Stephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov
A few weeks ago, I ran a polling question that really interested me because I really had no idea what the result might be: “Whatever your approval or disapproval of UKIP, do you regard the party as a) a welcome challenge to the mainstream or b) an unwelcome disruption of sensible politics?”
I should say that I conducted this in an experimental setting with a politically balanced sample – but one that may not have been perfectly representative, so please realise I am not putting this forward as an exact measure of public opinion; but that hardly matters to the main point: a very large proportion, 45 per cent chose a), and 35 per cent chose b).
This will surprise: many people who wouldn’t dream of voting for UKIP nevertheless welcome their effect. I think the reason is that people don’t believe any party is ‘correct’, and think that process matters just as much as content. They rightly question the wisdom of all political parties and welcome UKIP because they think it could shake things up. When Nigel Farage garbled his policies on Newsnight recently, many Twitteraties gleefully claimed this was some kind of turning point, as if the public were focused on coherent manifestos and seriously expected these to be delivered.
Most politicians think they have the answers to society’s problems, and even if they don’t think that, they must pretend it. You can’t go on Newsnight and say: “I’m not really sure – maybe my opponent is right”. But outside of politics, people don’t believe that one side has the solution on how best to educate children, how to make our health services work well, how to keep the economy growing safely, what system of justice keeps crime low, what the most productive relationship with the EU might be, how exactly to balance the interests of commerce and society. They don’t believe any political party has a monopoly of wisdom on all this stuff.
We have seen a steady decline in the dominance of the main two parties. Their combined vote share of over 90 per cent in the 1950s has dropped steadily since then, and will probably continue to drop. It seems to matter less to us which Party is in charge, because we have developed a strong consensus in the areas where consensus is possible – and the other areas are unknowable anyway, contested by experts on all sides.
Yesterday, I ran another question (again in that experimental setting of a balanced sample but not a perfectly representative sample, so take it with a pinch of salt): “In the past, the two main parties enjoyed a larger share of the vote. That has been decreasing, leading to a greater likelihood for coalition government. Would you prefer that to shift further, perhaps giving us a bigger choice of viable parties (but more coalitions) or shift back to having two strong mainstream parties?” Answer: ‘more parties’ 54 per cent, ‘two strong mainstream parties’ 35 per cent.
Other polls, worded differently, may show a greater aversion to coalitions. But it may well be that the effect of the decline in party allegiance, combined with an experience of coalition that, to many, has not been too bad, may well lead to still further willingness to play outside the mainstream. Whatever they say, the question of coalitions will continue to loom large in politics.