“So what’s going to happen then?”
It’s the question that every political correspondent or commentator has come to dread over the last year or so. Because for once, we really would be better off admitting that no one really knows. As Chris Mason of the BBC famously shrugged live on air from just outside the House of Commons, “to be quite honest … I haven’t got the foggiest idea.”
Leave and Remain protesters, for once, were not doing their call and response sloganeering behind him. And perhaps that helped Chris arrive at this moment of clarity. Because Brexit, and the noise around it, has not only disrupted UK politics, it has obscured longer term changes to our political scene that we need to get used to and consider.
Traditional party allegiances have been breaking down over decades – with social class of declining use as a predictor of whether someone (and their family) are Labour or Conservative supporters.
Age or education levels are now as useful. According to figures from Ipsos Mori, the proportion of British voters who always support the same party is set to plummet from around one third to just one in five over the next few years. Older voters are more likely to be faithful to one political tribe: but – bluntly – these loyal voters are dying off.
So by 2022, only 21 per cent of the public are expected to say they back one party, compared to 50 per cent in 1983. And only one in 10 of “generation Y” (those born after 1980) are expected to have these strong allegiances.
On top of these changes, we have now overlaid two polarising referendums: the first on Scottish independence and then, of course, on leaving the European Union. These have led, north of the border, to a completely transformed landscape.
The SNP are by far the most dominant party, Labour is hugely diminished, and the Tories and Lib Dems are battling to capture the pro-union vote to limit SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s power – and the seat count in Scotland hugely affects the next government in Westminster.
If there is a hung parliament, a deal with Labour of some sort would mean another of each of these plebiscites: on Brexit and an “IndyRef2”.
On Brexit, of course, which is also unresolved, both main parties’ voters are split, and it’s a moot point whether they will be able to rely on fear of their opposite number to woo enough of them back into the fold on polling day.
The European elections in June and the local elections a few weeks beforehand showed Remainers flocking to the Lib Dems and Leavers to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party – the latter was only set up in February, but topped the poll in the EU elections, with the Lib Dems a healthy second and both Labour and the Tories trailing.
Political scientists are telling us that all these factors – long-term social trends and short-term political pressures – make the electorate more volatile than ever before. Some argue that we are stuck with a voting system in First Past the Post that is designed for two-party politics and can no longer cope with this level of disruption. Hence the uncertainties.
But opinions differ on whether this is a positive change. In the new, upstart or outsider parties, of course, you will find MPs and activists arguing that politics need to respond to a modern world of greater individual choice and more fluid social class definitions. They imply – rightly, I think – that the main parties are appalled to see their dominance challenged.
I covered the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and for me, that was the moment when this period of intense disruption felt as if it was accelerating. There were moments when the fact that such a high stakes decision was being taken felt exhilarating and empowering for people.
Chris Deerin of the Scottish Daily Mail, one of many celebrating the referendum experience, wrote of his delight in tasting “the pure, bubbling water of democracy.” But of course it was also the start of some really hostile, hyper-partisan cyber-bullying, which has continued across the Remain versus Leave divide since 2016. A moment when political disagreement seemed to turn into enmity far too easily.
But talking to young people in Edinburgh and Glasgow during that campaign, I remember being struck by how well the Scottish parliament was regarded: not that those in power since devolution in 1999 had taken flawless decisions, but that the political process felt close to the people it was designed to serve, and relevant.
The narrowness of the defeat for independence in 2014 and the victory for Leave two years later must, surely, have left our national politics, not to mention Brussels, feeling distant and unresponsive.
This demands action. But It is hard to see how, since we are now into pretty much US-style permanent campaigning, any sensible ideas for reviving our democracy would get the airtime they need. In the meantime, buckle up for a continuation of this bumpy ride.