Recent opinion polls show UKIP ahead of the Lib Dems by 9% to 8%.
I believe this is part of a course of events that may well see the Lib Dems being replaced by the Pirate Party as the main pro civil liberties party in Britain.
Why do I think this?
UKIP’s good showing in opinion polls needs to be seen as part of a long term trend where the big parties are becoming less popular. While the Labour and Conservative parties used to get over 90% of the vote between them in the 1950s, they get a much lower combined vote share now.
For most of the last 50 years, the Lib Dems (and their predecessors the Liberals) were the main beneficiary of this trend. But now, the lib Dems are in government, and are unpopular, both for breaking their promises (e.g. on student tuition fees) and for letting the Tories do things unpopular with Lib Dems voters (such as wrecking the NHS).
In another recent poll, 68% said they thought British politics was corrupt:
YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times adds to the body of survey evidence showing that voters dislike politicians as a breed. Fully 68% of us think British politics is ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ corrupt; only 28% of us disagree.
And the leaders of the three big parties are collectively the most unpopular they’ve ever been:
Voters are so disgusted with politics that the three main party leaders are collectively the least popular in the history of polling. A survey yesterday put the negative ratings of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband at the lowest cumulative rating, a staggering -121 per cent.
The recent Bradford West by-election saw Respect’s George Galloway soar to victory while the Labour vote collapsed. What’s less noticed is that the Tory and Lib Dem votes collapsed even more than the Labour vote.
The inescapable conclusion from all this is that voters increasingly hate all three of the old establishment parties. And there are new parties poised to replace them.
On the political left, there are Respect, and sundry other far-left parties of which the Scottish Socialists are probably the most credible. More importantly there’s the Greens, who to my mind have more chance of winning over lots of voters than any far-left party does.
On the political right, there’s UKIP, who came second on 16.5% at the 2009 Euro election, and will probably top the poll in 2014. (There’s also the BNP, but unlike UKIP they are not seen as respectable, and in any case they’ve had a lot of infighting recently which will put them in decline. So I don’t expect a resurgence of the far right.)
What about the political center? I think the Pirate Party is poised to replace the Liberal Democrats. Admittedly, we’re not big in the UK yet, but Pirates have been very successful in other countries, notably Sweden and Germany, and are likely to enter the Austrian and German parliaments in the next general elections in those countries. These successes have been because Pirates stand for an ideology whose time has come, and this becomes increasingly obvious whenever governments and corporations try to stifle freedom on the internet.
If the government goes through with its plans to snoop on people’s internet activity, I can easily see a lot of defections from the Liberal Democrats to the Pirate Party. As Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert put it, “civil liberties are a core, unifying issue for the Lib Dems”. The base of Lib Dem core issues isn’t very large, so if they lose this one, what place is there for them as a party? A lot of their voters will defect (many have already) and some of their MPs may well be disgruntled enough to jump ship, and may also calculate that with the Lib Dems becoming a toxic brand, they would stand more chance of re-election under the Pirate banner.
For these reasons, I think we are on the brink of a momentous shift in British politics, where the old parties (Labour, Conservative, and Lib Dem) will be largely replaced by new parties (Labour by the Greens and possibly Respect, the Tories by UKIP, and the Lib Dems by the Pirate Party).
How will events play out? Westminster still uses First Past the Post, but most other UK elections use proportional voting systems. In these elections, the vote share of the old parties will continue to diminish. While the inertia of FPTP will protect the old parties for a time at Westminster, sooner or later the dam will break and the new parties will rush through, possibly extinguishing altogether one or more of the old parties in the process. (Though I expect some of them will continue, in reduced form and a shadow of their former dominance of the political scene.)
The big problem for the new parties is overcoming the hurdle of FPTP. One way they might be able to so this is if they come to an electoral pact. This would be problematic because they each have different viewpoints on many issues, and any attempt for them to form a joint political programme would be doomed to failure. But there might be one sort of political programme they could agree on, a short one consisting of just three points:
1. end political corruption and get money out of politics
2. institute proportional representation for all elections that don’t already use it (i.e. Westminster and England and Wales local government)
3. call a new general election
If this happens, the transformation will come sooner rather than later. But, sooner or later, I believe it will come: old parties, your days are numbered.