Voters ready to ring in changes

2015-03-02 06:00

There are fascinating developments afoot in British politics that might hold a key lesson for those who want to force a realignment on the domestic political scene.

The lesson is simply that you do not force realignment. It happens. Circumstances and political winds bring it about.

The British realignment goes back to the last election in 2010, when the electorate compelled the main parties to go into coalition talks.

For most of the past century, power in Britain had swung between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, with the Liberal Democrats coming a distant third and smaller parties making a negligible showing. It was a predictable pendulum.

But what happened in 2010 was a shock to the system. On the day after the election, Britons awoke to find no party had won an outright majority. Although the Conservatives had won more seats than any other party, it was not enough to form a government and it would therefore need to negotiate with another party.

For two days, marathon talks took place behind the scenes. At some point, there was even a possibility of Labour teaming up with the Lib Dems, but these talks did not go far. The eventual coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was the first coalition since 1974.

The outcome of this year’s UK election, taking place in May, is likely to be even messier. Although the Labour Party is slightly ahead in the polls, the margin is slim. The polls have Labour leading at 34%, with the Conservatives a close second on 33%. Thereafter, the picture changes dramatically, with the UK Independence Party (Ukip), the new kid on the block, displacing the Lib Dems from second place.

Ukip, whose main platform is greater independence from European Union arrangements and tighter immigration laws, is set to garner 14% of the vote as opposed to the Lib Dems’ 7%, while the Green Party is polling at 7%.

On their own, the percentages are not an absolute indicator of the outcome, as the UK has a constituency-based first-past-the-post system, so a swing of a few thousand votes in several constituencies could easily alter the national picture.

But what the polls are clearly showing is there will be yet another coalition government, but this time the haggling is going to be a lot more complicated than the last time.

For starters, the top two parties are going to have to bargain with Ukip, whose leader Nigel Farage often sounds like Steve Hofmeyr. The rise of the Green Party, which only secured 1% of the vote in 2010, will add yet another dimension to the negotiations.

The increasing influence of the right-wing Ukip is due to growing feelings among many Brits that they are being swamped by immigrants from poorer European countries and other parts of the world.

It also comes on the back of citizens feeling their destiny is increasingly being determined in Brussels, Belgium, rather than at home – and that the trend could lead to the country losing its nationhood. Many a traditional Tory has now found a home in Ukip.

Lib Dems lost ground because supporters feel it compromised its principles and broke election promises when it went into the coalition with the Tories. The Greens seem to have been the greatest beneficiary of this decline.

Labour seems to be suffering from increasing nationalism in Scotland and has shed support to the Scottish National Party.

All these factors have created fertile ground for the most exciting election race in decades and could signal a long-term change in the politics of the country.

The most vital thing about British developments is that the realignment was not engineered by politicians sitting in back rooms and designing it. It has been spontaneous. It should tell South Africa’s opposition leaders, who have spent the past decade negotiating pacts and opposition coalitions, that they are wasting their time.

There have been many false dawns in the South African realignment story. Former DA leader Tony Leon told us he was spearheading realignment when his party swallowed the National Party 10 years ago. Patricia de Lille promised the same when she started the Independent Democrats.

Helen Zille said she was realigning politics when she swallowed De Lille’s party. The Congress of the People said it would realign politics – before that project was aborted.

All these parties then got into talks with the United Democratic Movement as well as that dying party led by a cantankerous chief to chart a path towards realignment. These talks bore no fruit.

The reason was the time and conditions were not right.

Last year gave the first indication something might be afoot in South African politics. The shifts in voting patterns may not have been huge, but the ground was set for a much more significant shift in next year’s local government elections.

It is in these elections that the issues uppermost in the minds of South Africans – from economic performance to service delivery to corruption – will determine voting decisions.

Realignment is driving itself because the conditions are ripe and the electorate is ready.

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