileged pool of aristocratic families that, give or take a few gentrified country squires, also supplied the Tory opposition. Although they weren’t to know it at the moment of their triumph, the Whigs were about to commit political hari-kari. The Great Reform Act of 1832 belatedly abolished the Rotten and Pocket Boroughs that had each provided Parliament with a couple of MPs representing shepherds watching their flocks whilst simultaneously ignoring the growing industrial metropolises of the north and midlands. Yet, once new constituencies were born that gave voice to self-made men and business tycoons, Westminster was suddenly infiltrated by the middle-classes, many of whom were sympathetic to Whiggery yet opposed power being the exclusive province of those with inherited wealth. Whilst still headed by distinguished Whig Peers until the arrival of Gladstone, the increasing influence of Radicals in an ideological coalition with free-trade Tories prompted the gradual transition of the Whigs into the Liberal Party.
With hindsight, the Whigs were probably casualties of the dramatic social changes that took place in the nineteenth century; a new age required new politics and new parties, something that caused the swift rise of the Labour Party from its formation at the turn of the twentieth century. An elderly man or woman in the early 1900s would still retain memories of ‘Whigs and Tories’ and yet would be resident in a country of Conservatives, Liberal and Labour. Nothing lasts forever, indeed. The Liberals could be returned to office via a landslide in 1906, yet within thirty years they were effectively over as a governing party.
By the middle of the last century, two-party politics with a minor third were firmly established as the norm. At the 1964 General Election, no seats went to anyone other than Labour, the Tories and the Liberals. The growth of Nationalist parties from the second half of the 60s, whether in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, would provoke miniscule dints in the paintwork of the Labour and Tory battle-buses, but the ruling elite didn’t take much notice until the close-run contests of the 70s required them to call on Ulster Unionists bearing gifts in the hope they could depend on their support.
When the so-called Gang of Four – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers – bottled the tough task of wrestling Labour away from the far-left in the early 80s and instead ran off to form the Social Democratic Party, the real legacy of their endeavours was not so much the end of Tory and Labour domination, but the eventual revitalisation of the dormant Liberals and the laying of the foundations for New Labour; the old parties ended up being the beneficiaries rather than the public being given a true alternative. Not until the slow and gradual rise of UKIP would a fourth party capture the public’s imagination again, and just as the SDP momentarily capitalised on disaffection with the extremes of 80s politics, Mr Farage and his followers have equally exploited the electorate’s disquiet with the detachment of career politicians from their own everyday experiences.
The problem for the smaller parties, as we are constantly being reminded, is the system under which our General Elections operate – first-past-the-post. Discrepancies between votes and seats are nothing new, though. Take the 1951 Election: Labour polled a quarter of a million more votes than the Tories, in fact more than Labour has ever polled at any General Election, including 1945 and 1997, and more than any party had ever polled until the Tories in 1992. However, Churchill’s Tories won more seats and therefore returned to office. Despite the pre-Election hype this year, UKIP won one and lost one seat, yet still grabbed the third highest share of the vote, more than twice as much as the SNP, who won 56 seats.
The 1955 General Election was notable for the fact that it was the last occasion in which the Tories held more seats in Scotland than any other party, overtaken in 1959 by Labour, who held that distinction until this year. Events north of the border, in tandem with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats and the disastrous showing for Labour, are the first real indication of a significant shift away from the old order that has held sway for almost a century. But will it have a long-lasting impact or will everything revert to type over the coming ‘fixed’ five years? It’s worth noting that membership of both main two parties has declined considerably from the mid-twentieth century. From a peak of almost 3 million in the early 50s, Conservative membership now stands at around 135,000; Labour’s drop from its own early 50s peak of a million members has been less drastic, with membership hovering around the 190,000 mark, but it’s still pretty poor in comparison to the rest of Europe, where only Poland and Latvia can boast a lower party membership than the UK. Both UKIP and the SNP, however, can boast an impressive rise in membership of late, with the latter enjoying an incredible 70% increase since the Election.
I’m not so sure that Labour won’t go the way of the Whigs now. As has been discussed on here before, Labour has perhaps a greater task to recapture power than it has ever faced in its history, and perhaps a metamorphosis into a new party along Whig/Liberal lines is inevitable. The conditions that led to the formation of the Labour party in the early twentieth century are no longer relevant and even if change is a natural progression for any political party – the Tories today are not the party they were under MacMillan or Heath or Thatcher – the decision over which direction to go could determine whether Labour rise again or perish.
The late great Bill Hicks once said that only cockroaches and Keith Richards would survive a nuclear apocalypse; if Bill were still around, chances are he’d add the electoral boomerang that is the Conservative Party to that list. They appear to have mastered the art of changing direction to fit the public mood, for good or ill, and are essentially the Manchester United of British politics, always there or thereabouts come the end of the season. Whether or not they will ever be confronted by relegation depends on a variety of factors, ones that have the potential to obliterate the certainties of the political landscape even if another Tory Government (albeit one with a slender majority) seems to point to business as usual. These are interesting times.