A Changing of the Guard?

[Note on the author: Nick Durrant is a paraplanner and Chartered Financial Planner. Nick is currently a student on the City, University of London Writing for Business short course, which started in January 2018. This blog was created as part of a homework/in-class exercise on that course.]

Emmanuel Macron’s impressive rise to the French Presidency can, with the right mix of ingredients, be repeated elsewhere. Britain could be first.

On a cool Amiens evening in April 2016 Emmanuel Macron launched a new political movement – En Marche! – in front of a small, attentive audience. It was, he said, to be a party that was neither “of the right nor the left”, offering a new form of politics, different from the traditional parties. It worked. Thirteen months later twenty million French men and women voted him as their president.

The stratospheric rise to power of En Marche! can be dismissed as a one off event, never to be repeated in western politics. But there are signs in Britain (where two parties have provided every prime minister for 100 years) that the traditional system could also be threatened by new political movements. Five key trends show why.

The young are feeling loud

First there’s the young voters. Their effect on the last election has been widely documented but it’s worth repeating that over the last three elections the turnout of 18-25 year olds has increased 20%. Turnout by 26-35 year olds is also up, by 11%. This is music to the ears of activists.

Any new political movement will need the vibrancy of the young to make a mark, particularly as electoral battlegrounds move from the doorstep to the mobile phone. Politically engaged younger voters can help germinate a new political movement quickly, loudly and with impact. Their renewed recent interest in the political process provides a opportunity for change not yet seen this century.

Turnout is up

But it’s not just the young that are becoming more politically engaged. The Brexit vote, Scottish Referendum vote and three general elections in seven years have piqued an interest for voters across the board and turnout is up. General Election turnout has been steadily increasing since a low point of 59% in 2001 to 69% in 2017. Historically, this figure remains low, but it’s hotting up, and higher turnout means higher numbers of casual voters. Casual voters are undecided voters and undecided voters means opportunity for all political parties.

The traditional parties are lacking appeal

The young vote for Labour and the old vote Conservative. That is a new fact. But dig into the data further and the potential effect of this trend becomes more evident.

In 2017 Labour’s vote share from 18-25 year olds was 62% but their share from the 65+ age group was just 25%. The striking point is that one can draw a straight line between these two figures to see how other age groups voted. The older the voter the less likely they are to vote Labour, without exception when looking across the six age groups shown in parliamentary figures. The opposite is true for the Conservatives – the younger the voter, the less likely they are to vote Conservative. This is again without exception when looking across age groups.

The consequences here are important. If neither party can claim broad based support across the ages they are vulnerable to a political movement that can. That is a piece of news to worry the establishment and raise the eyebrows of the opportunists.

There’s a lack of trust

It also seems evident that trust in the main political parties is at a low point across the political spectrum. A quick Google search uncovers polls that show trust in all political parties (and their leaders) has fallen significantly since the Brexit vote. With both sides seemingly unwilling, or unable, to explain their Brexit position clearly, significant parts of the electorate are becoming frustrated, bored and disillusioned of the established parties. This was exactly the environment in which En Marche! was born and exactly the environment new movements can thrive in.

Voting for the main parties is high, but that’s no indicator of success

In the 2017 election the two main parties took the biggest joint share of the vote since 1970 and the Conservatives achieved their biggest vote share in a generation. These are facts but they provide no indication of the strength of those parties – it is more an indication of weakness in others. The Liberal Democrats appear to have lost their way since the coalition and the SNP have struggled to live up to their 2015 success. These Conservative / Labour voting figures are not evidence of popularity but evidence of the electorate simply voting, as they perceive it, for the best among poor choices.

Could it happen?

So, voter turnout is up, the turnout of a vibrant young is significantly up and none of the traditional parties can appeal across the ages. Is this a open door for a new centrist party with wide appeal and none of the political baggage of the last 10 years? Possibly.

The phenomenal rise of En Marche! and, to some extent, the 5 Star movement in Italy, does highlight voter appetite for an alternative to the traditional party system. So it is not unreasonable to see a new party rising to the challenge in Britain, particularly in this environment that is ripe for change. But the question is: is there the depth of new political leadership in Britain to shift the political landscape, quickly, or can the traditional parties reinvent themselves fast enough, and sidestep the revolution?