With the Prime Minister suffering the political equivalent of negative equity in popularity polling, Labour MPs holidaying over the parliamentary recess have been listening for little gnawing noises outside their hotel rooms.
This is the sound made by under-occupied journalists furtively chewing on sandwiches while they await news of the latest plot against Gordon Brown. Then again, many will have decided just to stay at home and make it up.
As they packed their buckets and spades, most around Westminster had long calculated the result of a General Election that could still be almost two years away. The coalition that brought Tony Blair to power has been shattered. Between 1997 and 2005 New Labour lost 4 million votes. Three years later the count continues. The other Team GB (as in Gordon Brown) doesn't look like a winner.
Right now, it’s hard to see what could save the government other than Harold Macmillan’s dictum: “Events, dear boy, events.” But beyond speculation over a burgeoning futures market in voter intentions, a deeper trend is visible – the continual drift away from party political affiliation. Here triangulation is gradually giving way to strangulation.
In straightforward demographics, the number of floating voters is increasing and the core membership of the parties is falling. At 177,000 Labour’s card count is now the lowest in one hundred years.
The Conservatives don’t publish figures, but media monitoring indicates a fall from 750,000 in the 1980s (according to John Redwood) to around 400,000 in the dark days of 1997 and just 290,000 under the ‘Cameron revival’.
The Liberal Democrats are suffering as well. They have dipped from 100,000 in 1994 (admittedly a high) to only 64,000 today.
There is an important geographical twist, too. Whichever leader triumphs in the next United Kingdom election will do so as head of what to many will look increasingly like an English regional party writ large.
In Scotland, the Tories are still struggling to mitigate their disastrous electoral showing of recent years, while Mr Brown’s party finds itself being shredded from the left by a resurgent Scottish National Party.
That traditional Labour voters now see Alex Salmond’s cohort as a viable alternative is a massively important factor in the future shape of British politics. If the SNP are able to make a twist towards ‘independence within Britain’ (which many argue makes as much and as little sense as their recent slogan about Europe) then the damage could be long term.
In Northern Ireland it is the DUP and Sinn Fein who continue to make the running.
Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru, who seriously dented Labour in Wales during the third National Assembly elections in 2007, will be hoping to repeat the Scottish pattern, with the Tories also struggling to muster even a quarter of the 60 seats on offer.
None of this heralds the imminent dissolution of the two-party system. But it is undoubtedly being eroded from the inside and needs sight of a major wind of change. Which is why far more people are talking about Barack Obama than the theoretical contenders for Labour’s mantle.
Will the junior US senator from Illinois offer a disillusioned society something to believe in again, and model a fresh path in Western politics, or is he destined to be absorbed and tamed by the system he set out to challenge?
This article is adapted from the August 2008 ‘Westminster Watch’ column in the revamped Third Way magazine – Christian commentary on culture (http://www.thirdwaymagazine.com/).
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow, is published by Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia.