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The New Political Party System

After Lipset and Rokkan and Sartori, the attention of political scientists shifted to trying to explain the increased volatility of party systems across Europe in terms of shifts of voters between parties and the growth of new parties.

Following a period of stability in the 1950s and 1960s, and the dominance of centre-right and centre-left parties, a range of green, left, extreme right, populist right and regional parties have gained support, without replacing the traditional parties as the largest parties in the system.

Despite this, no major new theory of party systems has been put forward. Increased volatility has been explained as a result of the decline of the old cleavage structures that Lipset and Rokkan outlined.

The most important contributions have come from Gordon Smith who examines volatility and how we decide whether party systems have fundamentally changed (Journal of Theoretical Politics, Vol. 1 No. 3, 1989) and Peter Mair who looks again at what a party system is and at the different levels of party system, national, regional, local, electoral and parliamentary (L.Bardi and P. Mair Party Politics vol.14 No 2, 2008).

The New Party System in Britain

In the 1951 general election 97% of voters supported either the Labour or Conservative Party and 83% of those on the electoral register voted so that the two main parties had the support of 80% of the electorate.

In the 2010 general election 65% of voters supported either the Labour or the Conservative Party and 65% of those on the electoral register voted so that the two main parties had the support of 42% of electorate.

The two main parties still dominate and the Liberals were particularly weak in 1951 but, even so, there has been a considerable change in party support over time.

The main changes have been :-

  • The revival of the Liberal Party, especially in the first of the two elections in 1974 when they won 19% of the vote. They have remained a significant third party since, especially after the Social Democratic Party, which broke away from Labour in 1981, merged with them to form the Liberal Democrat Party
  • The growth of the two regional parties, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru from the late 1960s who have core areas of support in NE Scotland and Welsh speaking Wales but a significant vote throughout the two countries
  • The Ulster Unionists used to take the Conservative whip but after disagreements with the Heath Government’s Northern Ireland policy they separated from them. The Democratic Unionist Party now takes most of the Protestant vote in Northern Ireland and the two Catholic parties, Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic Labour Party have increased their vote and numbers of MPs.
  • The Green Party has maintained a small but significant national vote and won its first MP in 2010
  • Support for parties on the right has increased. The extreme right National Front attracted votes in the mid 1970s as did the British National Party after 2000.
  • The creation of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party which at its height regularly attracted over 10% of the vote in the opinion polls
  • Respect was created in 2004 as a party to the left of Labour and has won votes in a number of urban areas and saw the charismatic George Galloway elected to parliament in a by-election in 2012

Britain, therefore, now has a more complicated multi-party system although the first past the post electoral system limits its impact. At the national level a Labour or Conservative Government with a majority in Parliament is able to do soon the basis of the support of quite a small proportion of the electorate thus affecting its legitimacy.

Even with first past the post, there is now a block of 50-100 MPs who are not from the two main parties. This means that either Labour or the Conservatives need a larger lead over the other to get a majority in Parliament to overcome this.

The party system is even more complicated at other levels. There are now European and regional, as well as the normal local elections, where the smaller parties can compete and win because of lower turnout so that they only have to mobilise their supporters or because of local factors. (Philip Lynch and Robert Garner cover the topic well in Parliamentary Affairs Vol. 58 No 3, 2005)

How can this be explained?

The most significant development of ideas to explain the new patterns of party competition is that of Bonnie Meguid. She defines at least some of the new parties as niche parties which have the following characteristics compared with mainstream parties:-

  • They advocate policies on a limited number of issues
  • These issues are outside the traditional class cleavage issues such as the economy
  • They cut across traditional party alignments taking voters from more than one party

The mainstream parties can react to them by accommodating their issues or by taking an adversarial stance against them (American Political Science Review Vol. 99, No 3, 2005). Philip Lynch and Richard Whittaker provide a very good study of UKIP-Conservative competition which uses the niche/mainstream party idea and looks at the strategies used by the Conservatives to deal with UKIP (British Politics Vol. 8, No 3, 2013).