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Political parties in Britain

The intentional consequence of Britain’s plurality electoral system according to Duverger’s Law was meant to be a two-party system, discouraging third parties as voters tend to gravitate towards the two strongest parties. The 1950s and ‘60s saw a thriving two-party system in the United Kingdom with Labour and Conservative parties combining for over 97% of the vote in each election during those years.

The 2005 Parliamentary election results exhibit a stark contrast to the 1950s and ‘60s: Labour won with only 35.2% of the vote, compared with 32.4% Conservatives, 22% Liberal-Democrat, and 10.4% Other (British National Party, Green Party, etc.). Arguably this does not reflect the paradigm of a two-party system.

Well-defined regional support base for a party – as with nationalist parties – seems to defeat the premises of Duverger’s Law, explaining the success of numerous independent parties. The Liberal-Democrat (previously Alliance, Liberal) party has since 1974 usually obtained a significant percentage of the vote, around 15-25%, eroding the primacy of Labour and Conservatives. Thus, a so-called “two-and-a-half party” system is said to have arisen in recent years, though control has still been monopolized by the two main parties.

Only at Westminster and in respect to the executive and legislative branches is the two-party system still wholly intact. Westminster’s single-member plurality system props up the two-party system despite the spring-up of multiple party systems at different levels in the UK. Regardless of local and other parties, the small overall percentage of constituencies garnered by independent parties ensures that Westminster remains a two-party system in terms of party seats – though not in terms of vote proportions.

The disparity between vote proportions and party seats in Parliament at Westminster is one of the most significant issues facing the British electoral system today. Increasingly fragmented voting, combined with a drop in voter turnout of over 20% over the past fifty years, the legitimacy of party rule in Parliament is currently under threat. Though no one questioned Labour’s right to govern in 2005, future elections won by such small proportions of the vote may pose problems for ruling parties in terms of conferring legitimacy on elected officials.

It is clear that in recent years, support for the main parties has become increasingly fragmented. The number of candidates running for roughly the same number of seats has risen two and a half times over fifty years. British politics have in general become less party-centered. There is less voting and party membership and more protest outside of the party system.

Parties have been increasingly unsuccessful at conveying political messages and mobilizing their constituents, tasks which have often been undertaken in recent times by the media and by single-issue protest groups. It has been argued that parties are no longer dominating the national agenda as much as following the lead of the media.

Another aspect of the party system which has changed pertains to the institutional structure for involving voters, which was conventionally established by broad-based political parties and parliamentary democracy. However, voter turnouts clearly indicate that increasing numbers of people are abstaining from these institutional structures, thus the views of increasing numbers of people are being ignored. The rise in extra-party protest activity is endangering democratic channels. Extreme groups in this climate can wield disproportionate influence.

British parties have evolved similarly to electoral professional parties: capital heavy campaigning, heavy use of opinion polls and focus groups, political marketing, and the maximization of votes by targeting national interests, with the intention of forming a cohesive image for the party. However, in contrast to electoral professional or modern cadre parties, modern British parties are marked by the interdependence of party members and leaders.

Party competition has led parties back to the center in British politics. Party leaders, kept in check by parliamentary parties that are intent on establishing rule, have spent countless efforts to moderate party images towards more centrist positions in recent years. Just as Blair moved towards the center with New Labour’s embrace of the free market, Conservatives are hoping that David Cameron can do the same for the Conservative party and temper the Conservative image back towards the center.

The related notion that policy-seeking comes second to office-seeking is a modern development in the party system, highlighted by Tony Blair’s efforts to modernize Labour. The main parties appear to be prioritizing the need to get into office and out of opposition over ideological policy initiatives. That is not to say that party ideologies have not remained intact – they have, and parties have remained quite distinguishable – but both the Conservative and Labour parties have moved back towards the center of the spectrum in order regain office. The post-1983 approach by Labour to shift from far-left policy initiatives set the precedent for the political direction of the main political parties.

A few important things remain unchanged about the party system at the national level. Parties still frame the choice of government, resulting in party-framed recruitment to political office. In addition, stories of successful independent candidates are rare as elections are still fundamentally party-centered.

In summation, there have been significant recent developments in British political parties. Despite multiple party systems at multiple levels of the UK government, Westminster’s single-member plurality system solidifies the two-party system in terms of party seats at the national level. However, increasingly fragmented party support and decreasing voter turnout has amounted to MPs and governments being elected by tenuous mandates. An important issue is the legitimacy of government where elections are decided by such small proportions. Disproportion between percentage of vote and percentage of seats in Parliament and drops in voter turnout pose significant problems to the electoral system in Britain. In terms of actual vote proportion, the system may be more appropriately deemed one of two-and-a-half party politics due to the significance of third parties.

The increasingly important role of the media and of single-issue protest groups and the rise in extra-party protest activity as people avoid the electoral structure are new developments to the party system as well. The evolution of British parties towards capital-heavy campaigning and the use of pollsters, campaigners, and political marketers to form party images is an important change to British parties. Finally, party competition and evolution has resulted in a prioritization by the main parties of office-seeking over policy-seeking and in a move towards the center of the political spectrum.

Politics | British politics


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