And quite possibly they never will come back, if something Nick Clegg said in the Guardian on Friday turns out to be true.
The Liberal-Conservative coalition government is not a one-off but marks "a permanent move that breaks the duopoly of the old parties for good", Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, says in a Guardian interview today
And maybe he's right. I've been a little surprised out how well the new Coalition government appears to have been working. I thought that internal ideological divisions within it would have emerged quite rapidly. There's little sign of that happening.
And the answer may lie in the fact that we no longer have a multi-party political system, but a professional managerial political class who, regardless of what colour ticket - red, blue, or yellow - they arrived with at Westminster, very largely share the same values and beliefs. All concerned support the smoking ban. All concerned are europhiles. In more or less every matter of concern, there is a consensus view.
And this is why the Coalition government was put together so quickly, and with so little haggling over policy, and has worked as well as it has for 2 months. For there was really very little to haggle about. All concerned were more or less agreed about everything already.
At the same time he says he has found very quickly an ideological overlap with Cameron on decentralisation, public service reform and civil liberties. "What we have learned about each other most of all is that if you are in a coalition you have just got to be constantly open, pragmatic and level-headed about how you make progress together."
David Cameron and Nick Clegg affected surprise at discovering that they shared so many values, despite being leaders of ostensibly rival parties. But they probably knew very well what each believed. When they met to form the Coalition, it wasn't a matter of getting to know each other, but of getting to know each other a lot better.
The coalition, he says, "is not an aberration, but a natural consequence of what has been happening for years, which is a loosening of the old tribal ties between the old parties and their supporters. Something very, very big is happening in politics."
That is to say that the new politicians aren't tied to any particular party line or ideology, nor represent any particular social group. They are more like different brands of the same product, such as Tetley or Twining or PG Tips tea.
Clegg... predicted more coalitions in the future, claiming that the "more complex set of relationships between political parties in the future reflects a more complex society in which people do not vote in the old blocs.
Indeed. If Gordon Brown had been a bit more quick-witted, he might just as easily have formed a coalition government with the Lib-Dems as David Cameron did, and we would now have the same Coalition government, but with Brown at the helm instead of Cameron, and doing more or less the same things as they are. But the Labour party is an old tribal party, with a party line and a set of values - e.g. "fairness" -, and Gordon Brown was a politician in the old tribal mould, unlike Tony Blair, who was a new politician who could in his heyday be all things to everybody.
In this sense, Cameron and Clegg (and perhaps more Clegg than Cameron) are the successors of Blair. They are politicians who don't really passionately believe anything, and don't represent anyone. The values they profess are simply those which focus groups indicate have strongest appeal to voters. They are in politics to get elected. Once elected, they will do whatever they planned to do, regardless of any promises they might have made. Thus although Clegg and Cameron pretend to support 'civil liberties', there are no plans to amend or repeal the smoking ban which has curtailed the liberties of the quarter of the population that can no longer enjoy a cigarette with a pint of beer. And although both apparently agree about the need for decentralisation and public service reform, they will most likely preside over the expansion of the state, and the further centralisation of power in Westminster and Europe.
In many ways this represents the decay and death of grassroot party politics. The Labour party of the past was the party of the working classes. The Conservative party was the party of the aristocracy, and the entrepreneurial captains of industry. Both have become detached from their former bases, largely because both the working class and the aristocracy have dwindled away. Whereas once the grassroot Conservative party produced a leader from within its numbers, the Conservative party of David Cameron imposes women candidates on local constituencies. The old party leaders were representatives of their parties, but the new parties are representatives of their leaders. Power is not exerted upwards from the base, but downward from the leadership. And, at the same time, the different parties have become as indistinguishable from each other as different brands of tea..
The result is a de facto one-party state which represents nobody in particular. It is not amenable to pressure from its grassroot supporters, because its grassroot support is non-existent. It is guided by a loose shared ideology which vaguely encompasses the EU, a nanny state, and environmentalism.
This one party state will have to at least pretend to make a show of "consulting the people", and conducting "big debates", even though it has no interest whatsoever in what the people might think. It acts much more despite the people rather than through them or on behalf of them.
The one-party state will also have to create the impression that there are deep-seated differences between its component parties on matters of principle, even though there are no differences. It is important that, if voters wish to register a protest at the Conservative-led coalition government, they turn to Labour or the Lib Dems, and not to any fringe parties. For what really matters is that members of the professional political class, of whatever flavour, are elected or re-elected, so as to ensure that whoever the people vote for, the political class will always be returned to power, and continuity of stable government ensured. It is as if, in the old Soviet Union, there were elections held every 5 years or so, in which rival parties - which we might imagine to have been called the Leninists, the Stalinists, and the Trotskyites - fought each other, and had their votes properly counted, but it didn't really matter which one got elected to power, because they were all Communists anyway, of slightly different flavours, and when the election was over they'd form a coalition Communist government.
At the same time that it is important to ensure that voters pick the established political parties, it's also important to marginalise any fringe parties, usually by portraying them as extremists and wreckers and oddballs (like the BNP and UKIP). Should any of these fringe parties nevertheless grow in popularity (e.g. the Greens), then they are co-opted by the established parties. So it is that all the main parties parade 'green' values these days, and there is just one real Green MP in parliament.
Although this new political settlement is democratic in the sense that its members are duly elected by the people, there is no real sense in which the political class represents the interests of the people who elected them. Nor is there any way in which the people can readily exert influence upon the governing political class. The only result can be a gradual process of disenchantment with mainstream political parties. Political power will drift further and further away from grassroot opinion. The politics of the coming years will ones which will see permanently-disenchanted citizen groups (e.g. smokers) protesting against governments that they are powerless to influence through normal political channels. These protests will find new avenues of expression. And as more and more people (e.g. drinkers and fat people) become equally permanently disenchanted with an unresponsive, authoritarian state, these protests will mount. Civil disturbances will multiply. There will be strikes, go-slows, and sometimes even violent insurrection.
Democracy, it might be said, is a political project. It is an ideal to be aspired towards much like "fairness". It is never entirely and completely achieved. It's always a work in progress. For central political power never surrenders easily to popular will. The two are in inherent opposition to each other. And they are engaged in a prolonged battle which swings first one way, and then the other. Right at the moment, in Britain, and all over Europe, it is centralised political power which is in the ascendant. Which is why we have a smoking ban that nobody on the ground - or nobody in the pubs - ever wanted.