Political identities in Britain are very resilient, at least as far as the outward forms of politics are concerned.
The Conservative Party and the Labour Party have alternated in office at Westminster since 1945, and until 2010 no other party has been able to break their grip. It has not been for want of trying. In the 1970s and 1980s the rise of third parties seemed set to break the mould, and there was much talk of multi-party Britain, sweeping constitutional reform, and the demise of one or other of the two main parties. But although since that time the United Kingdom has clearly been multi-party at the electoral level, at the parliamentary level it has largely remained a two-party system. The first past the post electoral system has seen to that.
Yet British politics has been transformed in recent years and is being transformed now. The constitutional changes of the Blair Government are one of its most enduring legacies, and their consequences, particularly devolution, are still unfolding. There is also change afoot in the party system. A referendum on altering the electoral system by introducing the alternative vote will be held in May 2011, a consequence of the 2010 election which led to the formation of the first peace-time coalition between two political parties in the modern era. Is this just a transitory arrangement which will collapse under the weight of events and the incompatibility of the partners, or will it in time reshape British politics by forging new alignments and new identities?
Different parts of the United Kingdom now vote in very different ways. The days of uniform swings are long gone, and the two main parties only attract sixty five per cent of those voting, while another thirty five per cent of the electorate do not bother to vote at all, which means that governments are now regularly elected on the votes of only 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 of the electorate. Old loyalties and attachments have weakened, and the parties struggle to recruit members and connect with their voters. The AV Referendum has attracted little interest among the electorate, but its result could still have a major impact on British politics, by either reinforcing or retarding the momentum towards a different party system, and the emergence of new allegiances and voting patterns.