Nothing better captures the state of British politics today than the top billing given to Nigel Farage and Russell Brand on last night's BBC Question Time. Neither is in, or supports, any of the three major parties that have governed this country over the last century; Farage insists that the party he leads, UKIP, is a natural home for defecting Conservative and Labour voters alike, while Brand's political trademark is a wholesale rejection of voting.
In their own distinct ways each man seeks to present himself as the outsider, their political currency forged on an aversion to the established order and a desire to remake it. For Farage, this means British exit from the much-loathed European Union, criticising "ostentatious" breast-feeding and blaming traffic jams on migrants. For Brand, it means buying his bookie-wook, not voting and hugging the police. Both, one might argue, are dreamers without a vision.
That expresses something significant: that while last night's showdown was presented as a tale of two Britains and two opposing ideologies, there is a great deal that binds both men. Their near-simultaneous ascent should be viewed as emerging from the same political context that has been decades in the making.
That context is characterised by a crumbling of trust in the major institutions of public life, declining membership of the three major parties and a similarly declining share of the popular vote for them in general elections. Slowly but surely, Britain has been moving away from a culture of political deference and the two-party system for over a generation. What changed with the crisis of 2008, however – and the recession thereafter – was that those trends now found themselves aligned with a host of increasingly prominent grievances: falling real pay, public sector cuts and a lack of affordable housing, to name the most dire.
In Scotland that has meant increased support for the Scottish National Party – who only formed a majority government in Holyrood for the first time in 2011 – and an increasingly common view that the union exists exclusively to ensure the interests of the City of London. In September this year, 45 percent of Scots voted for independence – while not as close as some expected, that figure should be held against the fact that only four years earlier the SNP won just six out of a possible 59 Scottish MPs. Things are changing quickly.
Similar dynamics underlie the rise of UKIP. While in the 2010 general election they won just 3 percent of the popular vote, this May saw them finish first in the European elections for the very first time. While that European success was not entirely without precedent, transferring it to the domestic arena has been and their massively increased support in local elections over the last two years was consummated with victory in two by-elections in the last several months, with the party sending their first elected MPs to the House of Commons. That figure will be well in excess of a dozen come next May.
While Farage blames migration and the EU for a host of problems, from the shape of bananas to spending commitments on climate change, it is increasingly clear that he and his party have sought to isolate those issues that matter most to the general public – declining living standards and falling pay. Speaking at his party's conference only this Autumn, Farage spoke of how, "Under the three main parties there has been a downward shift in living standards over the last decade or more" – UKIP, he promised would change that.
While it may be difficult to believe, the Conservative and Labour parties were once large, extraordinarily successful organisations. In its 1950s heyday the former had three million members, whereas today it barely touches 100,000. Perhaps most astonishing, however, is that the average age of its membership is 68 years old. Similar declines in membership, less pronounced for the Liberal Democrats and Labour but massive nonetheless, are a consequence of the decaying political constituencies upon which these parties historically relied – the industrial working class for Labour and civil society organisations, such as the Church of England, for the Conservative Party.
Over the last three decades those shifts meant that the political promised land was the "centre", a mythical set of political calculations that would be adopted by "Middle England" and which – coincidentally of course – catered to the interests of international finance. This ideologically rudderless politics only grew as it became increasingly clear that the major parties were no longer electoral actors reflecting concrete sections of society but detached organisations seeking to temporarily club together just enough votes to form a government. The adhesive for that, first under Margaret Thatcher and later Tony Blair, was personal "charisma" – now the ultimate political virtue.
The only problem with that was that by 2010 it was clear that the current crop of Westminster politicians weren't particularly charismatic. And it wasn't just the leaders. If you looked across the front benches in the Commons you quickly realised that only political geeks and power-hungry megalomaniacs were now getting involved in party politics.
That meant that simultaneous with the biggest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1920s and the culmination of a slow collapse in the legitimacy of the major parties was the absence of any "common touch" political figure – basically, anyone people actually like. While the United States saw the election of Barack Obama the same year as it bailed out the banks – and with that a temporary injection of collective hope – Britain got Nick Clegg and "Cleggmania". In retrospect, a hung parliament – with no overall winner – was inevitable. Expect a repeat performance next year.
These three factors – a crisis of capitalism, the collapse of the old parties and the absence of charismatic leaders on the front line of politics – fuel the fire regarding the rise of both Farage and Brand. As America is finding out, however, political charisma only quenches the thirst for so long. After that you need ideas and solutions that actually make people's lives better.
Whether you find them funny, compelling, attractive or outlandish, neither Brand nor Farage seems capable of that. While Brand's Primark Chomsky is preferable to Farage's Poundland Powell, last night's pantomime highlighted, if anything, that the former has a limited ability to convince those who don't already like him.
And while UKIP are increasingly inclined to speak to the problems of everyday Britain – from pay to housing – that's nothing more than a way to further the project upon which they were originally founded: exit from the European Union. Ultimately, however, they are incapable of solving these problems, simply because what they identify as the root causes is entirely incorrect. Opportunism can win votes, but only for so long.
Between the leaders debates of 2010 and last night's panel, it is clear how far the political debate has moved and how irrelevant the major parties have become. We don't need new personalities to fill the vacuum, but totally new political horizons.