It may be because it’s spring, or Easter, or because the flowers are out, but there really is a sense that we’re in a new era when it comes to politics. After the leaders’ debate, when seven people representing seven parties appeared together on an entirely equal basis, with no obvious deference to Messrs Cameron and Miliband, it is going to be difficult to visualise politics in quite the same way again.
It was an occasion when the small parties came into their own. It must have been painful for the Labour leader in particular to have been outflanked to the left on austerity by not one, not two, but three smaller parties. For many English voters, this will have been their first real opportunity to see Nicola Sturgeon in action, and many will have been impressed by her quick-footed responses and polemical assurance. Nigel Farage attracted the censure of other parties with his remarks about health tourism, but he reinforced his reputation as a plain talker and perpetual outsider. Nick Clegg – who also performed fluently and well – finds his status during the last campaign as David to the Goliath of Labour and the Tories now shared with others. For voters, this is, by and large, a good thing. It lends to the campaign a useful element of uncertainty.
For as long as most people can remember, there have been complaints about the staleness of politics dominated by the big two parties and, since Tony Blair’s premiership, about the increasing convergence between those parties. Now, whatever else you can say about the changing political ecology, convergence is less of a problem. Ukip, the Greens and the SNP are all quite easily distinguished from Labour and the Tories. And because of the sheer uncertainty about the outcome of the election, the possibility of one or more of them propping up a minority government is quite real – and we should bear in mind that the debate did not include another important potential player, the Democratic Unionists. For English voters, the prospect that the tail wagging the dog of government may be from another part of the UK will be disconcerting.
The spat between Sturgeon and Ed Miliband about whether or not she made disobliging remarks to the French ambassador as to whether or not the Labour leader is prime ministerial material has only added to the sense that anything is possible. Would the SNP necessarily opt for an arrangement of convenience with Labour or does their mutual loathing put that in doubt? We don’t know. At every turn, the two big parties are confronted with awkward questions about whom they could do deals with, despite their increasingly exasperated insistence that they are aiming for majority government. Of course they are, but the polls suggest other possibilities.
The new uncertainties make it possible for voters in a number of seats, formerly considered safe for the two big parties, to vote for other candidates with at least a decent possibility that they may not be wasting their vote. One useful contribution by Ukip, for instance, has been to engage a number of people in elections who would not previously have voted at all. That has to be good for democracy. There is no knowing where this will lead; perhaps to a reopening of the vexed question of proportional representation. Certainly in a more crowded political stage, other systems may seem more plausible.
Granted, the old bipartisan system has its advantages – it gives clarity and stability to government – but one thing the experience of coalition has done is to remind us that government is sometimes improved by having to take into account more than one view. We may have to get used to these compromises which are, of course, perfectly normal for many of our European neighbours. The only certainty is that there is no certainty and it’s rather exhilarating.Reuse content