Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Tony Blair was both cause and effect of the depoliticisation of Britain

One thing he can’t be blamed for is the eclipse of two-party politics, which has been a long-term change and a startling one
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The Independent Online

In May, the British electorate delivered a somewhat opaque or oracular verdict, and we've since then been coming to terms with not a brave new world but a strange new political landscape, and a mysterious one.

In the famous opening words of L P Hartley's The Go-Between, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." For us, the present is another foreign country, where they are already doing things differently.

We have the first peacetime Coalition Government in 70 years, but it's an uneasy alliance between two parties who sometimes seem like a couple waking up together one morning and wondering whether it isn't all a hideous mistake. Both the coalition parties are much less happy than they ought to be.

After all, the Tories are back in power for the first time in 13 years, their longest spell on the opposition benches since the 19th century. And the Liberal Democrats are in government for the first time since the party was created, or, if you prefer, it's the first time Liberals have been in office since 1945. Even allowing for the grave economic and military challenges they face, they should be exultant. Instead, both their party conferences were glum affairs.

But then no one could say that the Labour conference bubbled over with joy or zeal. Apart from smarting at the worst result for the party since anyone present was born (apart from the 1983 fiasco), there was a prevailing mood of regret, and even remorse. Not so many years ago media cheerleaders as well as politicians were telling us that New Labour had given us the best British government of our lifetime. In which case, why are so many in the party now trying to pretend it never happened?

Trying to make sense of this new political topography isn't easy. But go back to the election. Without quite saying "None of the above", the electorate was plainly unenthusiastic about all of the parties. As P G Wodehouse would have said, if not disgruntled, the British people were less than gruntled, with the upshot that all the parties had disappointing results.

For a moment it had seemed that "Cleggstasy" was going to change the election entirely, but a momentary sensation was just what it proved. That short-lived spasm of excitement after the first television debate wasn't so much rapturous new love for Nick Clegg as palpable distaste for Gordon Brown, combined with a distinct lack of warmth toward David Cameron.

And so, far from breaking through the electoral sound barrier, the Lib Dems barely increased their share of the popular vote, and actually won fewer seats than five years earlier. A detached observer might think them bloody lucky to be in government at all, and their whining malcontents suggest that Tony Blair has a point when he says the Lib Dems have always been happier as critics than as players.

In his weird and repellent memoirs, Blair endlessly boasts that he was the first Labour leader to have won three elections and to have been in Downing Street for 10 years. He also sneers at Cameron because he couldn't win an election outright this year, and the sense of unease at the Tory conference came not just from fretful Europhobes, or anyone sensible enough to squirm every time "the Big Society" was mentioned, but from a whole party haunted by the sense that it should have done better in May.

Maybe it should have done. But take a closer look. Although Cameron and the Tories failed to win a parliamentary majority, they did gain 10.7 million votes, or 36 per cent of the total. And what had Labour achieved five years earlier under the miracle worker Blair? No more than 9.5 million, or 35 per cent. It would take a long disquisition to explain by what electoral sorcery a party could gain 54 per cent of parliamentary seats with 35 per cent of the vote, but that was how it was in 2005. Cameron is almost entitled to say "We wuz robbed", and Blair should wipe the sneer off his lips. At that last election which he "won", barely one citizen in five voted for the party he led. Is that part of his achievement?

He doesn't spend much time in this country nowadays, but even Blair must have been aware of events at the Labour conference. Some were startled by the election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader rather his brother David; some were pleased, and some were appalled. But without any question, it marked a specific repudiation of the Blair years, from Iraq to casino capitalism.

A few resentful Blairites still lurk here and there, among them Roger Cohen of The New York Times. He is dismayed by the sight of "a nation strangely bent on blackening the considerable legacy of a great Labour prime minister". Cohen is an intelligent man, but he appears to have no inkling of the revulsion great numbers of people feel towards a political trickster who took us into a needless and illegal war in support of the most reactionary American president of modern times, and with appalling human consequences. That's a "considerable legacy", all right, but not one in which many Labour people now take much pride.

One thing he can't be blamed for is the eclipse of two-party politics, which has been a long-term change, and a startling one. At that 1950 election, Labour and Tories shared a total of almost 97 per cent of the vote. Sixty years later, that had plummeted to 65 per cent, so that the two "big" parties have fewer than two out of three votes between them. Whatever happens to the proposals for AV, the truth is that our present system is designed for two parties and no more, so that, as the two-party total falls, election results become ever more puzzling.

That's truer still thanks to the collapse of voting turnout, which is decidedly part of the Blair legacy. At that 1950 election it was 84 per cent (the same figure as at the latest French presidential election). It fluctuated gently downwards, but was still 72 per cent in 1997. Within four years it had collapsed to 59 per cent. In his specious way, Blair attributes this to the fact that his second victory in 2001 was a foregone conclusion. In that case why was it 76 per cent in 1983, when the Tory triumph under Margaret Thatcher was as inevitable as it was crushing?

What we're really dealing with is something even larger, the depoliticisation of society, of which Blair is both cause and effect. Political parties are themselves disappearing. In the early 1950s, Labour had nearly a million individual members, apart from the millions notionally "affiliated" through their unions. That fell steadily for decades, until a "Blair bounce" sent it up to more than 450,000 in 1997, but the Blair slump saw it fall back to below 180,000. More astonishing still is the Tory eclipse. At its zenith a little more than 55 years ago, the Conservative and Unionist party had more than 2.2 million members. Today the true figure is not much more than a tenth of that.

When Blair says that most ordinary people are nothing like as interested in politics as are politicians, it's true, if a little condescending. But another way of putting it is that our new class of professional politicians remains more unrepresentative of, and remote from, the populace than our rulers have ever been. That may be a fact of the new landscape, but is it truly irrevocable?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include 'The Strange Death of Tory England'

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