Contrary to immediate appearances, yesterday’s five-way “challengers’ debate” demonstrated the abiding strength of the two-party dynamic in British politics.
As the five flavours of populism duked it out on the stage, it became ever more apparent that the next Parliament is going to consist of a rather traditional two-and-a-half political blocs – albeit in rather more fractious form than recent history is used to.
This is because for all that there are many more parties receiving public attention, there are very few switchers – parties who can really be expected to join either of the two parliamentary proto-factions.
On the left, the ‘anti-austerity alliance’ of the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP cannot conceivably play any role in a Cameron administration (this is an historic shift for Plaid, who used to be more centrist).
They’re explicitly pitching themselves as a far-left lodestar that will serve as a guiding light for a new progressive realignment of dubious realism.
From Northern Ireland the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a left-wing nationalist party with long ties to Labour, is similarly bound tightly to one political camp.
Meanwhile the minor parties of the right have found themselves similarly boxed in, albeit much less by deliberate design.
During last night’s debate Nigel Farage lamented that Ed Miliband’s refusal to countenance a referendum on the European Union had precluded UKIP working with Labour, which they might otherwise have been happy to do.
Meanwhile the Democratic Unionists, who are for the most part pork-barrelling political mercenaries whom Labour could well have bought in other circumstances, have been forced by unionist political logic to disavow participation in any arrangement, formal or otherwise, that gives the SNP a place in the government of Britain.
Both UKIP and the DUP also share socially conservative and hawkish outlooks with a substantial chunk of the parliamentary and popular Conservative Party. A pan-right pact, which Nick Clegg refers to as “blukip”, seems the only sort that either party could credibly join in this parliament, unless Miliband got close enough to power to eschew the SNP.*
As a result of these realities, we’re unlikely to see the minor parties engaging in what we have come, via the Liberal Democrats, to view as ‘normal’ minor party behaviour: bidding the two main factions against each other to secure the best possible deal in accordance with an independent set of priorities.
They’re much more likely to end up playing two parallel, high-stakes games of political chicken with Miliband and David Cameron respectively, with each side saying to the other components of itself: “give in to our demands, or on your head be the other sides’ triumph”.
After all, the minor parties will be loath to cede their larger rivals the golden attack line that splitting the left/right had let the other in through the back door.
Thus we end up with two large political blocs: one left-wing and in sympathy with Celtic nationalism, the other right-wing and unionist, with a small, liberal-flavoured third force which may be too small to play kingmaker.
That suddenly looks like quite a traditional, mid-20th Century result – albeit in radical new packaging.
*There is even an entire spoof website to demonstrate how scary a Tory-UKIP-DUP pact would be. Whether it receives the same cut-through as Tory warnings about a ‘coalition of chaos’ remains to be seen.