It's a long time since I studied this now with footnotes, but my recollection of it is headings such as 'class dealignment' and 'partisan dealignment'. Ford workers in the late 1960s starting to say "We'll still vote Labour because we think they will stick up for us better than the others - but we're open to offers."
Previously, the link to class and other caste-esque issues was incredibly strong (some deferential Tory voting from churchgoing working class voters, Orange Scousers and Weegies, no third party to speak of, etc). I've shown some of this evidence to younger friends of mine and they almost refused to believe it, so much has voting patterns and loyalty changed in the intervening years.
Political parties could survive easily as long as there were a large number of people using those reflexive big-party decisions. Politicians knew that they could have a fair crack at running the country for a bit and they would be judged on whether or not they completely ballsed up.
The Tories in the 1950s got the formula just right. They managed to remain in government on a relative shoestring, and they only fell down in 1964 because it finally became in inescapable conclusion that Conservatism was naturally unfit to manage a modern state for any length of time. After over a decade of wrecking British industry and squandering privatisation revenues and North Sea Oil money on dole payments, we reached the same conclusion in the mid-1990s and will do so again if the current lot ever get a look-in.
It was always the case - as Stephen Tall remarks in the post that I commented on recently - that getting involved in a political party was a bit geeky. But now the geeks have to work harder, look more desperate, try to get involved in persuasive processes that are way way beyond their competence. They are not capable of swinging voters (they probably never were) but voters are more and more inclined to swing themselves - all over the place.
Getting involved in politics is - more than ever before - a way of being made to feel stupid an ineffectual. And - if you read the newspapers, tune in to TV and radio debates, or the blogosphere, you are also in a unique position, in that all of the evidence that you are being urged to take seriously is entirely misleading - and for the most part - irrelevant. Things are more unpredictable than ever before.
Things are different - but the logic remains the same. The least-worst form of government is the one in which representatives exercise all power, and those representatives are aggregated into parties so that people know what they're voting for. This is the only electoral settlement that delivers a tolerant and liberal society. It is the only one that even gives a toss for the question of equality - however you define it. It is the least corrupable, and most effectively rational form of government known to man. In the history of the world. Ever. The more we move away from this model, the worse government and society will get.
But, for all of this, political parties and politicians in general haven't really fought back at all. In the same way that a large slice of new Labour is losing patience with Gordon Brown for not coming up with a narrative, personally, I'm losing patience with politicians and their unwillingness to stand up for parliament. To acknowledge that they have undeserving and malignant rivals that want their powers.
The question is not that *only* 177,000 people still hold Labour Party membership cards. It is that you could fill Wembley Stadium twice over with Labour Party members and still have Bolton Wanderers average home crowd locked out - despite all of the near-universal anti-politics propaganda that we have to put up with.
It's not that *only* about 61% of the population voted in the last general elections - it is that over 27 million *did* vote, even though so much positive reinforcement was being offered to abstainers. So take you million-odd petition about road-pricing and fuck yourself with it, please?
And the lesson of this surprisingly good book is that the public mimic the people that they are described as. If you take the book's thesis, you could say that - in a country in which public debate has told us that....
- there's no real difference between the parties
- they're all in it for themselves
- they're all greedy / dodgy
- voting is a waste of time
- we're more interested in Big Brother, innit?
The processes of dealignment that really started in the late 1960s have accelerated rapidly over recent years - I'd give it close-to-top-billing in the explanation of why Labour can build up a 20-point deficit in the polls without there being that much evidence of them being a poor government (and none whatsoever that the Tories wouldn't bugger things up as they always have done).
But my main point is this: The fact that 61% turned out shows what is possible if politicians in general were to put up a bit of a fight on behalf of representative government.
I don't think that it is overstating the case to say that absolutely nobody is doing so at the moment, and this - not a decline of political parties, or an allegedly apathetic public is our problem.