We have been here before of course. In March 1962 the Liberals sensationally captured the supposedly safe Conservative seat of Orpington. On the very same day elsewhere in the country they turned in a swing of 22% in a safe Labour seat, leaving the official opposition looking distinctly short of voter support even though they did manage to hang on to their seat. A new dawn had arrived of three party politics.
And indeed in various forms we have been in a three party political world ever since, even though it has looked a lot like a two party one. What happens to the votes of the third party has a big impact on the final result. In 1983 and 1997 the winning party achieved a landslide in the Commons with only a modest lead in the popular vote largely as a result. Although it took nearly half a century to get there, in 2010 the logical consequence of this in the form of a coalition government finally arrived.
It looks a lot like the Liberal Revival has now described its complete trajectory from obscurity and back to obscurity. The poll ratings of today’s Liberal Democrats look a lot like those of the pre-Orpington Liberals. But two party politics hasn’t returned. Instead we have the rise of UKIP to become a new home for protest votes. It is tempting to imagine we are in for the same ride. Some spectacular electoral results, with overexcited press coverage. And once they too have got hold of some power and shown themselves to be no better than their opponents, they too will fade away back to where they came from. Well if that is the case it is worth remembering that the Liberal upsurge took 50 years to get back into single figures in the opinion polls. If they follow the same pattern, UKIP will be here for some time.
But I don’t think we are actually repeating history here. UKIP are not the Liberals. The problem for outsider parties is a simple one. The two big parties know what works to win elections, and carefully craft their offering accordingly. So the default position is to have two fairly similar programmes on offer. Come in with something different and you are bound to be squeezed out, even if it sounds refreshingly different. The Liberals had a bit of a leg up into this, because they were able to portray themselves as being in the centre and hence able to appeal across the spectrum. This got them in a bit easier, but meant that once they were there they were indistinguishable from the folk they had replaced.
The upshot of this is that voters end up getting offered much the same every time, and consequently feel pretty powerless. UKIP are both a product of and a response to this situation. EU membership is the default position and any party that seeks to break this status quo position runs the risk of being marginalised. So not only advocating something so radical, but to go big on it to the extent of naming your party accordingly is a bold, and on paper suicidal move.
Some people have complained that the leadership of UKIP don’t have particularly anti-establishment credentials. Well, you don’t need to produce your radical credentials if you do something as radical as call for the UK to pull out of the EU. Everyone knows that if you want to do that, you are not an insider.
Speaking personally, I think that Britain’s future is in Europe and I would not vote for a party that plans to pull out. In fact, I might well vote for the party that was most distinctly pro-EU. But nonetheless I am grateful to UKIP for offering me a choice and for forcing me to think through something I had taken for granted. Even if I would never vote for them myself, I am pleased to see them on the ballot paper. I even hope that they continue to do well in elections. (Not too well obviously.) I want elections to offer me a choice. And I can only have a choice if the people standing actually stand for something in which they believe. I hope we get some more parties that will do the same.