The Winner Takes All While Losers Face Oblivion in the Modern Game of Politics ; the Traditional Analysis of Swings to the Left or Right around a Basic Struggle for the Centre No Longer Seems to Apply

Article excerpt

Should you feel sorry for the Tory party - and it is difficult not to at the moment - think of the poor Democrats in the US. Two years ago they lost an election by a couple of dimpled chads. In the mid-term elections this week they should have been just as close, if not victors. Yet now they are a party defeated, dispersed and disillusioned. Without a natural leader, few give them a chance even to challenge President Bush in the next election. Like the Republicans during Clinton's presidency, or the Democrats during Reagan's, they have been cast into the uttermost depths of irrelevancy.

And you can say the same of the opposition in France and Spain. The French Socialist party has not just lost the election against Chirac, it has been thrown on to the Tory-type margins of accelerating loss of public support and intensifying internecine warfare. Only in Germany is there any sense that we are still in a two-horse race for the electoral stakes.

None of the traditional explanations for this world of "winner takes all" seem to work. The analysis of swings to the left or the right around a basic struggle for the centre doesn't seem to apply. If that was what we were witnessing, then the Tories wouldn't be facing wipe-out in Britain, nor would the conservatives have been massacred in Canada. There have always been exceptions to general swings, but not this see-saw of oblivion.

You can't put it down entirely to an unideological age kept sweet by the cash registers of economic growth. The economies of the Western states are not in good shape. All the surveys suggest that, even in America, the consumer has become extremely nervous. By the normal law that votes follow the graphs of disposable income, Gerhard Schroder, the German leader, should have been out on his ear in Germany, and America should have seen a sizeable protest vote in the mid-term elections. Neither happened.

Nor is there a shortage of hard issues on which opinions are deeply divided. Just the opposite. The prospect of waging war against Iraq has brought out passionate politicking. Mr Schroder probably wouldn't have kept power without it. In the US mid-term elections, no one was in any doubt that the Republicans were offering a hard-line rightist agenda on the environment, health and welfare - all the traditional issues for which the threatened interest groups would be expected to turn out in force. They didn't.

No, you can't explain the misfortunes of the losers in today's politics on the pre-emption of the centre by governing parties. If that were so Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister who has made anti-union business-friendly economics the core of his agenda, wouldn't be riding high, and nor would President Bush in the United States. What we are seeing here is a quite different phenomenon, the rise and rise of managerial politics.

Elections, politics indeed, have been reduced to a spectator sport in which the excitement is in the race when it is close and disappears once there is a result. Like a successful football team, the winner tries to build on success by taking in all the best players and building the best facilities. The loser, its sponsorship slipping, faces the prospect of a vicious cycle of decline in receipts, talent and attendances that drives it out of the league altogether. By-elections, mid-term elections and European contests attract such a poor turnout because they don't make any difference to the results of the main event.

Party membership - the fans willing to turn out - has been on the decline for years, decades in truth. …