As various recent events on both sides of the Atlantic illustrate, conventional political parties are creaking under the weight of international, cultural and ideological pressures. Voters are less inclined to affiliate or identify themselves with one party, or one set of policies. Party members less likely to take instruction from leaders.
The British party system looks particularly outdated. The last three General Election winners won less than 37% – around a quarter of eligible voters. Yet that small minority was enough to produce majority governments on two of the three occasions. Last May we were treated to the dubious pleasure of an anarchic, seven-party TV debate. MPs from the main opposition party are engulfed in a bitter, suicidal civil war.
Indeed compared to Labour’s existential crisis, the issues that triggered the forthcoming Richmond by-election seem trivial and predictable. Zac Goldsmith has always been an independent-minded MP and a majority Tory government was always likely to give the green light to a third runway at Heathrow. Goldsmith has long been committed to resigning if the decision went against him and, since losing the London Mayoral election, the backbencher has less incentive to stay loyal to his government than staying true to the principles on which he was elected.
Plus, Goldsmith knew from previous defections in the last parliament that his constituents would probably back their local MP over the party. Significantly, unlike Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, Goldsmith will not even have to fight a Conservative candidate. Though his tag will be independent, one must assume he will at least mop up the core Tory vote.
Nevertheless, the Heathrow decision has created a big political (and therefore betting) event. In between major elections, the media love a fiercely competitive by-election, especially when it’s within reasonable distance for London journalists. During the last parliament by-elections in Eastleigh, Clacton and Rochester became major media events.