UK by-elections (like last week’s in Rochester and Strood, where the UK Independence Party gained its second MP) have always been an opportunity for electors to vent their contempt for the national politicians, before things return to normality at the general election. By-elections generally do not matter; general elections do. So voters’ actions are perfectly rational.
But few people, even the pollsters, are predicting that things will return to normal at the general election in May 2015. Though Scotland did not vote ‘Yes’ to independence in its recent referendum campaign, the performance of Labour, the main ‘No’ campaigners, was humiliatingly poor. But the Scottish National Party is now piling on support. It now has 90,000 members – roughly half the number that the Conservative and Labour parties are able to achieve, even though their UK-wide base is twelve times larger than Scotland alone. Again, the SNP has often done well in by-elections, but never managed to break through in UK national elections. But now there is a real feeling that normality will not return this time, and that the SNP will steal anything up to 40 Westminster seats from Labour.
The Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ coalition partners in government, are meanwhile being humiliated just about everywhere. In the Rochester and Strood by-election, they lost their deposit for the eleventh time running, polling just a few hundred votes. Their core supporters think they have sold out to the Conservatives, while voters who want to send a rude message to Westminster have thought UKIP a much better way to do that. In the past they voted for the LibDems, but now the LibDems are part of the Westminster establishment that they despise.
The main parties, then, find themselves no longer leading the agenda; what will decide the election is how these minor parties fare in May 2015. But this phenomenon is not unique to Britain. All over Europe, minority parties are shaking the political class and winning footholds in the legislature.
What is going on, and why? Perhaps we have to look outside the political process to understand. In commerce, for example, traditional business models have been fundamentally disrupted by the internet. Retailing in particular has been rocked by new suppliers, new ways of shopping and new delivery systems. With things like Amazon Click & Collect, why do we need a Royal Mail – even a private one, as it is now. And much the same is happening in politics too. Small communities can find each other, and organise and mobilise, and cause real problems for the traditional parties.
Given today’s technology, there is no reason for people to settle for off-the-peg goods and services. They can be made to your specification, and shipped direct to your door. Barriers to entry have been swept away, as new suppliers with new ideas and not much more than a website can suddenly enter the market and challenge the incumbents.
It is the same in politics. When people have a choice of umpteen different TV or phone or utility packages, they become increasingly contemptuous of national and local government ‘take it or leave it’ services. When Air B&B or Über enables people to access services in an instant, they wonder why they have to fill in forms and queue up in council offices. What is the point of a Met Office when you can get the weather on your phone from countless other providers?
And national parties find it harder to dominate the national debate, as newspaper sales have been falling, because more and more people get their news from online channels – and not necessarily from the traditional media companies, but from a huge number of new media channels, plus (increasingly) social media and other sources. Activist groups can find each other and mobilise. The domination of traditional media and traditional parties is being eroded by people power.
Through internet and communications technology, we can also bypass government services more easily. Telephones were a nationalised industry thirty years ago, but nobody even thinks about re-nationalising them today. And given the new multiplicity of information and entertainment channels, more and more people are asking why we really need the BBC – that one-time flagship of the British establishment – as a state broadcaster.
The internet also makes it easier to find a private doctor or a private tutor, or indeed to find a job and an apartment. Self-help groups provide help to patients or parents that the lumbering government systems simply cannot provide. Who needs government?
Not many of us, any more. Nearly as many people in the UK (176,632) told the census that their religion was Jedi than there are currently members of the Conservative Party. With falling memberships, party candidates are becoming increasingly irrelevant to most people. They are chosen by a dwindling core of of grey-haired Conservative activists or hard-line-socialist Labour ones, with outdated, intolerant or patronising policies to match.
The politicians’ response has not been to understand these new trends (their attempted use of social media is, as we have seen recently, usually disastrous) but to insulate themselves. Politics is no longer something that successful people in other fields did for a few years as a service to their country, but a full-time career, carefully preserved as such.
No wonder people are upsetting their applecart. And no wonder that they cannot understand why.