Is this the end of the swingometer?

02 November 2006


THE TIME has come for Peter Snow’s swingometer to crank into action and deliver its election predictions. But, with no disrespect to the man who has become a political institution, his moment may have now passed.

Wild discrepancies in the opinion polls during the short election campaign have put Labour anywhere from level pegging with the Conservatives to ten points in front. This can mask, but also be explained by, the fact that the party system is fragmenting. The idea of a “uniform swing” is now a fiction.

The main political parties in the UK have fewer than 700,000 members in total — a stark contrast with 50 years ago, when the two biggest could claim close to one million members each. Traditional allegiances are breaking down, and more floating voters are emerging. Nevertheless, there is little sign of a herd mentality by which people move en masse to vote for one party.

The rising number of Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons, even though their share of the vote has remained almost the same, has highlighted how people are voting tactically against those they don’t want to see in power, as much as for those they do.

Beyond this particular third way, still more choices are becoming attractive. The “other” category, which appears on our TV screens alongside Mr Snow’s party commentary, is steadily expanding. There are some 1700 independent councillors in the UK, and candidates with no party affiliation have even made it to the House of Commons. Smaller groups such as UKIP and the Greens have gained European representation.

For those Christians who see political parties as a feature of the domination system — principalities and powers against which Christians are called to struggle — this is a positive. The Apostle Paul’s warnings to the church at Corinth about “party-spirit” (which, for him, ranked alongside sorcery and idolatry), and the Christian tradition of subsidiarity and decentralisation of power, will lead many to conclude that anything that takes power away from big centralised machines has to be a good thing. Even 200 years ago, William Wilberforce wished that “party allegiance would in great measure vanish.”

The emergence of new political groupings, the presence of 170 independent peers in the House of Lords, and the 17 local councils under independent control in the UK show that politics does not have to be done in the ways around which the media agenda tends to focus. This is not to say that political parties will ever disappear — only that their presence is diminishing significantly.

As the control they are able to exert lessens, so local factors have more room to emerge as electoral determinants. The system can become more responsive. Those campaigners who engage with issues that matter at constituency level will fair much better — particularly when the turnout is low, where small numbers of voters can have a greater impact.

It may not be great news for Mr Snow, but it is certainly a swing for the better.

Jonathan Bartley is director of the theological think tank Ekklesia.

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