ELECTORAL MATTERS were simpler in 1882. “Every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservat- ive!” Simpler, but far less democratic and carrying nowhere near the potential and challenge now unfolding.

The words which WS Gilbert put into the mouth of Private Willis in Iolanthe held reasonably good for a long time. Change began after the 1914-18 war, accelerated by the rise of a third party and eventually, universal franchise. The administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales with their varying degrees of devolution have opened up representation, while the old demarcations of class are less dependable identifiers. I have fond memories of campaigning for Labour in a solidly Conservative seat in 1997 with a retired Vice Admiral. Every inch an officer and a gentleman, he caused some bewilderment among older voters but even then, younger people were seeing this as a glimpse of the new political horizon at which we have now arrived.

Add in a succession of increasingly incompetent and morally squalid Conservative administrations, Brexit and its disastrously managed aftermath, a pandemic, a war in Europe, the slaughter in Israel-Palestine and its fall-out among parties and electorate, the rapid growth of identity politics in these early years of the 21st century, and the political terrain across which we are travelling becomes almost unrecognisable from that of a decade ago.

No Westminster seat has fewer than five candidates on the ballot paper and among the reasons for this is the sharp increase in independent candidates, many of whom have been deprived of the Labour whip through protest at the rightward shift of their party. They will undoubtedly take votes from Labour, as will an increasingly impressive Green Party, while Reform plc is fast becoming a stopping off point for disgruntled Tories. The Liberal Democrats are significantly repairing their fortunes and appear likely to be an important  part of a progressive presence in the new parliament.

The diversity on offer is a serious and democratically valuable counter-balance to the status quo – the fact that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are facing high profile challenges in their own constituencies is unheard of in recent times.

This volatile and fissiparous electoral climate challenges us all. Although it seems right now that the only question between today and the final counting of votes is simply one of how big Labour’s majority will be, there can be no doubt that we will be looking at a very different political and parliamentary landscape by the end of the week.

The future of the First Past the Post electoral system will come under greater scrutiny than we are accustomed to. Both its beneficiaries and those who will have reason to be aggrieved will be loud in defence and attack. And the split is not gong to fall neatly within the progressive and conservative silos of political allegiance.

An influx of new MPs who are less rooted in the old two-and-a-bit party hegemony will be interesting. Some of them will be self-seeking and obtuse: we may hope that most will will not. Many will have read the mood of an electorate deeply wearied and angered by the moral failings of too many politicians in recent years. Voters, looking for more change than Keir Starmer may have anticipated, will be not only receptive to, but also demanding of, far higher standards in public life, such as the seven steps laid out by the Institute for Government.

Green benches populated by men and women less willing to believe (and promulgate) six impossible things before breakfast, will surely change the weather of government as they grow in confidence. Much of what we have known for decades may fall away in this new climate. This has been an election period dominated by polling, and although polls are by no means always accurate, it is significant that the Conservatives have been unable to make any inroads on the Labour lead and there is at least a possibility that they may no longer be the official Opposition on 5 July. We really are approaching uncharted territory.

Of course, Gilbert’s observations on the immutability of political allegiance depended upon an assumption that everyone inherits their politics and therefore outcomes and expectations are generally predictable. But an election in which an East Anglian shire county (Reader, I live in it), represented by a Conservative sitting on a 16,000 plus majority has become a three-way marginal in which 36 per cent of voters are now recorded as intending to vote tactically, probably marks the end of that concept.

The sense of possibility in the air is invigorating and challenging. “Change your opinions, keep to your principles, change your leaves, keep intact your roots”. Victor Hugo has it.

© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, The Friend and Reform, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and is now Ekklesia’s Contributing Editor. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen