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UK Election Debate - Why Is British Politics So Fragmented?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 02 April 2015
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Tonight's seven-way election debate probably didn’t do much to sway opinions about the British political elites.

Predictably, the leaders of the smaller and regional parties spoke passionately and, for the most part well, about their particular concerns. They had the luxury, though, of having no national record to defend.

Nick Clegg attempted to set up the LibDems as the balancing force between Tory cuts and Labour spending, with one eye on a possible future coalition. David Cameron did not clearly lose the debate - or his cool - as some felt he might. And Ed Miliband didn't storm the barricades, choosing to focus on specific policy issues rather than providing a captivating vision for the prefered future.

Whomever the pundits now deign to be the best performers, the event did underline an important question that will likely dog British elections for years to come: Will any political party ever again command a mandate to govern on its own? Will any party leader ever again speak with authority to and for a constituency beyond their own members and committed supporters?

In a 2014 speech in Ottawa, Georg Milbradt, the former Premier and Finance Minister of the German state of Saxony, remarked that 'the Euro is a currency in search of its state'. Are Britain's major political groups now reduced to parties in search of national constituencies?

Is British politics so fragmented that coalitions and minority governments have already become the status quo? If so, why can’t the parties build support bases that are broad and deep?

Arguably a number of factors contribute to the fragmentation we’re seeing in political engagement. Some of them have to do with purely political processes like devolution. The Welsh and Scots were well represented in this evening's debaate, as they should be - though it was perhaps surprising that the DUP was excluded so that Northern Ireland had no distinctive voice.

However, there are non-political reasons for the fragmentation, too. Among them is the rapid growth of urbanisation. Every week, according to some estimates, one million people move into the cities of the world. Right now, 51 percent of the globe lives in cities and by 2050, if current trends continue, 75 percent of us will be urban dwellers.

Urbanisation throws together large numbers of people, drawn from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and asks them to find common cause with each other. Yet social cohesion requires a sense of shared identity and narrative.

Human beings find security in a certain degree of uniformity, which means that city-dwellers (that is, most of us) must now look for identity outside of the immediate physical community. This messes with local political loyalties. Single-party allegiance once helped to define local cultures; now, loyalty is more often to vaguely defined ideas.

Some of the fragmentation in our politics has to do with our consumerist mindset. An arguably more self-centric approach to lifestyles in the post-war consumer age has produced a more eclectic outlook on politics.

Brand loyalty is a thing of the past. When we shop for food, clothing or entertainment, we mix-and-match. We experiment with new permutations and combinations in the hope of discovering some stimulating new experience.

This approach has spilled over into the way we deal with the once unshakeable verities of politics and religion. Seekers after spiritual truth will often place themselves outside of traditional religious categories. Some claim to hold to a common, essential truth behind all the major faiths - despite the fact that these faiths often proffer mutually exclusive ideas about truth.

In politics, terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ now mean something completely different than they did a generation ago. Back then, the lines were clearer because they were drawn on the basis of ideology.

In modern politics, the markers keep shifting; they move according to the particular issue in question. An individual might be right-of-centre on one issue and left-of-centre on another. Voters are now much more likely than their parents were to back a party for its stance on a single issue, or a raft of similar issues, than for its overall ideology.

As a result, party leaders are nervous about mentioning ideologies, or even appearing too adamant about their worldview. They want their ideas to sound amenable to eclecticism. They fear alienating the one or two percent of voters who might push them over the top.

This gives pollsters migraines, because issues can shift in importance right up to election day, along with the minds and emotions of voters.

One other factor feeds the fragmentation of political loyalties. It is not likely to be discussed very much during this election cycle, yet its impact shouldn’t be underestimated.

The plethora of social media presents unprecedented opportunities for politicos. In the 2008 American primaries, then Senator Barack Obama was the first US political figures to understand the power and reach of social media.

Before candidate Obama’s opponents had figured out what social media were, his team were investing heavily in coverage on Facebook, Twitter and other nascent platforms. They even bought advertising space within online games.

New media promised so much. Social media promised politicos something they’d long yearned for: the opportunity to connect directly with voters, and especially with those who would share their ideas virally.

When users could become producers and consumers could become activists, ideas would spread person-to-person, rippling between well-connected individuals who formed the hubs of social networks.

The ascension of a humble Chicago community worker to the US presidency can, in large part, be attributed to social media. The same media, though, brought certain political challenges.

The most important of these is the fact that social media potentially open the door to viral alienation. Among social media users, ideas are often formed without context or nuance and then presented via platforms that only allow headlines.

Twitter’s limit of 140 characters, for example, just doesn’t allow for the finer points of an idea to come through. There can be no shading or context, only raw content.

Struggling to keep up with the huge amounts of information thrown at them by social media, users will often very quickly – and sometimes unconsciously – separate other users into camps of opinion.

It is a necessary activity of the human brain to simplify or find patterns within new phenomena or ideas. This allows us to function properly, without grinding to a halt under the weight of information overload.

However, rushing to judgement can mean that we miss something important or that we misinterpret what someone is telling us. It can also mean that we become unwilling to challenge our own preconceptions – about other people, or about their ideas.

Before long, people stop sharing and discussing ideas and resort to defending their camps of opinion like warring armies catapulting shot between walled cities. Each army will have its pejorative names for its opponents, building up such unpleasant narratives about them that finding any common ground becomes almost unimaginable.

This compartmentalisation of opinion is impacting our politics, on and outside of social media. Opinion too often morphs into obsession. Holding an open, exploratory debate often becomes less important than defending one’s own pre-defined positions – and being seen, by friends, to do it well.

Opinion is vital. The expression of one’s worldview in answer to pragmatic issues is a central part of political debate. It is a great boon to constructive, collective decision-making. But an obsessive person treats his opinion as the only one worth having. She mistakes disparity for bigotry and replaces reason with rage.

In the end, obsession leads some of us to use our freedom to deny freedom to others, by shouting down their voices or demanding them access. This is intellectual fascism.

Former Minister for Education, Michael Gove told the Daily Telegraph this week that people of Christian faith are marginalised in certain debates because they are intimidated.

Studies suggest that Britain has recently seen a marked rise in discrimination against Jews. Meanwhile, online trolling continues to oppress and suppress thousands of our young people.

Though there are many factors contributing to these problems, each of them has links to obsessive opinion-sharing within the cybersphere.

The political process must remain open to all. We may not see a return to one party government any time soon and that may not be such a bad thing. If they’re handled well, coalitions can, like all alliances, provide creative tension which leads to innovation.

Yet we must find ways to share honest and opposing ideas, openly and without fear. In an age where cohesion is hard to come by, we must be able to be honest without resorting to the use of pejoratives or persecution.

Did the latest debate propel any one leader to the front of the pack? No. But it may have served a greater purpose, reminding us that opportunities to hold civilised and respectful debates are more important than ever.

What’s your view?

Is politics where you are becoming more fragmented?



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