Over the past few years, comparing the main political parties side-by-side has become a veritable game of ‘spot the difference’. Blair “was a red Tory”, Cameron “is too centre-ground”, and Clegg is…well, Clegg is Clegg. NEW WRITER Alexander Blakoe gives his take on the era of consensus in British politics.
The British populace has become increasingly apathetic towards Westminster, and although MPs’ expenses didn’t help their case, there are other reasons why politicians are a disliked bunch.
According to normal people (those not involved in the political world), politicians are all the same. They share most of their policies with other parties, with just a few minor tweaks. And this has been fairly close to the truth especially in the Post-Thatcher era. Tony Blair’s party was elected with a landslide in 1997 because he managed to address the issues which concerned a majority of the nation. He wasn’t satisfied with gaining the votes of just the working class, or just the support of trade unions.
Blair realised that, to gain a strong majority, he needed the votes of the middle class and middle England – demographics which, until then, had been Tory territory. So he concerned himself with taxes: he did not raise them for middle and higher-income earners, nor did he make them more progressive. He prevented the trade unions from becoming insider pressure groups, instead listening carefully to the CBI. He became more authoritarian on crime: “tough on crime” he said to Tories, “tough on the causes of crime” he nodded to Labour. In effect, Blair took traditionally-Conservative policies and integrated them into the Labour Party’s manifesto. But even parties which weren’t in power seemed to have influence. Blair feared the growing number of BNP voters in marginal Labour seats, and so he opted for a stricter and more xenophobic approach to immigration policy.
As we can see, in 1997 New Labour regained its C1 and C2 votes (upper working class and lower working class, respectively) from the Conservatives. In the same time, New Labour managed to achieve more upper class votes because Labour was “moving further to the right” (BBC). Blair was trying to please as many sections of society as possible, and in doing so he moved his party to the centre-ground of politics.
Wise move. David Cameron, too, thought it was wise. So wise, in fact, that he decided to distance his “nasty party” from Thatcherism, and labelled himself a “Liberal Conservative” in an Andrew Marr interview earlier this year. Since then, he’s practically got married to Nick Clegg, and he’s hired Labour MP Frank Field as well as Will Hutton (former editor-in-chief for The Observer). This says a lot about Cameron Conservatism. It started around 2006, when Cameron urged the electorate to “vote blue, go green”. Cameron said that he planned to ‘modernise’ the Tory party – a code word for “Let’s do what Blair did with his party”. In an attempt to emulate New Labour’s success, Cameron tried to be friendly to the working classes as well as middle England: he pleased the former with his “hug a hoodie” rhetoric and the latter were satisfied with tougher immigration policy. Keen not to lose any borderline Tory/UKIP supporters, Cameron promised a referendum on any further devolution of powers to the EU. So the Tories, too, are now a potpourri of policies from a plethora of parties.
What of the LibDems? Well, nobody knows what they’re doing (and nor do they). Until 2010, they had been considered an economically and socially left-wing party; although, in 2004 they seemed to be throwing about some libertarian ideas when they published The Orange Book. The Orange Book is a collection of essays by senior LibDems (Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, David Laws, Steve Webb, and Chris Huhne, among others) which, in essence, attempted to explain how the Liberal Democrats could become an electable party. The LibDems decided that they had had enough of sitting on the backbenches – they wanted a taste of power. Once again we can see that, in order to gain more votes a main party has decided to combine its traditional views with some views which not all members would agree with.
So even though Parliament currently uses the First-Past-The-Post electoral system, the main parties have taken into account the policies of parties which have no seats in Westminster, and, although party leaders insist on yelling at each other across the dispatch box at every PMQ, they have adopted many of each other’s policies – we are in a period of consensus. Under Proportional Representation, we would have a multitude of parties in government; under this system, we have a multitude of opinions in each party. The form of FPTP which we have promotes healthy intra-party debate rather than the childish partisan rhetoric we would see under real PR.