Political parties are such curious things. They unite a wide range of people with varying political motivations, often uncomfortably, under one brand. At their best they are forums for ideas and debate, and bringers of game-changing policies and reforms. At their worst they appear misguided or generic, and irrelevant. Coincidentally, ‘misguided’ and ‘generic’ and ‘irrelevant’ are all words that could quite aptly describe the hapless figure of Ed Miliband, who has now departed the scene to allow his bruised party to begin a long period of soul searching. While the Tories are generally quite good at recovering from an election thumping, Labour acts more like an unstable teenager, shutting out the world and hiding under the bedclothes for a week. Take a peak under the covers these days and you will hear plenty of hysterical self-questioning. Should we move to the right? Have we lost touch with voters? Are we ever going to win again?

In recent times, people have been moving away from the political parties. Back when knights were bold, they really meant something to the community. My own grandparents knew most of their friends through the Kirkintilloch Labour Party, but now they are dead and it is defunct. Today, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds can claim it has more members than all of the parties combined.

Labour and the Tories have half-heartedly attempted to bolster their support, but it seems new fans come only out of sympathy. After losing the independence referendum, the SNP’s membership quadrupled in just a few weeks, while the Lib Dems are keen to boast of their ‘surge’ in support after the election results (what a pity it didn’t happen before). Although in one sense, parties do not need large legions of foot soldiers to survive. Nicola Sturgeon may be pleased that she can fill a Glasgow auditorium with her own fans, but what matters really is not a party’s membership tally but its relevance to voters.

When the United States was in its infancy, the political scene was awash with small parties. They mostly concerned themselves with single issues such as slavery, federalism and agriculture, though promptly vanished when the Republicans and Democrats ascended to dominance. Even back here it seems there is only ever space for two ‘establishment’ parties, yet that doesn’t mean they’ll live forever. The Whigs gave Britain over a dozen Prime Ministers, championed the rights of minorities, abolished slavery and expanded the electorate; they also played a central role in deposing the authoritarian Catholic King James II (and gave us the Tories, so nobody’s perfect). But despite being the embryonic political party of England the Whigs divided and disintegrated into irrelevance the moment they lost touch with the issues of the day.

From the ruins of the party of Walpole and Pitt the Elder two future occupants of government, Labour and the Liberals, eventually emerged. Death and decay is natural in all parts of life, including politics, while the rise of the different and the new – and the superior – is just as necessary. In the early 1980s, four moderate Labour figures were so dismayed by their party’s swing to the left that they walked out and formed a new party of their own. The Social Democratic Party, or SDP, rather smugly suggested that it was the ‘happy medium’ between Thatcherism and the hard left. For a while they did quite well, nearly beating Labour into second place in terms of the popular vote in 1983. However the SDP, alliancing themselves with the Liberals, barely ever won more than twenty MPs. The two eventually merged to become the Liberal Democrats, the folk we all love to hate today.

The SDP had the chance to sound the death knell for Britain’s main opposition party, but like a hamster between two elephants, its ‘stuck in the middle’ rhetoric was not sharp enough to change the game. The anti-politics of the last few years have taught us that small parties need a bold and defining issue for them to really get anywhere. UKIP, or ‘the People’s Army’ as its cigarette-smoking gasbag of a leader likes to call it, knows exactly what it wants. UKIP made it onto the stage because it could tap into disaffection with Europe and Westminster, and could attract the support of both former Tory and former Labour supporters. But what of its future? A party that did achieve its dream of taking Britain out of Europe would have no real reason to continue functioning. The same applies to the nationalist parties. What would happen to the SNP and Plaid Cymru if they managed to remove their respective nations from an increasingly fractured and beleaguered ‘United Kingdom’?

To answer a question posed at the beginning: yes, Labour will win again. Maybe not in 2020, but eventually. However it will return to the corridors of power as a supposedly working class party when there is no longer a large working class, and as a movement allied with (and funded by) the trade unions when union membership is also at an all-time low (this is partly Labour’s fault: they failed to challenge the long-term decline of the traditional industries). It also faces existential challenges from Nigel Farage in the north and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland. So if one of the major parties were to crumble, it’s more likely to be Labour than the Tories. David Cameron’s party have a reputation for putting survival above all else, even if that calls for the removal of an unpopular leader or a bitter battle against ex-coalition partners. On the morning after his party was reduced to an ‘elite cadre’ of just eight MPs, the bleary-eyed Nick Clegg warned that liberalism was more important than ever for the UK. Well, he would say that – he’d be out of a job otherwise. But the party really could fade into the mist of political oblivion if they don’t mount anything less than a significant comeback in 2020.

That’s why the Lib Dems, out of all the parties on the scene at the moment, are probably the most endangered. Getting pummelled at an election does not necessarily spell the end for a party, but it can mark the beginning of a slow and painful death. The country as a whole is not greatly enthusiastic about politics, but the low enthusiasm would need to be very potent in order to kill a major party. You can be pretty sure Labour and the Tories will still be around for a while to come, although there may soon be a day when the anti-establishment factions chip away enough of the traditional pillars to bring the whole set-up down on top of our heads.

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