Politics may be about ideas but elections are about identity. So in the 19th century the battle lines were drawn between a Tory party of the shires and a Liberal party of the cities and the Celtic fringe.
In much of the twentieth century the Tory party of the middle class faced working class Labour opposition.
But such identities were tempered by two things. First, both sides believed that the others would still be there after the next election; there would be no complete victories and no complete defeats. Second, both sides knew that elections were won by ‘swing’ voters beyond their base; their policies and their appeal had to be expanded.
The former spin doctor Matthew Taylor recently said that the old political playbook was simple – if you could find a credible leader and appeal beyond your base, you won. This was how Wilson won in the sixties and seventies, Thatcher in the eighties and Blair from 1997. In each case a combination of stable political parties, a first past the post electoral system and a state capable of effecting real change, ensured that parties could appeal to more than their base and could win elections outright.
Identity politics was expressed in occasional successes for Plaid Cymru, the SNP and even by the Liberal Democrats where community politics harnessed local identities against remote political authorities.
The only part of the UK in which identity politics was and remains dominant, is Northern Ireland. But the conditions that created two-party politics have broken up. In particular the parties’ ability to deliver on their promises has been reduced as power has moved from Westminster to the markets and international authorities.
One result is that politicians’ promises are no longer believed and whilst this is often blamed on political scandals or the weakness of particular politicians, it is the shift in power that matters most.
As a result many people have given up on party politics altogether; they no longer vote and they certainly don’t join political parties. But for others the politics of identity resonates; the SNP’s membership has tripled since the referendum and Ukip will win its second by-election later this week.
This shift from the conventional parties of the democratic left and the democratic right has been evident in Europe for decades, long masked here by our first past the post electoral system. But now the difficulty of appealing beyond their base is ever more apparent to Labour and the Tories; as both haemorrhage support to the identity politics of Ukip and the SNP.
The big advantage of identity politics for politicians is that it’s easy – you don’t have to do anything, you just have to represent some sort of ‘us’ against some sort of ‘them’.
But there are inherent dangers with this. When people give their political allegiance on the basis of identity - of being English, or being Scottish, or being Muslim or whatever else; democratic debate can disappear. Instead of voting on the basis of what a party or a candidate does, instead of testing policies and records against evidence, instead of holding people to account for both their arguments and their actions; people vote on the basis of some shared characteristic. And those who represent more resolute and fundamentalist versions of that shared identity may appeal more effectively than their more moderate counterparts.
As a result relationships between political parties become, at best, negotiations between otherwise warring factions. Hence in Northern Ireland the moderate Ulster Unionists and SDLP were replaced by the DUP and Sinn Fein and whilst democracy and accountability may occur within these parties and the communities they represent, what goes on between them is negotiation in place of war. Both the SNP and Ukip want relationships with their neighbours to be negotiated rather shared. The recently formed ‘North East Party’ denies a desire for statehood but is one more example of the politics of identity; a politics which easily dissolves into blaming others for our problems, or worse.
You may object that I am overstating my case. After all, the ideal of the cosmopolitan, at home everywhere is of someone who has no home anywhere; every political association rests on some shared sense of ‘us’. But those who would protect their shared traditions must always be wary of the dangers that attend this enterprise. It would be wrong to condemn Nigel Farage or Nicola Sturgeon but it would be unwise not to see the danger of the politics they represent.
- Ron Beadle represents Low Fell on Gateshead Council.