‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Sunday, 31 March 2013

21 years from 15% of the vote to first MP

In the 1989 European elections the Green Party won 15% of the vote (a similar level to Ukip’s current showing in opinion polls). 21 years later the Greens won their first seat at Westminster.

Most Ukip supporters will feel very frustrated if their current level of support takes two decades to translate into a single MP. Were the Greens very slow to capitalise on their support, or are Ukip being unrealistically impatient?

British politics seems to be characterised by inertia. The three main political parties are all over a hundred years old and between them they have formed all the governments of the last century. But, how secure is their hold on the future?

Anyone who has watched Sarah Beeny’s television programme ‘Help my house is falling down’ will have seen that buildings can remain standing for decades with huge cracks, foundations undermined by tree roots and considerable rot, but that once a tipping point is reached, a catastrophic collapse can happen. One or more of the major political parties could be heading for a collapse, as their foundations of financial support, their roots into local communities and their voter loyalty rot away and policy cracks appear. 

The 1993 Canadian election gave us an example of this happening, with the Progressive Conservative Party collapsing from 156 seats to just 2. In Britain, the nearest we have seen was the Labour Party falling from 288 seats to 52 in 1931 and the Liberals' fall from 159 MPs to just 40 in 1924.

The problem for any new challenger, as has been clear with the case of the SDP, the Greens and now with Ukip is that it takes a very long time to build up a secure financial foundation to invest year after year in campaigns and support staff, to put down deep local roots for canvassing and to ensure that the policy foundations are strong enough to withstand the odd minor earthquake of media attack.

History (together with surveying) would suggest that the current three-party system is in danger of eventual collapse – not now, probably not in 2015, but highly likely at some point. The party or parties who could capitalise on this will probably be those who have patiently been putting down secure foundations and playing the long game.

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