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The UK Party System - Changes

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, Caroline Lucas MP.
  • 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 BNP's political presence has reduced significantly in recent years, they lost MEPs at the 2014 Elections and their leader Nick Griffin.
  • The creation of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party. Following a by-election in Clacton in 2014, Douglass Carswell became the first UKIP Member of Parliament, having defected from the Conservative Party. They are gaining in the polls and elections at local, national and european levels.
  • 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 so 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)