D-Day for British Politics: The Electoral Landscape Is Bleaker Than Ever before, with Fringe Parties of Both Left and Right Set to Do Well on 10 June. the War in Iraq Did Not Create the Public Alienation from the Main Parties, but It Has Raised It to an Entirely New Level. by John Kampfner, Our Political Editor

Article excerpt

What does the following statistic say about the state of British democracy? On 10 June the two parties that have governed the country for the past century may between them receive the endorsement of only one-fifth of the electorate. There will be nothing super about "Super Thursday".

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Even allowing for margins of error caused by a mixture of insouciance of respondents and questionable methodology of pollsters, the most that Labour and the Conservatives are likely to receive is between 30 and 35 per cent of the vote each. Add those and divide the total by a turnout of, say, 30 per cent (around the middle of current predictions, but higher than for the last European elections), and the extent of disillusionment is laid bare.

The protest vote is a conventional concomitant of the midterm election, from the National Front in local votes in the 1980s and the Greens performing strongly 15 years ago in the European elections, to the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and the Greens in 1999 and the British National Party in the last local elections. What is different this time, however, is that all the so-called fringe parties on the left and the right are expected to figure strongly.

Add to that the Liberal Democrat gains anticipated in several major cities--with their vote holding up, particularly in the local elections, at upwards of 20 per cent--and a picture emerges of British voting habits more splintered than at any point previously.

"What is interesting is the blindness of the political class since 2001," says Philip Collins, director of the Social Market Foundation. In the last general election, when turnout tumbled below the 60 per cent mark, politicians attributed the fall to the "foregone conclusion". Once the Conservatives become a serious threat, so the argument ran then, voters will be galvanised again to exercise their democratic right. "That argument may no longer be valid," Collins concludes. He believes that the more instrumental voters feel--the more they see their vote purely in terms of getting what they want, rather than exercising a broader duty of citizenship--the more they will keep the habit of protesting or staying at home. The decision to hold exclusively postal voting in four English regions, a decision that has led to organisational chaos in places, was a last-minute attempt to counter the turnout trend.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Iraq did not create the sense of alienation, but it has raised it to an altogether new level. The immediate electoral consequences of Tony Blair's decision to go to war there and of the debacle of the reconstruction are likely to be hugely damaging. That is why Labour headquarters has for weeks been trying to manage expectations downwards. Party workers have as good as given up on the Muslim vote this time. They are reconciled to a strong performance by the Lib Dems in a number of metropolitan areas (the Lib Dems might win Newcastle, for 30 years a Labour stronghold), by the Greens in the vote for the London Assembly and by Respect in individual areas of high Muslim population.

For Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, this election is crucial. If he does not make further inroads into the Labour vote after the war, more questions will be raised about his leadership.

According to senior figures in the government, the longer-term electoral impact of the war--the sense of the powerlessness of conventional means of voting--has yet to be fully understood. "We have yet to start dealing with the deficit between people's views, such as the big Iraq march last year, and our actions," says one adviser. Neal Lawson, a long-time Labour strategist and now chair of Compass, a party-supporting campaign group, talks of a "crisis of legitimisation" in which previously "rock-solid" Labour voters will not, having got protest out of their system on 10 June, necessarily return to the fold at the general election. …