Essay: The rise of single-issue politics

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Published on 30 May 2024 by Andrew Owen (5 minutes)

This is mainly a tech blog, and I normally steer clear of politics. But having spent 80% of my life at this point living in the UK, I still take an interest in what’s going on. I used to be a newspaper reporter and before that I was a politics student where I won a class bet on the outcome of the 1992 general election. Everyone predicted a Labour win, but I predicted the smallest majority. This time around, I think Labour will form the next government and the UK will have its fifth prime minister in as many years.

“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” —Gore Vidal

Back in 1992, I wouldn’t have predicted most of what happened over the next 25 years in British politics. One thing I did get right was the rise of single-issue pressure group politics. But if you’d told me what those issues would be, I wouldn’t have believed you. Tellingly, I also didn’t pay much attention to the formation of UKIP, a single-issue political party, in 1993. Political parties seek to govern, while pressure groups seek to influence those who govern.

After the departure of Margaret Thatcher, there was a shift to toward a system based on pressure groups rather than party loyalty. Figures for 2022 show membership of Labour at 432,000 and Conservative at 172,200. By comparison, heritage and conservation charity the National Trust has a membership of over 5 million. The UK electorate still likes a charismatic leader. It gave Tony Blair three election wins, and Boris Johnson probably could have won another election if he hadn’t been overthrown by his own party. But none of the current party leaders have anything resembling charisma. But I digress.

Publicly minded individuals are not the only ones stalking the halls of Westminster. Companies exist with the sole purpose of lobbying politicians. If you want to stop a bill getting passed that would harm you or your company, typically financially, then you can hire one of these lobbying firms to work on your behalf. Not all of these companies are above board, as demonstrated by scandals involving “cash for questions” resulting in two public inquiries. There are also individuals who have the resources to buy off individual politicians, and those who are willing to be bought. Under the principle of cabinet government in the 1980s, individual ministers had to present a unified front and donations went directly into party coffers. But those days are long gone.

Pressure groups are divided into insider and outsider groups. Insider groups are accepted by, and may even have been set up by, the establishment. They are generally called to advise select committees and to give their views on new policies affecting their area of interest. They are respected by the establishment and their views are thought to correspond to the general population. Outsider groups are those not recognized by the establishment, but an outsider group can become an insider group. Pressure groups work with the parties to find sympathetic politicians who will argue their cause in parliament. In 1992, there were over 400 active pressure groups in areas as diverse as animal welfare, community action, counseling, disability, drug addiction, education, ethnic minorities, environment, family, farming, health, housing, religion, seniors, sexuality, unemployed, wildlife and women.

In a two-party system, the smaller parties tend to act more like pressure groups at the national level, focusing on a main issue such as the environment (Green Party), electoral reform (Liberal Democrats) or Welsh Independence (Plaid Cymru). However, when a single-issue party finds itself in government for a long period of time, it can struggle to keep its support base intact. This is arguably what has happened with the SNP in the devolved parliament in Scotland. Before devolution, no-one took the SNP very seriously, but in 2014 it managed to force a referendum on Scottish independence. No-one ever took UKIP very seriously, but in 2016 it managed to force a referendum on UK membership of the European Union even though it never had an MP elected to parliament.

The reality is that one politician holds much less power than a nationally organized band of voters fanatically loyal to their cause. One of the hot topics of 1992 was live animal exports. It took 32 years, but last week a complete ban became UK law. Where pressure groups have an advantage over political parties is that they can dedicate their entire resources to accomplishing one goal and this in turn gives them a wider base of support than a political party. Also, under the UK system there are only six parties in Great Britain with any chance of getting a politician into parliament, and despite its growing support, Reform isn’t one of them. This is one reason why party membership is down and pressure group membership is up.

One of my observations in 1992 was that, at a local level, people voted on issues rather than party politics. The difference is that now this also applies at a national level, except for voting against a government that is perceived as having been in power too long. I thought then that pressure groups were more powerful than the business lobby or the trades unions, and I think the 2016 referendum bares that out. The methods of pressure groups include media campaigns, publicity stunts and appearances on current affairs programs. In other words, not that different from modern political parties. The thing I got the most wrong was the prediction that the view of business would prevail. It took the Liz Truss administration tanking the economy before that relationship was reset.

Having said all that, I don’t think this is going to be an issue-based election. No party governs indefinitely in the UK, and voters simply want something different. Reform will take votes from the Conservatives, but won’t win any seats. The Liberal Democrats will take seats from the Conservatives. Labour will take seats from the SNP and the Conservatives and should win a comfortable majority unless its leader pulls off a “Neil Kinnock” moment of perceived hubris. But I predict the election after that will be fought on a single issue. I’m just not sure which one.