The UK Party System

The concept of a Party System is used by political scientists as a short hand to explain how party politics work in individual states.

The party system describes the number of ‘relevant’ parties in a system. Relevant is clearly a subjective term- does it mean you can win the first order election (in the UK a general election), that you win second order elections (e.g. devolved assemblies), that you win seats in Parliament, that you secure a certain percentage of the popular vote even if that doesn’t translate into very many seats.

Historically polities have been divided into three main categories. Two party systems (these are usually found in systems with FPTP) for example the USA where the Democrats and Republicans dominate, multiparty systems (usually found in systems with proportional electoral systems) for example Germany where at least five parties have a chance of forming the government (in coalition) or single party systems, normally found in dictatorships although South Africa where the ANC dominates is arguably an exception to that rule.

Traditionally the UK was described as a two party system. This was certainly true in the 1950s when the Labour and Conservative Parties seemed to take it in turns to govern but also by the fact that they won over 90% of the vote and 94% of the seats in the general elections during this period.

Gradually this two party hegemony broke down, from the 1970s onwards the share of the vote enjoyed by Labour and Conservatives began to fall and the break through of the SDP in 1983 and subsequent success of the Liberal Democrats led many commentators to suggest that the UK had in fact become a 2 1/2 party system (a designation unique to the UK) e.g. that we only had two parties who could form a government but we also had a party (the Lib Dems) that were too relevant to be ignored completely (due to their number of seats and percentage share of the vote) but weren’t going to be occupying Downing Street.

However events since 1997 have challenged that. Firstly devolution led some commentators to suggest that we actually had several party systems, a distinct multiparty system in Northern Ireland with the Northern Irish parties and a distinct multiparty system in Scotland with the SNP in government and some other minor parties with seats in the Scottish Parliament e.g. the Scottish Greens or Scottish Socialists. But particularly in Scotland this party system only applied to the Scottish Parliament at Westminster the SNP remained a very minor party and the Labour party still dominated.

2014 has done a lot to suggest that Britain not only has multiparty politics in the regions but at least in terms of popular support it now has a multiparty system at a UK wide level too. Despite the efforts of FPTP to stifle this when votes are converted to seats.

There have been several pieces of evidence for this:

– At its peak UKIP have been polling over 20% of support.
– Green Support has risen to 8% overtaking the Liberal Democrats
– SNP support has increased in Scotland, with predictions suggesting that they will poll 54 seats in Scotland in 2015.

We are now looking at a situation where the two major parties could poll c.60% of the votes cast, where 7 parties (outside of Northern Ireland) secure a significant number of seats at Westminster and our government is probably another coalition. It is hard to justify the 2 party model by any of these matrices.

At present it seems that in terms of seats we could be looking at:

SNP 54/650
Lib Dems c.30/650
Greens c.3/650
UKIP c.15/650
Plaid Cymru 2/650
Northern Irish Parties 18/650

While FPTP makes this far from an exact science. We can see that even in terms of seats around 1 out of every 6 seats in Parliament will be held by an MP from a party other than the Conservatives or Labour.


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