This time last year, the Deep End featured a special series on the Lost Tribes of British Politics. It was all about missing pieces of the ideological spectrum – the factions and tendencies that have either lost or not yet found their niche within the informal coalitions that make up the Westminster party system:
“Some of them, like New Labour or the Old Tory Left used to be contenders. Others, like the Libertarians or the Christian Democrats have always been on the sidelines (in this country, at least). Others still, like Blue Labour and the Red Tories, are new comers and may yet have their chance.”
But what about the ruling tribes of British politics – the groupings that either control an important political party or have a good chance of doing so? Some of these make up entire political parties like UKIP, others are important factions within the biggest political parties – such as the Cameroons within the Conservative Party.
Our survey is restricted to the British mainland – so apologies to all you DUP fans out there. Furthermore, major party status depends on having at least one nationally-elected representative and ruling group status on at least one local authority. Thus the Green Party qualifies by the skin of its teeth, but Respect doesn’t (oh well). Strictly speaking, UKIP doesn’t either, but as it consistently out-polls a party that does, it makes our cut. As for important factions within the biggest political parties, the criterion is simple – to count it has to have a realistic chance of winning the party leadership.
Applying these criteria, there are currently ten ruling tribes of British politics – and we’ll feature two per day, each day this week. We’ll be scoring them on four metrics: ‘past glories’, ‘current strength’, position after the next election (i.e. ‘post 2015’) and ‘long-term prospects’.
Along the way, we’ll be making the point that some of these ruling tribes are on the up while others are on their way to becoming lost tribes, banished – perhaps forever – to the political wilderness.
1. The United Kingdom Independence Party
Whatever one might think of them, there’s no denying UKIP’s stunning achievement. Nigel Farage and his ‘people’s army’ have turned Britain’s three-party system into a four-party system. To put this development into context, the last time that a genuinely new (as opposed to breakaway) party fought its way into the mainstream was with the rise of the Labour Party more than a hundred years ago.
UKIP’s breakthrough moment wasn’t the 2005 Euro-elections in which the party came third, or the 2009 Euro-election in which it moved-up to second place. Rather, it was last year’s local elections, in which UKIP took 23% of the popular vote, thrashing the Lib Dems. Indeed, thanks to UKIP, none of the main three parties broke the 30% barrier – something which hasn’t happened since the war.
This will take some getting used too. One can still hear the experts hark back to previous general elections in order to predict the outcome of the next general election. They forget that the precedents no longer apply – four party system, see.
So what does the future hold? For UKIP (and consequently the other parties) it is a highly uncertain one. The pundits have called ‘peak-UKIP’ on more than one occasion and been proved wrong – but the party does face perilous challenges. The first of these are the Euro elections in May. UKIP doesn’t necessarily need to take first place, but it must improve on its vote share and its tally of MEPs. It also needs to make significant gains in the local elections taking place on the same day.
With a respectable result, Nigel Farage will have free hand in either continuing as leader or stepping down in favour of a handpicked successor. He can then find himself a winnable Westminster seat, which brings us on the next big challenge – next year’s general election. To maintain momentum, UKIP needs at least one Member of Parliament, something that even the Green Party has managed.
Then there’s the wider result in 2015. A Labour victory would suit UKIP very well. Whichever party leads the next government will need make deep cuts to public expenditure – and, with Ed Miliband in Downing Street, that would mean large numbers of angry Labour voters in search of a new home. On the other hand, a Conservative victory would be a disaster for UKIP – because that would imply two things: The first of these is a disappointing election result for the purples (without which a Tory majority is unthinkable). The second is the prospect of an In/Out referendum – which would re-stereotype UKIP as the ‘party of out’ and pre-empt its evolution into a much broader-based party of protest.
Past glories: 1/5
Current position: 2/5
Post 2015: 1/3 if the Conservatives win, but 3/5 if Labour wins
Long-term prospects: ?/5
2. The Scottish National Party (plus Plaid Cymru, if we must)
The Farage versus Clegg debates were fun, but Farage versus Salmond would have been a blast.
The parallels between UKIP and the SNP are striking. Here we have two mould-breaking, anti-establishment, nationalist parties, with larger-than-life leaders – each of which have resigned from the top job only to come back stronger than ever.
Of course, while UKIP’s aim is to take Britain out of the European Union; the SNP’s aim is to take Britain out of existence. Right now, it is the latter that is closer to realising its ultimate objective – not least because the effect of voting SNP was to secure the independence referendum, while the effect of voting UKIP is to make an in/out referendum less likely.
Anyway, back to the end of Britain – which would change everything to such a degree that, like the Westminster party leaders, we’ll just pretend it can’t possibly happen. So, complacently assuming that a NO vote is in the bag, let’s ask what that means for the SNP:
It’s difficult to see a defeated Alex Salmond staying on as party leader (though he could continue as Scottish first minister). That would leave Nicola Sturgeon or some other successor to negotiate an enhanced form of Scottish devolution that is bound to follow the defeat of Scottish independence.
Certainly, there’s no foreseeable prospect of the SNP losing its status as the main rival to Labour north of the border. It might even pick up a few extra seats at the next general election – making it a potential coalition partner in the event of a hung parliament.
After the next Scottish parliamentary elections, it’s possible that the post-Salmond SNP will find itself out of power in Edinburgh, but in government down south!
Plaid Cymru also exists.
Past glories: 2/5
Current position: 3/5
Post 2015: 2/5
Long-term prospects: 3/5