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What changes have there been to the UK Party System?

Here we examine some of the changes that have been made to the political party system in the UK.

Dominance of Labour and the Conservatives

In the 1951 General Election 97% of voters supported either the Labour or Conservative Party.

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.

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.

Top resources

  • British Politics 3rd Edition by Simon Griffiths and Robert Leach- Look at Part III People and Politics
  • Philip Lynch and Robert Garner cover the topic well in Parliamentary Affairs Vol. 58 No 3, 2005
  • The End of British Party Politics by Roger Awan-Scully, 2018 – this includes the 2017 General Election
  • Political Parties in the UK by Alistair Clark, 2018. A systematic and comprehensive introduction to UK party politics, combining chapters on each of the main parties (Conservative, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party) with an assessment of post-devolution Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The main changes 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. They have core areas of support in NE Scotland and Welsh speaking Wales. Particularly in Scotland, the SNP has dominated almost wiping out Scottish Labour and Liberal bases. In 2019 they were the third largest party in the UK Parliament.
  • 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.
  • Support for parties on the right increased then imploded. The extreme right National Front attracted votes in the mid 1970s as did the British National Party after 2000. The British National Party at one point had Member’s of the European Parliament elected with thousands of votes. They lost MEPs at the 2014 Elections including their leader Nick Griffin. After major infighting the party was deregistered by the Electoral Commission in 2016 and ceased to exist.
  • 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. The growth of UKIP was a major factor in the Conservative Party’s decision to allow an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union.
  • Respect was created in 2004 as a party to the left of Labour. It won  votes in a number of urban areas and saw the charismatic George Galloway elected to parliament in a by-election in 2012. He lost his seat in the 2015 General Election.

Conclusion

Britain now has a more complicated multi-party system although the first past the post electoral system limits its impact. This has led for calls for proportional representation in UK general elections.

At the national level a Labour or Conservative Government with a majority in Parliament can be elected by quite a small proportion of the electorate. This affects its legitimacy.

Even with first past the post, there will be a block of over 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.