Two-party politics is gone forever. Remember that one? As the combined vote share of Labour and Conservatives shrank over the last 35 years, from the rise of the SDP and the Liberal Democrats to the UKIP surge and the Green insurgency, time and again we’ve been told that this was a permanent change, that politics was fragmented and two parties would never again dominate. And yet every sign is that this election will reverse the trend – the Lib Dem campaign has stuttered, UKIP are in the doldrums and Corbyn’s impractical idealism predictably appeals to a chunk of the Green vote. It probably won’t last forever, but this election campaign has been dominated by two-party politics of a sort that was supposed to be extinct.
Coalition government is the new normal. As a result of the previous myth, we were also told that coalitions – rather than being a freak result – were here to stay. The Cameron/Clegg coalition even changed our constitution on that basis, introducing the poorly-considered Fixed Term Parliaments Act to make the democratic system bolster any coalition arrangement. That was a poor decision, based on a series of flawed assumptions.
“Banging on about Europe” is inherently unpopular. For years, Eurosceptics were patronisingly dismissed as a “swivel-eyed” fringe, and told endlessly that their interest in criticising EU integration – or, gasp, even mulling leaving the organisation – was an electoral threat. “Stop banging on about Europe” was one of the planks of Cameron’s so-called modernisation programme, with the issue treated as a toxic irrelevance. Fast forward a few years, and the situation is reversed – Leave received more votes than have ever been cast for anything or anyone else in British democratic history, and a Conservative Prime Minister is striving to bring the discussion back to Brexit after a campaign in which she has suffered when other issues distracted from it. How times change.
No-one will ever listen to the polls again. We all promised it, either out loud or in our minds, back in 2015. The pollsters not only got it wrong, but they disagreed about how to get it right in future. In the EU referendum, a simpler task than polling a multi-party election across 650 constituencies, they still had difficulty working out how to reach the full range of voters and working out which ones would actually turn out on the day. In future, many decided, we shouldn’t let them set the narrative for election campaigns. And yet here we are – after weeks in which polling has set the agenda for who is supposedly up and down, and one drastically outlying poll in particular has dominated much of the news. Worse, not only are people back to taking the polls as gospel, but they self-indulge by still cherry-picking those which agree with them. Scan down the Britain Elects Twitter feed and compare the numbers sharing ICM’s 11-point Tory lead (642 retweets) to Survation’s one-point Tory lead (4,833 retweets). Despite our best intentions, we are still suckers for polls – and particularly for those which record statistically rare extremes.
Labour MPs won’t tolerate a hard left, terrorist sympathising leader. To be fair, they tried. A few times. But now push has come to shove, hundreds of Labour MPs who supposedly wouldn’t tolerate a leader of Corbyn’s views and incompetence are up and down the country campaigning to make him Prime Minister. Most of them don’t like to talk about him – indeed, the sight of him doing rallies in safe seats suggests those in marginals are turning down offers of a Jeremy speech, and some explicitly try to distance themselves – but nonetheless, a vote for them is a vote to put Corbyn in Downing Street. They’re bruised from the failed leadership challenge, and cowed by the cultish enthusiasts in their CLPs, and the result has been the supposedly sensible Parliamentary Party falling resentfully into line behind a leader they know – indeed, who they have publicly said – is not fit for high office.
Only UKIP can appeal in the North of England. An old favourite of “Sir” Nigel Farage, this idea held out the prospect of a permanent role for UKIP in British politics, winning votes in areas the Conservatives could “never” reach. Effectively, they were pitching themselves as a pushy sidekick, a Robin who constantly complains that Batman isn’t hitting the baddies hard enough. And yet the local elections showed the opposite – the ‘People’s Army’ suffered defeats everywhere they had an incumbent councillor, and many other activists defected. Meanwhile, there are numerous signs that the Conservative Party – aided by “banging on about Europe” is appealing anew in parts of the country where it was assumed to be permanently unwelcome.
Anything but a small majority is out of reach for a Conservative Prime Minister. Remember the feeling of gratitude in 2015 when the majority came in? Cameron had overcome all the structural, brand and electoral obstacles that made a majority nigh-on impossible, to secure a majority for the first time since 1992. The speed with which those assumptions have evaporated is striking – just two years later, and people are talking instead of some sizes of Conservative majority effectively being a defeat. There had been an air of managed decline, of raging against the dying of the light, as though the old dog of a Party would be lucky to squeeze a few more victories out of an inherently worsening position. Of course we don’t know what the result of tomorrow’s election will be – but we do now know that sizeable Tory majorities are still possible, and that the pool of potential Conservative voters is much wider and deeper than had been assumed. That in itself opens up all sorts of possibilities for the future.