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UK Parties and Voting – Describing Party Systems

There is also the question of how parties interact with each other. This leads us to look at theories of party systems which deal with these interactions. Party systems can be described in three ways:-

Numbers and Size

Whether a party is significant is a matter of judgement.  It could be argued that any party that is represented in Parliament is significant and this, in Britain, would include in recent years the Green Party and UKIP. On the other hand, it could be argued that only those parties which influence government formation are significant.

In the context of the situation after the 2010 election, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were significant, but also the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Greens which were all discussed as possible supporters of a minority Labour or Conservative Government.

Alternatively, the proportion of the vote that a party has received in the last general election or its current standing in the opinion polls can be used, but its impact on other parties is also important.

From 2010 the UK Independence Party received 10% or more in the opinion polls and had an impact on both the Conservative and Labour vote share so is clearly significant, whereas the British National Party vote share, at that time, became too small to have any impact on other parties or secure it any seats in Parliament.

Their Position in ‘Policy Space’

The position of parties is what political scientists call policy space.  Parties have traditionally been seen as left, centre or right in political ideology and, although some newer parties such as the Green Party have rejected traditional left/right labels, research has shown that voters find no difficulty in positioning all parties along a left/right axis.

Left/right is not the only dimension that can be used and, for example, parties can be placed on a pro-European/Eurosceptic axis or an axis which describes how concerned they are about environmental issues. Parties that are close together on any particular axis are more likely to be competing with each other for voters than those that are far apart.

The Issues they look to ‘Own’

The third way of looking at party systems, which is qualitative, compared with the other two which can be quantified, is to look at the issues which parties discuss and how they frame their appeals to the voters in relation to these issues.

Parties try to own issues, as Labour has with the National Health Service and the Conservatives did in 2001 and 2005 with Immigration.

Other parties can either accept this and look to keep the issue off the agenda at election time or look to compete with the party trying to own the issue, as UKIP did up to 2016 over immigration.

Issues can become more salient, to use the political science term, so that they become more important with the voters.  Labour was able to ignore the Conservatives’ control of the immigration issue in 2001 and 2005 but it has now become so salient that  Labour has tried to change its policy.

The language that politicians use may be more or less successful in promoting their policies.  Traditionally, political scientists saw politicians’ rhetoric as insignificant but there has recently been much more study of how this works. Mrs Thatcher’s presentation of public expenditure as like a household budget and Tony Blair’s characterisation of public services as outdated and in need of modernisation helped to justify their policies.