Welcome to the game of pentagonal politics. The match is set for May 2015, the pitch is the United Kingdom, and the rules are new. But most of the players only know the old rules. The referee is untested and it’s uncertain how many of the invited crowd will turn up on the day. Tickets aren’t selling very well.
This is the five-team game of politics, played on the pitch designed for two.
All polling confirms that the era of dominance by the two main parties – Conservative and Labour – is over. Together, they can now command around 60% of the vote. The remaining 40% or so is divided out between, in England, UKIP, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens.
In Scotland, it looks like the Conservative-Labour domination is over completely. Polling suggests the lead party is now the SNP, with the rest of the vote broken up between Labour, Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, and, in a minor capacity, UKIP.
In Wales, the five-team game is to be played out between Labour, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, and Conservatives, with the Greens and UKIP vying for the fifth slot.
The crowd looks as if it is going to be spoilt for choice. But many may conclude that the game is unwatchable, and will stay at home, opting for the sixth option – abstention.
Different but not new
Although pentagonal politics is about to be played out for the first time, some aspects are not new. The search for an alternative to the traditional Conservative/Labour domination has been under way for some time. There has been a significant presence in the political centre since the early 1980s, first in the form of the SDP, and subsequently through its various manifestations as the Alliance and then eventually as the Liberal Democrats. At various times this centrist grouping commanded as much as 50% support in opinion polls and could score in the mid-20% range in general elections.
In whatever form it took, this centrist grouping provided a home for the ‘none of the above’ voters who had for whatever reason lost confidence in or enthusiasm for the ‘main’ parties.
But no longer. The entry of the Liberal Democrats into government in 2010 moved the party from the ‘none of the above’ column into the ‘one of the above’ column. The dissatisfied vote, while growing, has also had to cast around for a new home. And that marked the launch of pentagonal politics.
Here’s how participating voters are playing the game.
The graphic shows how voters have been moving between the different teams over the last two years. It’s notable that switching directly between Labour and Conservative, in either direction, is now at an insignificant level, and what used to be a battle to command the centre ground is now simply a battle to command enough ground.
The main voter movements are from the Conservatives to UKIP and from Liberal Democrat to Labour. Movements between Labour and UKIP, Labour and SNP, Liberal Democrat to UKIP, Liberal Democrat to Green, and from abstention to UKIP are all more significant than any ‘switching’ between the two traditionally dominant parties.
All parties on the field are trying to figure out the rules of pentagonal politics so that they can come away with the best possible score when the match is played on 7th May next year.
The game plans
Conservatives: Stopping the haemorrhage of support to UKIP leaves no option but to address UKIP’s agenda, however, this risks playing too hard to the right, tempting some supporters to splinter away in other directions. Awkwardly, that strategy has to be played out while at the same time attempting to stop Labour – as the other strongest player on the pitch – from winning. It’s an uncomfortable battle on two fronts.
Labour: Consolidate the core vote, hold on to those who have transferred in from the Liberal Democrats, and stop any bleeding to the Greens and to UKIP. This implies the need to keep the message and the flavour radical. UKIP cannot be addressed on UKIP’s terms as that would not be consistent with the need to keep a firm hold of radicalism. This too is a battle on two fronts, but made even more complicated by the game that has to be played in the Scottish league match.
Liberal Democrats: Stop the bleeding which is going on all over the place and in all directions. Can this be done while playing on the pitch in a supporting role to the blue team? The old raison d’etre – ‘none of the above’ – is not the team song anymore; the struggle is to find new supporters from somewhere to swell the diminishing band of season ticket holders.
UKIP: Keep recruiting players from the other teams, keep on winning over more supporters, keep seeking all opportunities for publicity and be different. And keep playing in the ‘none of the above’ shirts. The risk is that as it gets closer to the match, questions will be asked about team strength and tactics. Most of the supporters have come on board only recently and they disagree amongst themselves on more than they agree. Are one or two common strands enough to keep this team together right through to match day?
SNP: Keep playing in one corner of the pitch. The others are all beating themselves up elsewhere and are unlikely to get in the way, however, beware of the red team’s band of loyal supporters, who could still turn up on the day.
Greens/PC: Former minor league teams now also spread thinly across the pitch with few goal scoring opportunities, but could go for penalties. Potential increased support to be had if the other contests on the pitch end in deadlock or bloodshed.
The view from the terraces
Pentagonal politics is about to be played out on a pitch designed for the old two-team game, as determined by a first-past-the-post voting system: new game, old pitch, few rules. The crowd have plenty of teams to cheer but could well find the game a confusing spectacle, and may even be left, at the end, unclear as to whether any team has won, despite plenty of goals being scored.
The confusing game may be too much for some, who may leave before the end of contest, concluding that no team really merits support. Those who stay to the end may find the unclear result a just reflection of the relative efforts of the teams, and may even book a ticket to an early re-match. Others will think it was all such a scrappy affair that no team deserved to win anyway.