Divisions in mainstream British politics do not run deep. It is accepted by all three main parties that some austerity economics is necessary. Differences between the parties lay partly in the extent of that austerity but primarily in other policy areas, such as over the EU, welfare and immigration (although these are all of course inextricably linked to the economy in one way or another). But when David Cameron says ‘it is too easy to be an illegal migrant in Britain’ and Ed Miliband says New Labour allowed too many migrants to come to the UK, you could be forgiven for failing to spot many differences between the two main parties. To an alien, there would appear to be little choice in an election.
This poverty of diversity in political thinking is the product of our democratic system, where parties have to take the mainstream view in order to appear credible. But the electorate has grown increasingly frustrated with this homogeny of uninspiring ideas. We now have chronic antipathy and cynicism towards politics. However, as the spectre of the 2015 general election draws closer, there are signs of a more diverse democracy emerging, where a range of credible interest groups compete to have their ideas supported by the electorate.
The rise of UKIP is well-documented and it has long been acknowledged that the Conservative Party has been under threat from the far right. UKIP came second, ahead of the Conservatives, in the recent Eastleigh by-election. It is possible that the swell in UKIP’s support will also draw Labour more to the right, but a countervailing force may pull them the other way.
In late March, key figures on the left of British politics launched the ‘People’s Assembly’ – a group hoping to challenge what they call the ‘consensus’ of right-wing policies that has become the norm in modern political discourse. Their aim is to provide a credible opposition to the austerity politics supported by all three main parties. The movement is interesting not just because of its broad and formidable membership, which ranges from general secretary of Unite Len McCluskey to former Labour Party minister Tony Benn, but because it may threaten the Labour Party’s monopoly on left-wing policy. The People’s Assembly is by no means an organised political party. Indeed, it does not even have its own separate website. But the combination of its strong supporters and its attractive ‘no cuts’ proposition means it may give Ed Miliband quite a headache if Labour supporters believe that the party has wrongly admitted to the need for some degree of austerity.
UKIP’s success and the potential challenge of the People’s Assembly suggest British politics may be moving away from the two- or sometimes three-party system and towards a more diverse democracy. The right is, broadly, split between UKIP and the Conservatives. The centre is taken by the Liberal Democrats, who, despite falling below UKIP in the polls, will continue to attract attention while they remain in government. The left used to be dominated by Labour, with a very small minority of far-left support going to the Greens. Now that far-left group has the potential to organise itself in the People’s Assembly, it is possible the left will be split similar to the right.
Of course, this plurality of political opinion should not be overstated. The Conservatives and the Labour Party will continue to hold the majority of power and attract the most attention in the media. But some of their policies may be shaped by their respective extreme opponents who in many ways are more in tune with the sentiments of the average voter (UKIP over Europe and immigration; the People’s Assembly over cuts in public spending). A wider range of interests may, then, be represented at a national level which might break the cycle of political apathy. There is a possibility – and it is a small possibility – that British politics may become more vibrant as a result of this potential plurality in political ideology.
By Charlie Bishop